Wednesday, March 10, 2010
Alice in Wonderland
By Elise Nakhnikian
High expectations can ruin a perfectly acceptable movie, which may be why I was disappointed by Tim Burton’s visually interesting but overly derivative Alice in Wonderland.
An homage/sequel to Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, this Alice picks up about a decade after the others left off. Nineteen years old and about to be engaged to an upper-class twit, Alice escapes a formal garden party to follow the White Rabbit down another hole, winding up back in Underland (one of the film’s more original conceits is that Alice had been misremembering the name all that time) and a new set of adventures.
Screenwriter Linda Woolverton has said she wanted to empower Alice by making her the opposite of a well-bred, passive Victorian girl. Boy, does she ever. This Alice even goes to war, killing the dragon-like Jabberwocky to break the Red Queen’s stranglehold on Underland.
I’m all for empowered women and girls, but this Alice feels too programmed. A role model with a capital R, she’s stubbornly one-dimensional even in 3-D.
The original Alice was much more strong-minded, for all her dreamy passivity. As she – and we – wandered through the trippy world she had fallen into, she accepted whatever she encountered with a kind of Zen equanimity, but she was no patsy. She always knew her own mind, and so did the readers that accompanied her.
I suspect that that loss of self-confidence, which happens to so many girls in adolescence, is part of the point Woolverton wants to make, but she never manages to illuminate Alice’s inner life. Mia Wasikowska, who as spiky and vulnerable as a rosebush as a gifted and guarded teen in HBO’s In Treatment, tries hard to give Alice the same transparency she brought to that character, but we rarely get past her scowls or smiles here to share what’s in her head. When we do, it’s usually because Alice is literally voicing her thoughts, a clunky device that slows down several scenes, including an already badly paced battle that's supposed to be the climax.
Alice’s opacity can’t be blamed entirely on the flatfooted script, since the camera never adopts her point of view either. Burton films Alice the same way he does everyone else in the movie, either admiring her doll-like beauty or emphasizing her freakish size as she keeps shrinking and growing.
The other characters from the book, originally so mysterious and powerful or genuinely eccentric, are mostly shrunken down to mere curiosities. One exception is the nicely matched pair of queens.
Ann Hathaway’s suspiciously saccharine White Queen is a parody of a Disney princess, gliding about in a cloud of self-adoration. As her older sister, the evil Red Queen, Helena Bonham Carter delivers the movie’s most nuanced portrayal, giving us a petulant tyrant who sees herself as a misunderstood victim. She’s also one of its most successful blends of live action and computer-generated imagery, her grotesquely oversized head demanding your attention whenever she’s onscreen.
Johnny Depp looks great as the Mad Hatter, painted and wigged like a gorgeous ventriloquist’s puppet. His manic, unstable energy and the adoring gaze he fixes on Alice (yes, this Alice even has a love interest) are indelible too, but his spotty Scottish accent doesn’t help us get a fix on his character, who ultimately feels more like a plot device than a person.
But this is, after all, a Tim Burton joint. Burton’s Underland is dripping with atmosphere, dark, mostly decrepit, sometimes scary but always interesting to look at, and it contains some truly wonderful things.
There’s a darkly funny bit with the Red Queen’s terrorized frog courtiers, and the hookah-smoking caterpillar looms out of a cloud of smoke with a nice mix of menace and mentorship. He sounds even better than he looks, since Alan Rickman’s lugubrious, honeyed voice fits him to a T.
The 3-D, which was added in post-production rather than being shot with expensive special cameras, hurts more than it helps, looking downright clumsy in the early scenes in England, where the trees behind Alice sometimes look like a projected backdrop. But it adds to the oddness of Underland, and there are a couple of times when that hokey device of having things seem to float or thrust out into the audience is used nicely.
Burton’s set, like Woolverton’s script, samples liberally from other fantasies, especially The Wizard of Oz. That’s no sin, of course, but I’d expected more originality from a movie that takes its title from one of the most creative children’s books ever written.
Carroll’s books were all about the journey and the strange creatures and concepts Alice meets along the way. Burton’s film is more focused on the destination, which is by definition less interesting – especially when everyone’s rushing toward yet another armed battle. But if you don’t go in expecting too much, there’s plenty to enjoy along the way.