Sunday, March 07, 2010

More like Blunderland Amirite?, Dept.

Yes, so your sobsister now dons the ceremonial caftan, curlytoed slippers and pointed headdress of the amateur film critic to describe my Saturday morning viewing experience of Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland in 3D.

Initially, I was tempted to divide the film into Things I Liked and Things I Didn't, with Helena Bonham-Carter in the former and everything else in the latter. But that's a bit too glib and facile. From the vaudeville act of the same name.

Instead, I give you, Constant Readers, the Big Picture and then fill in a detail here and there.

Basically and to its ruin, this film focuses on the visuals and ignores the fact that one's experience of Wonderland and the Looking-Glass Land is defined as much by Lewis Carroll's whirling, snapping, enchanting language, logic and humor as it is by the "wacky characters." It follows, then, the well-trodden path of most film and television adaptations to date in its fixation on the look of said characters--Mad Hatter, White Rabbit, Red Queen--without attempting to recreate or reimagine their voices as conceived in Carroll's wordplay.

As a result, this Alice is like a great spangled and beribboned package that one opens, only to find two-day-old bread and stale marshmallows. Burton told Entertainment Weekly, "I'd never really read the Lewis Carroll books. I knew Alice through music and other illustrators and things. The images were always strong, but the movie versions I'd seen, to me, were always just, like, a little brat wandering around a bunch of weirdos. [Laughs] It was fun to try to make the characters not just weird--I mean they are weird, but we wanted to get deeper into those characters."

This says it all, really. He's taken an illustrator's view of Alice and, in the process, eliminated not only Carroll's wordplay, but also the notion of narrational trajectory, Carroll's or those of any of his interpreters.  And the notion that Burton wanted to get "deeper into those characters" in any traditional sense of that phrase is extremely difficult to reconcile with the finished product, given that they all--beginning and ending with another Johnny Depp portrayal, ├á la his Willy Wonka, of an impenetrable, inscrutable grotesque--are cartoonish in the extreme.

Deprived of linguistic and intellectual fireworks--and the dialogue is, politely put, "pedestrian"--the film is, at times, a plod. Burton's fusty black-lace-and-ash aesthetic has Alice looking and reading like something cobbled together by Goth film students who want to, like, subvert or whatever maaan, the Disney version.

Further, aside from that fact that the film's conceit--a 19-year-old Alice returns to a Wonderland that has been blighted by the Red Queen's rule to undertake a quest--is RPG-ish in a not-brilliant way, the story has been clumsily rewritten. Alice is no longer the fictional/real-life daughter of Henry Liddell, dean of Christ Church, Oxford, but the fictional/fictional daughter of "Charles Kingsleigh," a merchant with interests in the Far East, and she is being nudged into an arranged marriage with a ginger dweeb Lord with bad digestion.

This would be an odd and unnecessary substitution, except that it affords Burton and screenwriter Linda "I'm eating out forever on The Lion King" Woolverton the opportunity to end the film by having a young woman in the what? 1870s? spout a 21st-century litany of womynly empowerment to an aristocratic crowd that, in the real world, would've had her walled into the attic. She then presumes to dictate to her late father's business partner (and father of the recently spurned swain) her seat-of-the-pantaloons thinking about expanding trade to China. He is, of course, delighted by her, what, fire? spunk? Or perhaps some combination of the two: I'm favoring "fink" over "spire." And makes her an apprentice on a merchant vessel--the "Wonder," but of course; I guess "The Mad Hatter, as Played by Johnny Depp" wouldn't've fit on a ship of the time--to China. It's like an American Girl® book by James Clavell.

Now, the East India Company, which enjoyed a series of monopolies over Asian trade, first opened a trading post in Canton, China, in 1711. So, this bit of visionary entrepreneurialism on the part of "Alice Kingsleigh" would appear to be just a tad out of date, even going back 50 years from the date of publication of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Why didn't they just have her call for manned space travel? That would've made it even more relevant and historically significant. And maybe for a reliable 3G network. Brought to you by Sprint.

The performances of this soporific screenplay were mostly fine. Helena Bonham-Carter makes the whole thing almost worth it. Her peevish and macrocephalic Red Queen is a great comic and dramatic turn. Crispin Glover, very Crispin Glover as the Knave. At one point, he gestures towards the camera, and I expect him to start fake-laughing before Biff pummels him. Excellent Alan Rickman voice for the Caterpillar. Anne Hathaway, pale as Vogue: Death Edition with smudges for eyes and brows, slowly swans about her sterile castle like a 1957 figure skater on Miltown, gin back. Unfortunately, the underwritten Alice falls to Mia Wasikowska, who evokes a less-interesting Gwyneth Paltrow. She's like Chris Martin playing Gwyneth Paltrow.

And the graphics were decent. 3D just 'cause. The film doesn't do much with the extra dimension except feature those always-amazin' shit-flying-at-the-audience moments that made 3D so commonplace for 15 minutes after House of Wax premiered in 1953.

It was just...boring. There were long stretches where the formulaic quest movie unspooled. She Gathers her Allies. She Finds One in an Unexpected Place. She Suffers a Reverse. She is Triumphant. Her winsome animal companions each had a simplistic back story. On top of which, these watch-glancing stretches were occasionally punctuated by moments that, beside the Goth gloom and the multiplex grasp of history, literature and culture, were unpleasant because of their explicit violence. "Hey, Alice in Wonderland! That's got bunnies in it, right? Little Alice Faye Marie will love it! She gets so scared by those other kids' movies!" And, yes, she will be charmed by the scene of miniature Alice jumping from head to severed head floating in the moat to get to the Red Queen's castle grounds. "Off with his head!" right? Except made unnecessarily obvious.

I don't know if the flaws in the movie come from Burton having to compromise his vision or from Burton not having to compromise his vision. But it is the dog's breakfast. Too violent for the children who would be an Alice adaptation's natural audience, too dumb for the adults who would come to the film expecting Carrollian mind games, too tame for the freaks who want this to be Švankmajer's Alice done 3D. I'm actually not sure of its natural audience, save Johnny Depp completists and Tim Burton fan-addicts.

So, yes. It was a disappointment. I'd gone into it with diminished expectations based on the reviews I'd read, but even those were inflated relative to the level of satisfaction I derived from this film. Wait for the DVD, then wait for a friend to rent it. It's not Švankmajer, it's not American McGee, it's not Lou Bunin or Jonathan Miller.

Here's particularly what it isn't: A few days before seeing the film, I found out that a television adaptation of Elizabeth Swados' Alice in Concert had been made in 1982, not long after its short run at the Public Theater in NYC.  Meryl Streep, on a bare stage, in overalls and a turtleneck,
plays Alice and is potently charming at such intimate range. And, though Swados' songs and story occasionally go off-piste, there is, at least, an attempt at Carrollian inventiveness and ingenuity, particularly when La Streep uses her body, training and talent to convey, with no green screen or CGI, growing bigger than a room will hold.

Burton's Alice, by contrast, is lazy. An offering to a broader audience than he's enjoyed that will likely not attract new adherents and probably disappoint those who've enjoyed his earlier work. How can Edward Scissorhands and this work be by the same filmmaker? Or Beetlejuice? Or Batman Returns? The invention and energy in those films curdles here into a nasty, calculated product, all sharp edges and surface gloss.  

At the beginning of the first Alice book, she asks herself, "and what is the use of a book without pictures or conversations?"  Viewers of Burton's Alice might reasonably ask themselves "and what is the use of a film without story or characters?"

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