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Alice in Wonderland (2010) – Tim Burton

May 5, 2010

It’s as if you can tell what movie Tim Burton will make next just by making an educated guess. Is The Wizard of Oz next? I actually just heard he was planning on making The Adams Family movie; you see what I mean? Either way, it’s no secret that Tim Burton has lost his edge. Maybe it’s one of those things that just happens to some people once they have kids; it happened to Jerry Seinfeld. After all, he seems to be almost exclusively making children’s films nowadays (though Sweeney Todd was rather bloody…and also more enjoyable) and Alice in Wonderland, more so than before is devoid of even hints at welcome mature content.

I should preface this by saying I wasn’t planning on seeing this, but the opportunity arose that I could see it for free. I was going to say I lost interest in Tim Burton right around a couple months after I saw Big Fish, but really my only Tim Burton enthusiasm has been solely contained in a few lovable films, mostly Batman and Edward Scissorhands, and where he really hit his stride in Ed Wood. But anyway, if Charlie and the Chocolate Factory wasn’t very desirable for you, stay away from Alice in Wonderland. If for no other reason, Johnny Depp is in it less.

The last time I watched Edward Scissorhands, I hadn’t seen it in quite a while and I was quite taken with Tim Burton’s production design. I have a weakness for directors who use small models in their films; Hitchcock comes to mind. Even besides the models, Burton’s slightly surreal design of the 1990s suburbs was delightful with its matching pastels and such. Unfortunately, most all of that Tim Burton is lost here. Alice in Wonderland is awash in tacky CGI, and I only saw it in 2D. I can only imagine from seeing the film and from what I’ve already heard, how bad it would be in 3D. What really irks me is just how much the film loses from its appearance. It doesn’t take an especially astute mind to know what a visual tale this is. The CG is simply of an intangible quality and makes you feel like you are watching a computer screen. Most embarrassing is Crispin Glover’s character Stayne, a very tall Prince-like character. Once he arrives on the scene and gets off his horse, he walks in the direction of the camera and you immediately see his whole body moving asynchronously to his head in a rather ridiculous fashion. I’m not sure what the story is there, but in this age of CG, though I don’t think it’s even close to its peak, this sort of stuff is inexcusable. As he is very tall and Tim Burton had troubles (or lack of energy) inventing some other, better way of making him appear on screen simultaneously with other characters, this continues through the rest of the film. If I could just digress for a second, filmmakers watch every part of their films over and over again until the edits become second nature, which means Tim Burton watched this part more than any casual viewer ever will and after just one lethargic viewing it was quite agitating to me. Basically, I would think a project as outlandish and idiosyncratic as this would seem an oddball director’s wet dream and he would take delicate care of it instead of leaving it to the calculated execution of a computer.

So, the real question arises: Is Tim Burton such an oddball director anymore? These days, it seems just his subjects are of much more quirky derision than he makes them and more importantly, Burton avoids the dark territory that at once, is found in the original material and secondly, that the Burton that made his name famous would have took pleasure indulging in.

The film has a framing device; Alice’s “real world.” She is a child of the London upper-crest, in a pathetic portrayal of the English. Just because you throw in a few “bloody”’s here and there doesn’t mean you’ve covered the American-ness of the film…but I digress again. Once Alice comes of age, she is matched with a young man against her will. The actress playing Alice, Mia Wasikowska, looks an awful lot like Claire Daines, who I never cared much for, but Wasikowska has a look that’s just interesting enough. Alice is rebellious against the idea, and yearns for a world of freedom and natural love. It’s apparent from this moment, the film is rather shallow. Right as the male, Hamish, proposes marriage in front of the terrifyingly large audience she gets sucked into the well known rabbit hole. Once she’s down there, it seems a while before we get to the film’s main attraction, Johnny Depp. Maybe it’s because Wasikowska, while cute, hasn’t the charm to guide a film. But it’s also because Wonderland just isn’t wonderful enough. All the little creatures don’t have the memorable characterization the y should either. Thankfully, the film does have that main attraction of Johnny Depp. His wonderful eccentricities are about the only thing that still makes sense in a Tim Burton film. And he’s pretty much the only thing that breathes creativity into this film. Burton’s wife Helena Bonham Carter is good, as usual, playing the Red Queen. Anne Hathaway’s White Queen appearance seems more like an attempt to cramp in the book’s major characters into the film, though I’m not too familiar with the original source. I didn’t even know Crispin Glover was in the film until he appeared and usually his awkward, uncomfortable weirdness is at least an indulgence, but he is completely stiff here.

At the end of the film, Alice defeats the towering Jabberwocky and the whole Wonderland celebrates except the Red Queen. And Johnny Depp does his famous dance he has mentioned throughout the film. The result is a CGI’d teeth clenching and weird affair, and not in a way usually associated with Depp or Burton either. The film seems to have totally steeped to childish stupidity. Eventually, the story returns to the “real world” and Alice confronts everyone she has a problem with, mainly Hamish and both his and her parents, in the most non-spontaneous fashion. This, together with her defeating of the Jabberwocky, makes the film take a shallow turn towards blunt feminism. If it wasn’t apparent before this point in the film, it is now clear Burton truly isn’t interested in the wonderful space of dreams. In Alice in Wonderland, he seems more caught up in his archetypal heroine and going-through-the-motions storytelling.

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