Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Movie Review: Alice in Wonderland

We were struck, watching Tim Burton's take on Wonderland, by just how dark it was.  We'd assumed, as is only natural, that Disney's previews had played up this aspect and that the movie would be less disturbing than it appeared.

In fact, the opposite was true: the previews made the movie seem lighter than it wound up being.  Some of the film is surprisingly horrific.

Obviously, we were pleased by this discovery.  Unfortunately, being dark and being good are two different things.  And Alice in Wonderland is not, strictly speaking, a good movie.

But it's not a bad movie either.  It is, ultimately, a Tim Burton movie, with all that entails.  The simple fact of the matter is that Burton isn't actually much of a director.  He's a phenomenal artist, a decent producer, and one of the most spectacular designers out there.  It's just directing he seems to have problems with.  Well, that and writing, though it looks as though he wasn't involved with the screenplay this time around.

As a filmmaker, Tim Burton transformed the medium, fusing art house, genre, and big budget production into a single style.  Without the work he did in the eighties, it's unlikely that the current superhero renaissance would have occurred.  Twenty years ago, he was inspiring a generation of genre directors to strive for something better.

But the movies that inspired them, movies we love, like Batman, Beetlejuice, and Edward Scissorhands, are deeply flawed.  The best movie he ever made - The Nightmare Before Christmas - wasn't actually made by him.

The point of this aside isn't to denigrate Burton, but rather to offer some perspective.  His movies have never been good, per se.  That simply isn't his style.  Rather, Tim Burton makes movies no one else can, and the world is richer for them.

Ultimately, therein lies the conundrum of Alice in Wonderland.  This is a movie someone else should have made, but no one else could have.  We refer not to artistic vision - there are many who could have conceived of such a movie - but rather to a more concrete issue.  No one else could have possibly gotten the funding to make this movie happen.

If you hadn't yet picked up on that concept, this is not a retelling of Alice, but rather a sequel.  Of course, this isn't exactly a novel idea.  American McGee's Alice, a video game from several years back, told a similar story.  The game was nothing exceptional, though the trailer was somewhat more impressive.

We bring this up, in part, because there had been talk at one point of developing that into a film of its own.  The movie obviously fell through, which wasn't a huge surprise.  If it had been produced, it would likely either have evolved into either a horror movie with only a passing resemblance to Lewis Carol's original or it would have been eroded by studio notes until it turned into something much more horrible: a dull and uninspired children's film.  While it's not entirely a waste of film, the world certainly doesn't need another Hook.

What Burton managed was to create an Alice movie that walked a line between a Disnified fairy tale and a twisted nightmare.  The movie lacks any real emotional resonance, there are numerous plot holes and unresolved questions, and contains more missteps than we can easily count... but, on some level, such complaints are a 'glass half-empty' approach.  You can choose to focus on the flaws or the merits.  You can choose whether you want to like or dislike this movie.

There is a real sense, that if this had been made in 1987 on a hair string budget, it would have been heralded by fans as the greatest movie ever made.  Now, many of those people will dismiss as computer-generated crap, despite the fact the movie is no worse for its use of technology.

Actually, it uses that technology well.  The real and CG characters are integrated masterfully.  The 3D is somewhat uneven - it's clearly Burton's first attempt - but it's still worth seeing in the third dimension.

A review of Alice in Wonderland wouldn't be complete without mentioning the parallels between this and Narnia.  In particular, we were often reminded of the Prince Caspian adaptation from a few years back.  At the time, we mentioned enjoying the juxtaposition between the adorable animals and the brutality they displayed on the battlefield.  Well, Prince Caspian has been outdone.

While many of the characters were mediocre, we were highly impressed with the dormouse.  Burton wisely scaled her to actual size, but still provided her with some of the best action scenes in the movie.  She wasn't on camera often, but we felt she managed to steal the show regardless.  Likewise, the Cheshire Cat and Bandersnatch were also greatly appreciated.

The movie was a bizarre experience, but not an unpleasant one.  Sure, the frame story was pointless, and Alice's character arc was forced.  Sure, several scenes felt like they were shot on location in the ruins of Osgiliath or in Rivendell.  But who cares?  Burton gave us a post-apocalyptic version of Disney's Wonderland, and we had fun.

When fairytale fuses with horror, we think of Coraline.  With that film wearing a crown of five stars, we'll offer Alice in Wonderland a relative three.

This isn't a great movie, but it has enough great things in it to be worth your time and money.  Just be sure to spring for a 3D showing.

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