Alice in Wonderland Review

28 March 2010

Alice in Wonderland

Walt Disney Pictures, 2010
Fantasy, Color
Running time 109 minutes
Directed by Tim Burton
Staring Mia Wasikowska, Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne Hathaway, Crispin Glover, Stephen Fry, Michael Sheen
My rating:

Last night Shawn, Carey, Stevie, and I went to see Tim Burton's new Alice in Wonderland. Overall it was a fun and enjoyable film, but I still thought it something of a mixed bag. There were a lot of good things to say about the movie, and I'll name a couple of these quite soon, as well as the things that I felt simply did not work and caused harm to what could have been a splendid picture.

Just as a warning, there's spoilers ahead. Don't proceed if you don't want to know.

First up, the things that I really liked above the rest. Let's do this in list form, okay?

1) Mia Wasikowska as Alice. I had never heard of Mia Wasikowska before but she did a pretty good job as our heroine. I believed that she was a Victorian woman, if a little headstrong for the era what with her protesting against her mother's wishes of adhering to the societal demand to crush her internal organs with a corset. Enough women of that era shared similar protests so there's little problem there. She also had the paled flesh down pat, which was a Victorian-era sign of beauty. They dug the ladies with pale complexions, though that was usually brought about by cholera or consumption. Now we live in an era of spray-on tans.

2) A quasi-sequel? This new Alice by Disney plays out almost as if it were a sequel to their original 1951 animated classic. The implication is that Wasikowska's now twenty-year-old Alice had previously been to Wonderland and gone through many of the same motions during her childhood. A flashback shows her as a six-year-old, played by Mairi Ella Challen, almost reenacting moments from the 1951 film. Additionally, Challen's clothing resembled the animated Alice's blue and white dress while -- interestingly enough -- Challen bore a passing resemblance to Natalie Gregory, who played Alice in the 1985 made-for-TV miniseries. These were nice nods to that which came before while allowing the new film to tell its own individual story.

3) Character design. The design and behavior of the characters were top-notch (save for those specifically noted below). Helena Bonham Carter's Red Queen, while unnerving, is somewhat adorable. Whoever decided to make her head freakishly three times normal size should be commended for a brilliant bit of design work. This made her character stand out even more than it might have and gave her the look of a satire of Queen Elizabeth I. Miranda Richardson made Elizabeth into a cutesy monarch with the temperament of a two-year-old in Black Adder II. Bonham Carter furthers the Elizabethan parody with her massive cranium and self-absorbed, infantile behavior (consider the scene where she tries on her new hats: "No, no, no, no"). Richardson and Bonham Carter's queens are cookies from the same cutter. I consider this a very good thing.

Anne Hathaway's White Queen was a nice balance to Bonham Carter's character. While the Red Queen, with her ponderous dome, is full of life and vigor, running around, getting upset, and having her cheeks flush, the White Queen is more of a walking corpse. Alabaster flesh, blackened lips and fingernails, sad eyes, slow movements. The Red Queen is represented by cards, a game that can lead to heated emotions. The White Queen corresponds to chess and as such is cool, collected, and unemotional.

I appreciated the updated looks to the other characters. It would have been very simple to just use update the 1951 designs to be more realistic. It would also have been tempting to go with entirely new takes on the characters. Instead they are very much related to their animated counterparts while being unique in their own right. The White Rabbit, Cheshire Cat, March Hare, Caterpillar, Dormouse, and Jabberwocky were all well done and visually interesting to see in action.

The Jabberwocky in particular was an awesome creation. I loved the way it had to drag its mammoth hulk around on the ground by the claws on its wingtips and seemed much more graceful in the air. It reminded me of Orga, the antagonist monster in 2000's Godzilla Millennium, which was also a nice, frightening design. But nothing is ever good, so I'll have some cons about the Jabberwocky later.

Only Tweedledee and Tweedledum didn't quite work. They were almost too obviously CG creations and seemed more like compressed versions of Curly Howard than anything else. Oh, a wise guy, eh? Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk, nyuk!

4) Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter. I've never been one of the legions who fall all over themselves over praise for Johnny Depp. Still, he just keeps churning out extraordinary performances. Cap'n Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean, Hunter S. Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Ichabod Crane in Sleepy Hollow, the titular lead in Sweeney Todd, and the two characters named Ed in Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood were all memorable. I can't say much about him in Don Juan DeMarco though, because he reminded me too much of Antonio Bandaras in everything I've ever seen Antonio Banderas in. Still, I tend to approach Depp's over-the-top performances one role at a time. He has to prove his worth in each role, probably due to the complexity and energy these roles entail.

Costume-wise I think his Mad Hatter is a smidge too colorful, even in the Wonderland that Burton created. The sweeping, vibrant red eyebrows and exploding hair, the porcelain flesh with rosy shadows just seem extremely out of place against the more toned-down colors of his clothing. Even against the giant-headed queen and all manner of crazy characters, the Mad Hatter just struck me as almost too garish, even in this world. The design is just that one step from being perfect. Depp played the role marvelously, inflecting just the right amount of manic insanity that we've come to expect both from Depp and from the Hatter. In fact, I can't help but think that, out of everyone Depp has portrayed on screen, that the Hatter is closest to how I imagine Depp being in real life. So I can only offer praise to his portrayal of this madman. It's just his appearance that needed a little more ironing out.

5) The Armies. The scenes near the end where the armies of the Red Queen and the Armies of the White Queen make preparations and assemble for battle was pretty incredible. Sweeping panoramas of soldiers moving into their ranks and, later, clashing in the field of combat. White and Red armies haven't squared off in such a manner since Andrew Jackson was in command. Though in the end this battle served as little more than background to Alice's final battle with the Jabberwocky, so not much time was spent watching the armies play out their course of mutual destruction.

So those are what I liked best. Now for a similar list of what didn't work for me.

1) Again the Jabberwocky! I've already praised the Jabberwocky's design, which was a nice and scary beastie and a fitting final obstacle. The monster's introduction was handled very well, right up there with some of the best of Godzilla's reveals. It was clawing its way towards Alice (outfitted with gleaming silver armor ą la Joan of Arc, but with unsettlingly subtle curves molded into the, uh, breastplate). Then it happened. The monstrous Jabberwocky looked at Alice ... and spoke. It gave a brief menacing speech of its desire to put an end to Alice once and for all. Christopher Lee voiced the Jabberwocky and, while I normally like Christopher Lee quite a lot, this was just completely out of place.

The Jabberwocky comes forth as a grotesque monster, and is terrifying as such. However, the moment it issues its monologue towards Alice, the creature is suddenly proven to be sapient -- capable of judgment and rational thought. At this point the creature becomes less frightening, as it is now prone to the pitfalls of self-awareness: second-guessing, delays for contemplation, and, worst of all, self-preservation. Had the Jabberwocky been presented as a more-or-less mindless animal on a rampage, incapable of taking its own life into account and instead concentrating only on dispelling what it considers a direct threat ... in this case, Alice, then it would have been much more frightening. Think of the Rancor just trying to eat Luke Skywalker in Return of the Jedi. It had no motivations other than to kill the intruder. A Jabberwocky capable of reasoned speech and mindful of its actions, on the other hand, is no longer a mindless killing machine but rather just a nasty creature with a grudge, acting out on its own petty ambitions. Less scary.

That, and this huge, terrible monster just looked goofy speaking. Not a good idea.

Additionally, while the Jabberwocky was on its rational and thought-out fit of violence, I personally felt that Alice should have taken more abuse in the fight. She should have been thrown around a bit more, sustaining bruises and blood in the process. I liked Alice, so it's not out of personal animosity that I wished her ill, but as someone without fighting experience battling a massive monster, it seemed as if she had almost too easy a time of it. As such, the Jabberwocky was dispatched almost on accident and with nary a fleck of dust on her pale face.

2) Voices that didn't work. I love Stephen Fry. He's one of the great comic actors of our age. I can't speak bad about him. Unfortunately, I don't think he was the right choice for the Cheshire Cat's voice. The Cat's voice was too low, too sinister. I've always thought that Stanley Holloway's quietly whimsical voice in the 1951 movie fit the Cat terrifically. Mind you, I may just be biased by nostalgia on this one, but something along those lines wouldn't have been at all out of place.

One voice that just missed on all counts was the bloodhound, Bayard Hamar, voiced by Timothy Spall. Again, nothing against Spall, but in this case there shouldn't have been a voice. I stand firm that there are some animals who should never be given a voice in movies. Like Jabberwockies, my short-list includes monkeys and dogs. Rarely have I seen these talking animals actually work to any measure of credibility. The talking dog simply did not work at all and, as Shawn noted, its entire story was unnecessary. Bayard Hamar is being forced to hunt down Alice against his will on the promise that the Red Queen will release his wife and pups. The movie could have played out without the character entirely and it's sappy Disney-enriched backstory. They made this character up for the movie and I can't imagine why.

3) The Futterwacken. Throughout the movie the Mad Hatter is said to be one of the best Futterwacken dancers around, with the Hatter promising, once the Red Queen is removed, to "Futterwacken vigorously." Har har, subtle masturbation joke.

Unfortunately, when we finally see the dance its execution is all off. The normal soundtrack spins into an electronic dance rhythm and the Hatter breaks down into his routine for the Michael Jackson tribute group that he does on the weekends. Remember, this is supposed to be roughly in line with Alice's Victorian reality. Even in the fantastic world of Wonderland, the Futterwacken is truly an anachronism and, out of anything else in the movie, feels truly and utterly wrong.

4) The Underland? One peculiar repeated mention is to "the Underland" in reference to their surroundings. It's reached by a tumble down the rabbit hole, but seemingly exists on a separate plane of reality because the environment is clearly not underground. Alice seemed caught off-guard, having thought of the place as Wonderland (per her previous visit). So why the change?

I can't recall any reason why the place is called "Underland." Granted, I might have missed the explanation, which is entirely possible. It's just that renaming this fantasy land "Underland," to rhyme with "Wonderland," just seems very, very odd. The change also reminds me of the 2007 Sci-Fi Channel miniseries, Tin Man, a retelling of The Wizard of Oz starring Zooey Deschanel. In Tin Man, the wonderful land of Oz became the O.Z. -- the Outer Zone. Again, an unnecessary change to an unimportant element. Place names, in the general scheme of things, aren't all that important. Whether Alice is whisked off to Toronto or if Dorothy and Toto are trying to find their way to Hattiesburg is irrelevant. The story goes on no matter what the location's name is, so to rename that location to Underland or Outer Zone is nothing more than an arbitrary change for no other reason than just to change something.

The only thing it really affects are the song lyrics. "We're off to see the Wizard, the wonderful Wizard of Hattiesburg / We hear he is a whiz of a wiz, if ever a wiz there, uh, werg."

5) Alice goes to sea. The finale makes no sense, sorry to say. Alice dispatches the Jabberwocky, the Red Queen is arrested, power is transferred to the White Queen, everyone rejoices, hooray! Nothing wrong with that. Alice goes home and tells off her sniveling suitor seeking to tie her down to corseted, baby-making, Victorian domesticity. Her dreams are bigger and good for her! Any woman who bucked the strict Victorian system is okay in my book. However, her next step is going to sea as a merchant's apprentice on a voyage to China.

This is an age when women weren't even granted the liberty of breathing and having normal internal organs. This is to say nothing about female ambitions towards anything outside of the home, outside of maybe literature in the spirit of Jane Austin, Emily Dickinson, or the Brontė Sisters. Even then, doors were not suddenly opened up for them. This is the era of the Cult of Domesticity, where women were expected to remain pious, pure, and submissive domestics. Women who did not want to devote their lives to having children and raising a family became societal outcasts. They certainly were not rewarded with unforeseen opportunities to cross over into the realm of men's work. The chance of Alice, an attractive and pale twenty-year-old in the prime of life with no physical ailments to prevent childbirth, would be allowed to pursue a typically male career at sea is nothing short of preposterous. It would not have happened in that era.

This is supposed to be a happy ending, and indeed it is if you take it at face value. That said, it makes me sick to type what I expect to happen next. Alice is the only woman on this vessel (an attractive and pale twenty-year old, remember) manned by surly male seamen. Whether by willful intent or otherwise, Alice is unlikely to remain very pure for very long. In any event, Alice will return to England having very likely been forcibly defiled by her shipmates over the course of the voyage. Victorian England had a special place for women who have lost their chastity, either by rape or free will. That place was the brothel, which was the only place in that so-called civilized society that would even acknowledge a woman who had lost her virtue outside the bonds of marriage. These fallen women were outcasts that no one would condescend to think of as human beings (go watch the Louise Brooks film, Diary of a Lost Girl). Brothels of the era were made up of these women who had no place else to go. That is the ending that Burton, thankfully, denies us from ever seeing.

* * * * *

That is my review of Alice in Wonderland. It was good, just not great. Nor was it bad. The movie was middle-of-the-road and enjoyable enough. It just didn't blow me away or deliver itself as an outstanding spectacle. We saw it in standard 2D because I refuse, on principle, to watch any more movies in 3D. I will not buy into that gimmick which only serves to distract and wow the viewer into thinking that an adequate film is more amazing than it actually is. The filmmakers should try to make a movie that actually stands up against critique rather than using a gimmick like 3D to sell it. And sell it they do, as the cost of filming movies with special cameras, adapting existing movies to feature another dimension, modifying theaters for 3D, and manufacturing the glasses for viewers is helping to kick ticket prices even higher.

That, and Paramount's recent attempt to force theaters to adapt 3D technology and to reserve plenty of screens for their release of How to Train Your Dragon or else the normal 2D version would not be granted for showing, is why I boycott 3D movies. Paramount crossed a line with that one, and it is an unforgivable line at that. It's a shame that this gimmick has so overrun the film industry, and I hope that it's not here to stay. Me, I will stick with my two dimensions on screen and love both of them completely.


Engaged 23 August 2010 | Updated 23 August 2010