It’s been a little over a week since I saw Tim Burton’s new “Alice In Wonderland”, which is not so much a remake or an adaptation as it is a sequel, ignoring of course the idea that Lewis Carroll wrote a perfectly lovely sequel himself. It is wrong-headed in pretty much every way it can be, poorly designed, loud, and worst of all, boring. It is a catastrophe as a movie, and as a place marker in the career of Tim Burton, it is a big fat dead end.
Remember when it used to be exciting to hear that Tim Burton was making a new film? Those days seem to be well and truly behind us. That’s a shame, too. Ever since the moment the lights came up at the end of my first screening of “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure,” I’ve been interested in this filmmaker. I love that film unreservedly. I think it’s witty and beautiful and it has such amazing visual imagination. I caught up with his short films “Vincent” and “Frankenweenie” later, and I have huge affection for both of them. “Beetlejuice” is a little messier than “Pee Wee” as a script, but it’s still heaps of fun to watch. I’m not crazy about his “Batman,” but I think he was railroaded on that movie. “Batman Returns” is all his, and I absolutely prefer it for reasons I’ve written about at length in the past. “Mars Attacks!” is a film that many people hate, but I think it’s a hoot. It’s a mess, but I have to love those crazy little alien bastards hanging around their spaceship in bikini underwear, doing perverted experiments and blowing up things just for fun. “Sleepy Hollow” is a solid modern-day Hammer film with a groovy movie monster and a love for spilling the red. “Big Fish” doesn’t work for me at all because (A) my father loved me and (B) the stories Albert Finney tells don’t work at all thematically. And “Sweeney Todd” is a movie that works for me in every way except the most important… the music. And considering it’s a Sondheim adaptation, that’s made it almost impossible to rewatch.
I left a few films off that list because they are at the polar extremes of Burton’s skill set, and before you consider this latest film of his, you should ask yourself where you stand on these. For me, the very best of what he’s done is contained in “Edward Scissorhands,” a simple fairy tale with a deep wellspring of genuine emotion, and “Ed Wood,” a wonky masterwork that features career-best performances from several gifted actors. In both cases, Burton took his lifelong affinity for the outsider and transformed it into potent art that works on many levels. The absolute worst of his films so far have been “Planet Of The Apes” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” indifferent corporately-mandated remakes of films that didn’t need to be remade. At least in those two films, there were a few touches where it felt like Burton was chafing at the yoke.
Not in “Alice At Wonderland,” though. Any sign of the artist whose career I’ve enjoying watching over the years is submerged completely here, and what we’re left with is a whole lot of art direction, a ton of expensive effects work, some of the ugliest 3D of the modern era, and not a hint of fun or wonder. Add to that a script that seems to be almost completely ignorant of what it is that makes the original work by Lewis Carroll so significant and elastic, and I’m genuinely baffled as to what anyone is expected to take from the endeavor. It is rare that I feel as completely trapped as I did while sitting in the El Capitan, and maybe part of that is because I was seated next to Crispin Glover (sheer chance, as he sat down after I’d picked my seat) and I didn’t want to exhibit any outward sign of the excruciating discomfort the film caused me. Maybe part of it is because the decision to turn the film into 3D as a post-production process instead of shooting in the process results in a blurry, indistinct visual mishmash that made me feel like I was looking at a cheap Viewmaster, not a $100 million-plus fantasy film from someone who is supposed to be one of the premier visual artists working in Hollywood.
There’s a lot of talent wasted in this one, which is part of what offends me about it. Mia Wasikowska is, in my opinion, sort of a genius. If you haven’t seen the first season of HBO’s “In Treatment,” then you might not be aware of just how powerful a performer she is, but she ruined me with her work as Sophie on that show. She gave a performance most veteran actors decades older than her would be jealous of, and she made it look like it was as natural to her as breathing. She’s also very, very strong in “The Kids Are All Right,” one of the big films out of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and I expect that when that film gets released at the end of the year, much of the conversation about its merits will focus on her, and with good reason. Here, she’s fine, but she has nothing to do. Alice is a passive character in Carroll’s original work, and screenwriter Linda Woolverton obviously thought the way to make Alice more interesting would be to make her older and make her the center of a prophecy that turns her from an interested observer into the savior of Underland, as this film calls it. Linda Woolverton was wrong. Making this yet another riff on the monomyth is pretty much exactly as wrong as you can get “Alice In Wonderland.” Carroll’s book has served as a great springboard for many different interpretations precisely because it’s not a typical fantasy story about a Chosen One doing Heroic Things, but is instead a canvass onto which you can paint whimsy and satire and commentary. Alice isn’t picked for her journey because she’s special. Instead, she stumbles into her adventures because of her own childish curiosity. In this film, all of Alice’s efforts lead to her in a suit of armor fighting a monster with a sword.
No. No. No, goddammit, no.
I’ve got an interview that will run next week with the great and legendary Ken Ralston, and the conversation we had was a genuine pleasure. The effects he created for the film are strange and surreal and pretty much non-stop. There are some flourishes that really work, like the dreamy Miyazaki-like riff on the Cheshire Cat or the way the Jabberwocky moves through the film’s climax like something out of one of Harryhausen’s most wicked dreams. But seeing how strong his work is only irritates me more considering the context. If Burton had simply thrown out this entire pointless “sequel” approach and done a straight rendering of the story with his sense of humor, using the characters as whatever symbols he chose, this could easily have worked. There’s no point to this being a sequel, since Alice spends 2/3 of the film claiming she doesn’t remember anything, and all of the characters largely just do what they did when they first met her anyway. The “girl power” bookends to the film, where Alice is proposed to by a chinless git at a garden party, are perfunctory and played at a level of grotesque exaggeration so strong right off the bat that there’s nowhere for the film to go when it gets to Underland. And there are actually bookends on the bookends, telling the story of Alice’s father, a long-missing adventurer who evidently died trying to open a trade route to China, and that material just feels like syrup on top of sugar on top of syrup, overkill for no reason. There’s no payoff to the missing father, nothing that Alice gains as a character aside from a smarmy little one-sentence affirmation of the joys of mental illness at the start. It’s a set-up for the set-up, and Woolverton’s script is so indifferent to its own machinations that she seems to simply forget to do anything with all of this blather she’s built in.
At the press day last week, I heard one person actually say with a straight face, “I think Helena Bonham Carter has a real shot at Best Supporting Actress for next year.” Unless he was talking about the Razzies, he was hilariously wrong. Her work as the Red Queen is pure scenery chewing ham, and while she appears to be one of the few people in the film actually enjoying themselves, that does not translate into “good performance.” It’s the fault of the script, really, since there’s no real point to her here, and Anne Hathaway is just as stranded as the White Queen. She tries to make her oh-so-bland character interesting with some weird business involving her gag reflex and a few inappropriate responses, but it’s just embarrassing. Crispin Glover doesn’t make much of an impression one way or another as the Knave of Hearts, but I did spend much of the film staring at him, baffled as to why Burton chose to give him an all-CG body and just keep his head real. It’s a truly bizarre decision, and all it does is make Glover look strange without really paying it off in any way.
Some of the supporting cast gets off easy by virtue of the characters they play. Matt Lucas does everything you could ever want from a Tweedle, playing both Tweedledum and Tweedledee, but he’s in about fifteen minutes of film total. Stephen Fry’s vocal work as the Cheshire Cat is solid, as is Michael Sheen’s as the White Rabbit, but both characters are inconsequential. Same with Alan Rickman as the Caterpillar or Paul Whitehouse as the March Hare or Christopher Lee as the Jabberwocky. They’re all perfectly competent, but there’s not a memorable moment for any of them, so why fill the cast with actors like that? They go skipping by, in and out of the movie, making no impact beyond the visual.
And then there’s Johnny Depp. As disappointed as I am in Tim Burton on this film, multiply that by a thousand for Depp. I would like to formally request that Congress step in and pass a law that prevents him from working with Tim Burton anymore, because at this point, I think they’re starting to actively hurt each other. There were years where I was a passionate Depp defender, when the mainstream had no use for him at all, and I still feel like his best performances are breathtaking to revisit. “Dead Man,” “Donnie Brasco,” “Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas,” and of course the twin triumphs with Burton, “Ed Wood” and “Edward Scissorhands.” This time out, though, his work as the Mad Hatter is nigh unwatchable. It’s a jumble of crazy voices and creepy make-up and shifting accents, and instead of coming across as someone genuinely damaged or mad or eccentric or fascinating, he just plain feels like he’s trying too hard. And did anyone… ANYONE… really need a backstory for the Mad Hatter to explain why he’s mad? No? Well, too bad, ’cause you’re gonna get one. And it’s really really stupid.
I could go on, but why? More than anything, I’m just plain sad that this is where Tim Burton is as a filmmaker in the year 2010. And with “Dark Shadows” and a “Sleeping Beauty” riff in his future, it feels like he’s got nothing left to say. Good god, he’s even remaking his own “Frankenweenie,” and based on the evidence of this film, I fully expect it will entirely miss the point of the original. When he can’t even regurgitate his own ideas properly, maybe it’s time to just take a step back and enjoy the MOMA shows and the famous wife and the lifetime display section at Hot Topic. Tim Burton is a brand these days, and that’s certainly impressive, but he’s not much of a filmmaker anymore. I’m sure this film will open big, and it will sell merchandise and DVDs, but I can’t imagine anyone talking about it in six months, much less six years. All this money, all this effort, and in the end, it’s an empty box, all gift-wrapping and no gift.
“Alice In Wonderland” opens March 5 in theaters everywhere. You’ve been warned.
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