Saturday, March 6, 2010

Squalor: Alice in Wonderland

I could begin this fall down the rabbit hole any number of ways.  I could tell you that, after enduring these particular two hours of cinematic spun sugar in 3D and full IMAX, I'm having trouble collecting my thoughts.  I could forewarn you that my opinions have not been fully formed, that I'm reacting according to my gut, that the number of hearts (2, for those unwilling to scroll) awarded to this film may drop lower or ascend to new heights as distance comes between me and my immediate distaste.  Yes, I've started with all of these things.  Now allow me to start where I need to: at the beginning.  For there is always a beginning and in this case my particular beginning makes me either particularly biased or particularly prone to unnatural affinity.  You decide which.  We're all mad here.

You see, dear reader, I am a child raised in Wonderland.  Here is a world I did not find disturbing or frightening as a child.  Here are a pair of books (and an animated classic) spoon fed to me by a father who possessed (and still possesses) a great love of Lewis Carroll's creation.  When I say that I adore Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass I love them as a single entity, one concrete idea, not with a casual fondness but with a fervor.  Those who know me can attest: my religion, the foundation of my belief system, has been constructed upon groundwork taken from a handful of literary and artistic sources.  At the pyramid's base: a twin duo of children's tales, 1. Carroll's Alice 2. J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan.  These are the scriptures, the holy texts filled with small lessons and simple masked truths.  Forgive me if I'm prone to exaggeration...my imagination and my cursor get ahead of me.

Reader, I love these stories fiercely.  But: I'm not strictly a purist.  I believe that there is room for adaptation and interpretation, that these stories are open to a breadth of artistic vision.  I love and accept the original Walt Disney animated versions of both stories, the odd Czech adaptation, and was quite excited about the disturbing terrain Wonderland could open up for Marilyn Manson's dead-in-the-water Phantasmagoria.  The Alice tales are, for me, inherently dark works on growing up.  They offer up a diverse world full of obstacles and idiocy, lunatics and gently bent minefields.  They're absurdist as they take themselves seriously and quite serious about absurdity.  They are wondrous and colorful, but uncompromising.  One would think that this would be something Tim Burton could have managed quite deftly.  Here is the man who had the gall to take Charlie and the Chocolate Factory away from a beloved musical and back towards Roald Dahl's slightly disturbing vision.  He allowed Edward Scissorhands to grow naturally out of tragedy, helmed animated features that took their Edward Gorey roots without succumbing too much in the direction of schlock, and (with few exceptions) usually sticks to his rather Gothic guns to weave vibrant, charmingly twisted, whirlwind visions so obviously his that you have to hand it to him: even if it's not your cup of tea, the man has carved a niche and has his own style.  You'd think that man, with the help of longtime friend Johnny Depp and wife Helena Bonham Carter, could do justice to Wonderland.

You would be wrong. 

You have by now, of course, gathered that my disappointment in this film is existent, but incalculable. As we proceed, though, I should be clear...make no mistake: I'm disappointed. Immensely. Disney's shiny new version of Alice in Wonderland is an illogical appending of a story already quite rich enough.  Blending aspects and characters  the premise allows for open-ended addition and a freedom of movement away from the source material. In the film, Alice (Mia Wasikowska) is a near 20-year old young lady.  She has been asked for her hand in marriage by an uptight young ginger man and has run off from society proceedings to what is firmly established within the film as a supposed extension of her recurring dreamworld "Underland" (which in younger years she mistakenly referred to as "Wonderland").  The usual suspects (White Rabbit, the Dodo, etc) have been conspiring to bring her back, for it has been foretold that she will kill the jabberwocky and end the reign of the bulbous-headed Red Queen (Carter) to return Wonderland to the control of the benevolent yet icy White Queen (Anne Hathaway).  If you're shaking your head already, we're on the same page.

I could deal with the change in plot if it were executed lovingly in the way that makes sense: as manic as possible, with an urgency and dramatic tension.  Instead, see, Disney has put the brakes on, and Burton seems surprisingly disinterested in staying true to the characters.  Maybe it was a paycheck that brought him to this film because the malaise in execution is palpable.  The film's first offense?  It's fairly logical.  This Alice in Wonderland is balanced and linear.  In fact, its formula seems stolen from another successful Disney franchise: it's basically a reworking of Narnia. Pseudo-child jumps into a crooked kingdom to restore order to a land of talking animals on the battlefield.  To say this updating of the plot misses the point is a bit of an understatement. Burton never embraces the chaos, but instead molds it into something too easily consumable. To make matters worse, however, Alice is a vapid character.  She is not the curious, densely stubborn child Lewis Carroll wrote.  She doesn't walk around finding that she acts responsible once thrown into havoc.  She's instead a person who accepts a slanted and enchanted predestined fate even as she learns to object to the one assigned to her by Victorian England.  Wasikowska is less than impressive.  She's got the look, but even in 3D she feels flat.  As she repeats, over and over within the film, she is "the wrong Alice".  Past her, however, the supporting cast is truly disappointing and  fails to carry their weight.  It's not them, per say, it's the re-working of the characters.

Depp's Mad Hatter feels right only in his first minutes of screen time, when his capacity for instability is established, but then quickly erased in favor of a more sympathetic infirmity.  I'm not sure who made the executive decision to rope in the quick temperamental changes and illogical conversation of the Hatter, or of Depp's obvious ability to play him, but that person should be fired and barred from the film industry.  The Hatter is transformed into something of a connection and fixation for Alice.  She seems to love him, though why that is I couldn't fathom.  He's a sad character of indeterminate age, but the relationship between them hints at the same uncomfortable level of attraction of Lucy to Mr. Tumnus.  Let me tell you, this is not a Labyrinth situation. It's totally obvious why Jennifer Connelly's character might go for Goblin King Bowie, it's not at all clear why young Alice might latch onto the Hatter.  What could it be?  His eerie lime gaze?  His garish hair circus clown hair? The way he has of dropping into sociopathic growl?  Though Depp's under there somewhere, he's pretty far beneath the grotesque pancake make-up.  I could keep going all night with the ways the characters irked me: the White Queen was too regal and calm (Anne Hathaway should have played it bonkers and channeled Amy Adams in Enchanted, she never once said "bread and butter"), the Dormouse was basically Narnia's Reepicheap (an over-anxious rodent with a tiny sword, wtf?), the Knave of Hearts (Crispin Glover) was a disaster of awkward, outdated CGI, and the Red Queen, well....she came close, but it just wasn't satisfying.  I didn't feel her temper.  I never saw her as so much a threat as an ill-conceived joke (her problems all seem to stem from her disformities).  There were only two characters who really felt right: the Cheshire Cat (voiced perfectly by Stephen Fry) was surprisingly more convincing within the film than in images and trailers, and the March Hare, prone to violently convulse with junky shakes and stare bewildered at cutlery and cracked porcelain.
Cat & Hare aside, Alice isn't entirely unfortunate.  It is, for the most part, beautiful to behold.  This is its strong suit. The imagery, while not belonging specifically to my Wonderland, is rich and there are more than a few points at which a single still would deserve a place in a frame of its own (one haunting moment that sticks out: the moment in which Alice sits, hair raised straight up, on the ceiling after falling down the rabbit hole).  Yet, aesthetics alone cannot save Alice, and they remind us just how well-executed an effects blow-out like Avatar actually is.

In the end, I'm not sure who this Alice belongs to.  Will it be embraced by the mall goths and hoards of teenagers Disney has aimed their massive product push towards?  Maybe.  Yet, I'm not so sure.  There's not much that screams culty about Tim Burton's rendition.  Actually, there's not much that even screams Tim Burton.  He's curiously absent, throwing in a clue here and a clue there while someone else paints in what they think belongs in between.  While it has its bouts of violence and the hookah remains, this film is more confection than even Disney's last outing with Lewis Carroll perhaps was.  The 1951 film was darkened with rage, vitriol, uncertainty, and hallucinogenic sequences.  As Alice faced off with the Queen the danger to her was very real; it escalated higher and higher as the cards closed.  In 2010, this edition takes few risks.  It aspires to be a fantasy epic with little trace of its own madness or any clue that it should, by its very nature, be a little fun.  I'd say the parties involved got it wrong.  In theory they may still be able to sell products based on the idea of the characters in general.  The "eat me, drink me" "off with their head" appeal to kids with disposable income.  Yet, this is not one for the books.  It's too juvenile to be truly goth and too iffy to appeal to too many actual children.  I'll tell you one thing: if I was uncertain on the film's drawbacks during the first hour and a half, they obliterated any chance at escaping with my respect in the final stretch when (and it pains me to write this about as much as it pained me to watch it (which was a lot)) they sink completely out of Wonderland's brand of Victorianism and have the Mad Hatter perform a dance break in celebration of the Frabjous day.  It's awkward.  So awkward.  It's one of those moments that's so horrible to watch that you actually feel embarrassed for the person on screen.  I couldn't watch.  I could only look away, make eye contact with the person sitting next to me experiencing the same response, and feel my heart sink.    
 Indecisive, hectic, dull, and all-wrong, Alice in Wonderland is insanity, to be sure, but not an insanity I want any part of.  It is not my father's Wonderland, nor mine. All it is is a grave disappointment, and I take comfort only in knowing that at the end of the day the classics will be what survives.  We may be dealing with an Alice trend for awhile, but this too shall pass.  This too shall pass.

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