Wonder Where This Is Going: SOA Reviews Alice in Wonderland

15 Mar

Forgive me, dear readers. I have not forsaken you; I have been hard at work on other projects, many of which will see the light of day soon. This is the cost of being popular, my friends – everybody wants to work with you. Here are some links to my recent guest blogging experiences with my friends at Turning Down The Suck.

Six Hilarious Comedy Musicians

Deconstructing the United State of Pop 2009

But in the meantime I have to return to a topic that’s been a long time coming. As my regular readers are aware, I’m one judgemental prick when I want to be, and I often want to be, especially when it comes to things like film. Back in July I wrote a prophetic preview of the upcoming Tim Burton project Alice in Wonderland, and I made a lot of overreaching statements about how crappy I thought the movie was going to be. I said at the time I’d probably go see it no matter how badly I didn’t want to; in fact, I specifically said:

“Okay, so I’ll probably go see this flick when it comes out, if only to either gratify my enormous ego with the fact that once again I was right and the glass was indeed half-empty, or else to be pleasantly proven wrong by a great film.”

And, true to form, I did. I even sprung a bit extra for the full 3D experience, believe it or not. What follows is my impression of the film.

After three thousand words of tearing into Tim Burton and telling everybody what a pile of dog poo his version of Alice was going to be, I can say with no hint of irony that it wasn’t actually a bad movie.

However, it also wasn’t a good movie.

I think the worst possible thing that can happen to a film is for audiences to leave the theatre with no distinct feeling whatsoever, and that’s exactly what happened to me. I walked out, blinked my eyes to readjust to the brightness of the outside world, and went home, never to think about it again (or almost never). At least if the movie had been the shit-festival I’d predicted, I would have something interesting to say about it – but it wasn’t. I’m still going to try.

First of all, I’ve never seen a movie in 3D. Ever. I always thought it was a gimmick – just another way to package a film that’s otherwise deficient in order to put asses in seats, and Alice definitely lives up to that distinction. I suppose I could see the benefit of watching something visually stunning like Star Wars in full 3D, because a movie like that could make full use of the technology to blow your mind with out-of-this-world graphics and the like, but the reality of Alice is that it just didn’t have enough going on visually to make the investment in 3D worthwhile. While it was kind of funny to look around the theatre and see every man, woman and child wearing goofy hipster glasses, I found the use of 3D spurious and a pain in the ass. More often than not I’d look over the rim of my Amazing-O-Vision goggles only to discover I was watching a part of the movie that wasn’t in that format – or if it was, you couldn’t tell, because it was just a scene of Alice talking to somebody. The entire first 20 minutes of the film was that way, as was the last 20 minutes, all of which take place in the so-called “real world” in which Alice lives through the tired cliche of being a forward-thinking independent nineteenth-century woman being forced to marry some ugly dullard against her will. But I’m getting ahead of myself. 3D animation is a neat idea, but that’s all it is – a neat idea. If you don’t have decent storytelling or at least a decent story to back it up, it’s just sprinkles on a shit sundae. And it gave me a splitting headache.

As for the story, here’s the blurb from IMDB:

“19-year-old Alice returns to the magical world from her childhood adventure, where she reunites with her old friends and learns of her true destiny: to end the Red Queen’s reign of terror.”

And that’s pretty much it. Linear, linear, linear. Nothing interesting to see here – just another bildungsroman in a fantasy setting. Leaving aside how anticlimactic it must be to learn of – and fulfill – your “true destiny” at age nineteen, there’s just no conflict here. Apart from the fact that the Red Queen is kind of a bitch with a penchant for ordering the murder of her servants on a disturbingly regular basis, there’s no reason for us to believe she’s a “worse” ruler than the White Queen, who spends most of her time hanging out in that Apple store she calls a castle, waving her hands around and drawing attention to her startlingly black eyebrows. Wonderland (sorry, Underland) doesn’t seem any worse off than it ever was – the lives of the proletariat don’t seem overly influenced by a change in monarchy, which is apparently what happened, though it’s not particularly well explained (pretty much just a flashback montage courtesy of Depp’s Mad Hatter).

While the supporting characters make a great deal out of the fact they’ve been waiting for Alice to return so she can get all stabby-stabby and take out the Red Queen’s enforcer (the Jabberwocky, one of several textual allusions to Through The Looking Glass which were surprisingly not shoehorned into the story at all), the whole things seems arbitrary. There’s no discernible difference between the passage of time in the Real World versus Wonderland, and while it’s hinted at that the White Rabbit has been running all over England looking for “the” Alice for some time, half the movie is spent with most of the minor characters questioning whether she’s “the one we’re looking for” (think The Matrix).

There’s very little in the way of dramatic tension anywhere in the movie: Burton seemed to forgo a convincing story in favour of visual and textual nods to the original source material, which were admittedly well-done, but no match for a story that doesn’t feel like it’s just going through the motions. The story plods tiredly along, buoyed by cute characters voiced by a laundry list of acting talent that blended remarkably well with the CG portrayals (Alan Rickman played the Caterpillar, but it didn’t feel like “Alan Rickman”), but ultimately I just couldn’t bring myself to care what happened at the end – because I could see it coming a mile away. You can make the argument that it’s a children’s film, but as I said in my original post, a children’s film wasn’t what I was hoping for out of this movie. Maybe that means I would have gotten more out of the story if I was an eight year-old, but since I’m not I’m standing by my criticism.

The acting was solid for the most part – I enjoyed newcomer Mia Wasikowska as a petulant teenaged Alice, and I’m looking forward to her portrayal of Jane Eyre next year – and as I said the voice acting was great. But the big selling points for this film were the inclusion of Helena Bonham-Carter and Johnny Depp as the Red Queen and the Mad Hatter, respectively, and this is where the movie really started to grate for me.

Carter, for her part, did a good job. Her character was designed to be noisome and obnoxious, and she ensured that every second of screen time with the Red Queen was as tooth-achingly painful as possible. She even redeemed her character a little at the very end when she is predictably dethroned (I’d say spoiler alert, but if you didn’t see that coming I don’t know what’s wrong with you); she looks up at her compatriot Stayne (hammily played up by the always-wonderful Crispin Glover) and says “at least we still have each other”. It’s a touching moment that gives us a brief look into the twisted but ultimately damaged and hurting heart of a villain who could have been dynamic and interesting. Then Crispin tries to stab her and it’s back into shrieky-shrieky mode for another two minutes before she’s finally carted away. It’s always hard to pinpoint if an actor’s done a good job when you hate the character – because if that was the point, she’s done a wonderful job. We’ll call it that for good measure.

But Depp was an abject disappointment. Maybe it’s because he’s not used to working with so much CG around him (though after Charlie and the Chocolate Factory I’d have to question why) but his performance felt largely dialed in. It was as though they took his characters from Willy Wonka and Pirates of the Caribbean, dusted it with a handful of Hunter Thompson, and threw it all in a blender. Top it with a silly hat (sorry, a new silly hat) and you’ve got the Mad Hatter, whose character featured far too heavily for Carroll’s original stories to bear. I didn’t know running the gamut of accents from the British Isles constituted madness, but that was about the maddest thing Depp did in this film – if you leave aside the somewhat uncomfortable sexual tension between he and Wasikowska’s Alice, especially towards the end when he comments on how she’s now “perfect-sized”. Ick, Johnny. And honestly, the dance number at the end is probably the most embarrassing thing I’ve ever seen him do. And I watched 21 Jump Street.

A great deal was made of the unique blend of special effects that were to be used to bring the world of Wonderland to life; I remember reading there was to be CG, stop-motion, motion-capture and animation among other things. And to be fair, I’m hardly a film expert (much as I might fancy myself a critic). But I didn’t see any of these things – CG and live action was about it. It looked no different than Harry Potter or The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe or any other fantasy-genre movie that takes place in a non-English countryside locale, and honestly, parts of it were actually really poor. I know how difficult it must be to sync up a CG mouse with a real actor pretending to pick it up, but frankly I saw better cinematography for that kind of scene in Stuart Little. The only parts of the movie that looked decent were the ones that took place in the pastoral landscape of the Real World – everything else was a headache of colour, bad CG and those twisty trees I’ve come to associate with Tim Burton ever since Sleepy Hollow. And, as I said before, none of it lent well to a 3D rendering, so what was the point?

I’ve tried to be balanced in this review, but I’ve said a lot of negative things about the movie. Let me try to give the other side equal weight: the script was reasonably solid for what it was (a Disney movie, which is why I can forgive the incredibly trite “off with YOUR head” at the end), Wasikowska was a good casting choice as were Glover and the voice actors, and I give a lot of credit to Burton for threading so much familiar Carroll imagery and contextual shoutouts into his re-envisioning of the story. It says to me that he at least tried to be respectful of the intellectual property, and that’s a lot more than I can say for some other remakes I’ve seen. So good for you Tim – you get a pass this time.

But at the end of the day, I still walked out with no emotional investment whatsoever, and not really having had a good time. Do I regret watching Alice? Naw, it gave me something to do that night. Would I see it again? Doubtful, unless somebody really takes issue with this review. Would I recommend it? I guess if you have kids, they might like it, and if you’re easily distracted by shiny things or genuinely enjoy the taste of paste, you might too. But if you’re looking for something a little less bland than the nutritious but ultimately unfulfilling gruel served up by Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, I’d like to recommend this instead:

I don’t really like breaking down reviews into number values, but I’m really proud of the whiskey rating scale and I’d like to get some more use out of it, so here it is: the State of Affairs official Movie Rating system.

Oh.  And if there’s a sequel, this number will change.  Drastically.

Thanks for reading my friends. I’m back on a regular update schedule, so come on back.

4 Responses to “Wonder Where This Is Going: SOA Reviews Alice in Wonderland”

  1. Emma Cunningham March 15, 2010 at 11:42 AM #

    I agree that the reasons for needing the Red Queen removed should have been more prominent in the story. However, I thought Johnny Depp was fabulous!

  2. Christi March 15, 2010 at 3:15 PM #

    I agree on the total emotionless… it was pretty (I did not see it in 3D) but it really did not leave me with any reaction. I almost forgot that we had gone to see it before we even got home! It was fine. Disnefied, some good working in of the original work, but yeah overall it was: meh.

  3. Jo Fergus March 16, 2010 at 6:45 AM #

    Not to be petulant (but you know I’m going to be), the expression “his performance felt largely dialed in” seems like an anachronism (ok, maybe “pedantic” is a better warning)

    ‘Dialing’ something in is an expression often used by engineers, technicians, craftsmen, or even athletes to describe an incremental adjustment or fine-tuning process (like a radio dial). Performers on the other hand seem to prefer the expression “phoned in, or mailed in” to describe dutifully delivering work in a distant or disembodied fashion, in order to fill a requirement, without any real zest or zeal as it were.

    Though if you were to go back 40 years to pulse-dial telephones, I suppose the term “dialed in” might still apply in some adaptively defunctory way ;-) But I really thought you were much more contemporary than that Alex ;-p

    Essentially, the term “dialing a number” seems to have fallen out of favour with the advent of the numerical keypad. Unless of course you’re still living with your Mom, or perhaps an old fuddy-duddy at heart who can’t help but adopt quaint expressions from a previous generation ;-p

    Come to think of it, Petulant does seem more appropriate now doesn’t it…
    Sorry Man ;-]

    W/Words
    Jo Fergus
    http://EnviroNauts.com

  4. Satan June 16, 2010 at 1:27 PM #

    I really must disagree with some of this. The performance from Helena Bonham Carter left me feeling very disappointed in her. I don’t know exactly how the CG was done with her (giving her a massive head and keeping her body as is), but I found her to be as vacant looking as Wasikowska. This is supposed to be a land that is larger than life, a “wonder” land, if you will. Every moment either Alice or the Red Queen was on screen I found myself frighteningly bored.

    As far as the voice acting goes, my major beef is with Stephen Fry, who provided the vocals for the Cheshire Cat. I may have been hardest on this character in general, because he’s my favourite of the bunch, but the voice didn’t match the face. If you close your eyes and listen, the actor is clearly NOT smiling while he recites his lines, meanwhile that stupid looking CG cat has a gigantic grin plastered on his face for the entire film.

    The movie might as well have been filmed using actors wearing masks. I don’t even know how to wrap this up neatly, because I still feel the need to whine about what a great disappointment it was.

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