Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Alice in Wonderland (2010)

"Beautiful Soup"

Hesitant, I am, these days. Hesitant, I says.

After rushing
the review for "Shutter Island" and dismissing it as "minor Scorsese," I found it had stuck like a bur in my hair and remained in my thoughts and my brain for a longish time. I went back and changed my rating—it's a "Matinee" now—but not the review, because my complaints are the same. But it's really good "Scorsese" and slots right into the body of his work, despite being unique in its qualities and unlike anything he's done before.

But, I can't tell you why. Curiously, this doesn't stop me from going on and on about it, because it's so rich, and after an essential second viewing, you realize what a dance it is with story-logic and the use of image to show you—and NOT show you—what's going on. It's a trip, and a breathless display of what a master of cinema can do with the form.

Which is why
Martin Scorsese should have directed "Alice in Wonderland" in 3-D. Sure, your kid's head would explode. But it'd be a great movie!

I've been looking forward to
Tim Burton's take on Lewis Carroll. Seems like a match made in anyplace but Heaven. Burton's lapses in story-logic and not playing by the rules in past movies make him the perfect Carroll adapter; he's the "just go with it" director, as he frog-jumps from set-piece to set-piece. If you have to ask questions, you're going to slow the tour-bus down. And his arrested art-student sensibility is so dark that it keeps Alice exactly where it should be—underground with the muck and the weevils and the roots tearing at your extremities.

So it's a MAJOR disappointment that
Disney's "Alice in Wonderland in 3-D" (A Film by Tim Burton) is such a wisp of a movie and—dare I say it—conventional, that it misses the mark of being a great movie (and a good representation of Lewis Carroll) by a hedgehog-croquet slice.*

Here's the problem. The "
Alice" stories are stuff-and-nonsense. Charming stuff-and-nonsense that can make little girls giggle and college professors scratch their heads. Buried deep in its purple marrow is the satire of the vagaries of Society, not of adults, necessarily, but of Society—of class distinctions and petty politics—the Games People Play (when they're not playing games).

It shouldn't make sense. It is full of new words and language that fire the synapses of minds, like when Mommy talks about something called pilates, or you have to find out why you can't steal a base before the pitcher throws. It's all bright and shiny and new and simply incomprehensible, and Carroll is just as fantastical for trussed-up adults as it is for children. The glory of it is children have the upper-hand in connecting with it—they don't have so far to fall down the rabbit-hole.

And Burton (and his screenwriter
Linda Woolverton, who's worked on several Disney animations) know this to a point. When we first meet 19-year old Alice Kingsleigh (Mia Wasikowska, looking dark-eyed and sallow—a perfect Burton heroine), she has been invited to an engagement party—hers.** It's a surprise, but it's not, and it is not going well for the hostess, Lady Ascot (Geraldine James) the mother of the groom-to-be, as everything is not...perfect. And Alice has this annoying habit, besides being late, of being...unconventional...and distracted by anything. Alice likes to see the Nature of things. The party made by adults just uses Nature as a tightly-controlled back-drop. At the moment the question is popped, Alice excuses herself to the party (as they're all watching, and it's for their benefit more than hers) saying that she "needs a moment." (Did they "need moments" in the 19th?)

This is pretext to Alice wandering off from the party,
in her moment of highest risk of being cosseted, to follow a white rabbit and once more stumble down a rabbit-hole, returning to "Wonderland."***

It's here, as you'd guess, that the movie takes off. The colors more vibrant, the effects-work (by four FX houses but primarily Sony) magical, even the 3-D has more depth. The characters adhere to a mixture of Burton and first edition illustrator John Tenniel, and more in that direction than the way the Disney animators drew the characters for their 1951 adaptation. The film is nicely cast with Burton's usual suspects (Johnny Depp—top-lined as The Mad Hatter, Helena Bonham Cartersimply delicious as The Red Queen, the voices of Alan Rickmanthe caterpiller, Timothy SpallBayard the hound, Christopher Lee—as the Jabberwock, Paul Whitehouse—as The March Hare, and Michael Gough—as the Dodo) New to Burton are Stephen Fry as the Cheshire Cat, Michael Sheen as the White Rabbit, Matt Lucas as Tweedles Dum and Dee, but most impressively, Crispin Glover as the evil knave Stayne, and Anne Hathaway as the White Queen. One wonders why Glover has never been in a Burton movie before—maybe Burton thought he was uncontrollable?—but he brings a hissing nastiness to what could have been a typical bad-guy role, and that Burton sets him up against Depp's Hatter is one of those movie match-up's you love to see. And Anne Hathaway proves once again that she's not afraid to explore her dark-side. Her creepy "Liza-Minelli-in-a-straight-jacket" White Queen evokes Burton's long-time exotic paramour Lisa Marie.

Quite the ingredients for a film,
and with Burton doing the stirring, one salivates at the possibilities. There are lots of laughs, moments of exquisite beauty—wispy seeds occasionally enter the frame and at one point, we park in front of a dew-drop hanging underneath a mushroom (Robert Zemeckis would have shoved us through it)—the whole movie is filled with beautiful images and nice ideas to keep you in your seat. But, it has no staying power, and it might be because this "Alice in Wonderland" has the parts, but not the non-sensical sinnew that has made "Alice" a classic.

Wolverton and Burton take the essential pieces and make a typical action-adventure story-line out of it. There is some half-sized satire about political squabbling, but mostly it's a cut-and-paste job, based on "
The Jabberwock Poem." That classic piece of nonsense turns into a fable "that will make everything alright." And it involves one of the characters defeating the Jabberwock in battle with "the vorpal sword" to invoke "the frabjous day" and blah, blah, blah. It's a silly poem, people, not a video-game scenario. By the time we get to the climax, there's a "Lord of the Rings" dark-sky battle between the characters, and we could just as well be in "Narnia" for all it matters. And it has an after-school special message to it, that is nice and all, but is a bit like cherry-flavored medicine.****

This is a lot of talk for a movie I'm only luke-warm about, but the bottom-line is, it's fun while it lasts, but it's like eating cotton candy in the rain. So, yeah, take the kids, it's imaginatively done (when it is), and they'll love it. But don't be surprised if they get sullen and whiny an hour after. Rich it may be, but it's mostly empty calories.
Disney's "Alice in Wonderland" in 3-D is a Matinee, but for the details.*****

* Here's the rub: "Alice in Wonderland" dropped out of my head very fast. One trip to the hardware store and *POOF!* it was gone like a puff of hookah-smoke (or was that diesel?). Now, I waited to write this, fearing another "Shutter Island" mis-take, and I found the movie shrinking away—shrinking, shrinking, shrinking, waiting for a cake to say "Eat me" to bring it back to size. Never showed up.

** There's a subtle joke there, as it's mentioned that the party has been in the works for twenty years...but Alice is only 19!

*** Woolverton and Burton add a nice touch that Alice is constantly questioned whether she's the "real" Alice—the Alice that showed up in "Underland" when she was six. She's grown up and the residents hardly recognize her as the strange child who changed the name of the place to "Wonderland." The original story's name was "Alice's Adventure Under Ground."

**** SPOILERS AHEAD: To show you how cookie-cutter this "Alice" is, somebody gets captured and has to be rescued, there's a last-minute save from an unexpected source, a character must claim an essential ingredient by facing danger, and a foe becomes an ally. Oh! And one character's actions provides the method for their eventual freedom. And there's no place like home. I may be a little harsh here, but "Pan's Labyrinth" showed that you could do something different with this sort of myth-weaving and still make a compelling movie.

***** See it in 3-D? I dunno. It will probably be brighter in 2-D, but betray the flatness of the images, and Burton has the same problem as James Cameron of bringing non-essential things on the frame-edge, like ferns and such, too close to prevent double-images. Zemeckis, Dreamworks and the Pixar folks are the champions of 3-D so far.

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