Monday, March 15, 2010

Review: Alice in Wonderland (2010)

I was really, really skeptical about Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland. I love Johnny Depp, but my least favorite roles of his have been the ones where he's covered up in a ton of make-up while directed by Tim Burton. Then there's Burton himself, whom I tend not to enjoy except on rare occasions. Alice in Wonderland however is one of those rare occasions.

Oh yeah. I also tend not to like Alice in Wonderland adaptations. Lewis Carroll's stories are fantastic odes to the joy and frivolity of childhood, but when you separate the "plot" from Carroll's narrative style, all you're left with is a bizarre series of unrelated scenes. Even Disney's version, previously the only one I've seen that I'd call even partially successful, has no real ending or even a particular point it's trying to make. It gets by purely on design and charm.

By making his version a sequel, Burton gets around that challenge. He's able to find the best parts of the various characters, come up with his own story about them, and make a point that - while different from Carroll's - is at least related to it. Carroll emphasizes the wonder of childhood in all its dreams and potential. Burton points out the necessity of not giving up those dreams as we enter adulthood. As Alice's father tells her early in the movie (and Alice later repeats to someone else), "You're mad. Entirely bonkers. But I'll tell you a secret. All the best people are."

The film's plot goes that Alice is being bullied into an engagement that she'd rather not be a part of. As the pressure to marry an offensive, but wealthy aristocrat builds, she sees a white rabbit and follows him down a hole where many of the initial events from Carroll's stories are repeated. She doesn't seem to remember any of it though and when she finally enters Wonderland there's some discussion by its inhabitants about whether the White Rabbit found the right Alice at all.

After the break: we discuss The Right Alice in a way that requires a SPOILER WARNING. Proceed with caution.

She is the right Alice, of course. Or will be once she regains the fearless imagination (the "muchness," as the Hatter calls it) that she had as a child. She's no good to Wonderland as she is and her journey to recover that is a great story. I like too that what she's rediscovering in herself isn't "wonder" so much as the braveness to control of her own destiny. It isn't that she wants to marry the obnoxious aristocrat and needs to be cured of that; it's that she's afraid of what will happen if she doesn't. In Wonderland - thinking that she's unconscious and re-experiencing childhood dreams - she proclaims over and over again that it's her dream and she'll do as she pleases. That's an important message for her to internalize because back home it's not her dream and she's not doing as she pleases. The movie is all about her regaining that power and the boldness to use it. It's about not letting things happen to you. That's a potent message for me.

I also loved the ultimate manifestation of Alice's reaching the end of her journey: Alice as warrior. If you thought Cate Blanchett was awesome in plate mail in Elizabeth: The Golden Age, but were disappointed that she never got to take it into battle, you're going to love the climax of Burton's Alice in Wonderland.

Along the way, the film does something else very cool. It takes several characters whom I've always wanted to like, but didn't, and lets me do that. Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee aren't as violent and obnoxious as usual; they're simple and sweet. The Cheshire Cat is still spooky and manipulative, but he's not malevolent. He uses those qualities for good.

I usually can't take much of the Mad Hatter - he's just too flighty - but Depp's version realizes that he's mad and seems concerned about it. His obsession with learning the difference between a raven and a writing desk, for example, is really sort of heart-breaking. I found myself wanting better things for him.

Even the Red Queen with her relentless "off with her head"ing is humanized so that - while we certainly don't condone her actions - we can understand why she does the things she does.

The only thing I didn't care for about the film was the 3D. We saw it on the IMAX Experience screen and were sitting a bit close, and the glasses our theater handed out where extremely cheap and pathetic, so I don't know how much of the fault lies with the filmmakers, but the 3D was absolutely annoying. As long as I looked exactly where the movie wanted me to be looking, it was fine, but I don't watch movies that way. Getting tired of staring at the Red Queen's enormous head, I wanted to take a break and check out her costume or her hands, but I couldn't because they were out of focus.

I went back to see the film again the next day, but in 2D. The ability to let my eyes wander around Burton's Wonderland as much as I wanted made the movie perfect. I'm very, very close to being done with 3D (with exceptions, I'm sure), but that's a topic for another post. I'm predicting that Clash of the Titans will be the last nail in that coffin, so maybe that would be a good time to go into it. As for 2D Alice...

Five out of five wild-haired, armored dragon-slayers.


Cal's Canadian Cave of Coolness said...

Great review. I had no intention of seeing this movie but you intrigued me to check it out. I was afraid that I would be getting into old but Burton's new twists on the tale is something I want to experience. I usually love his visual flair.

Martin Powell said...

Lisa and I haven't seen it yet, but we want to. Just a matter of finding time. Oh. Guess I'd better not show you my adaptation of the original ALICE IN WONDERLAND that was published last year...!

Michael May said...

I'm always interested in seeing new versions to learn how they handle the challenges with the material. I don't think I've ever read a comics adaptation, so that would be cool. It's just that movies and TV mostly haven't figured out how to do it right.

Or... it just now occurred to me that part of my problem may have been my own unfamiliarity with the original stories while trying to get my head around adaptations. I only read Carroll's stuff in the last couple of years, so it's possible that I could find more to hook an interest on now even in some of the filmed versions that I've already seen and haven't liked.


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