Drink Me! Eat Me! Review Me!

Dana Stevens at Slate:

Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland (Disney) represents the confluence of a number of depressing cinematic trends: the need to ransack classic children’s literature for ideas, the unimaginative layering of 3-D technology onto a visual universe that would look just fine without it, and the belief that slathering familiar storylines with a superficial gloss of Gothic “darkness” constitutes a substantial reinterpretation. Lewis Carroll’s eminently sensible British schoolchild has been taken on a shopping spree at Hot Topic (an experience that viewers are invited to share by donning the line of tie-in merchandise available for purchase at that teen-Goth chain), and the resulting makeover doesn’t do her any favors.

I guess it’s too much to have hoped that Burton would do justice to the language of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, to Carroll’s intricate logic puzzles and plays on the literal and figurative meaning of words. A film adaptation should, of course, treat its source material as inspiration rather than dogma. But did Burton have to get the books so entirely wrong? An Alice filtered through the lens of young-adult fantasy fiction, complete with villains in eye patches, post-traumatic stress flashbacks, and CGI dragons in need of Joseph Campbell-style slaying, ceases to be Alice at all.

Burton’s Alice (Mia Wasikowska) is 19 years old, a freethinking young woman about to be betrothed to a dull aristocratic prig. Since childhood, she’s been haunted by recurring dreams of a fall down a rabbit hole and conversations with a hookah-smoking caterpillar. (Though we initially approach him through wreaths of curling smoke, I’m not sure we ever actually see the caterpillar, voiced by Alan Rickman, inhaling—perhaps for fear of unwholesome influence.) At her engagement party, Alice escapes her importuning suitor to follow a white rabbit, and soon finds herself falling down just such a hole, giving Burton plenty of chances to test out the 3-D button on his dashboard. The scene that takes place immediately after she lands—the glass table, the hall of locked doors, the “Drink Me” bottle and “Eat Me” cake—may be the movie’s best moment, one in which Burton makes clever use of computer animation to create vertiginous effects of scale as Alice shrinks and grows. This scene also employs a limited color palette and stark backgrounds that evoke the book’s spooky original illustrations by John Tenniel.

Carl Kozlowski at Big Hollywood:

The comparisons between “Avatar” and “Alice” are ripe for exploration not only because of their similar themes, but because this weekend “Alice” is poised to finally knock “Avatar” out of the weekly box office stratosphere due to the fact it’s the first major 3D film to come along since James Cameron’s epic invention entered theaters more than 10 weeks ago and became the highest-grossing film of all time. The major difference between the films is in their tone and casting – “Alice” maintains a fun if somewhat confusing tone of apolitical wonder, while “Avatar” jams a series of anti-military, pro-environment messages under its awe-inspiring visuals.

“Alice” also centers on a couple of star performances to work its magic, as opposed to “Avatar’s” cast of mostly unknown leads. Most people still wouldn’t know “Avatar” star Sam Worthington’s name enough to rush out for his next film, but the first thing people seem to ask about “Alice” is, “What’s Johnny Depp like?” As the Mad Hatter, he looks like Elijah Wood if Wood had become an honorary member of KISS – wearing a mountain of white makeup under a red-orange fright wig. He also takes the “mad” part a bit too literally at first, speaking in gibberish and sporting a frankly creepy grin throughout his first scenes before settling into a more nuanced and even kind tone after a flashback reveals what drove him into insanity.

Meanwhile, Helena Bonham Carter steals the show as the bulbous-headed Red Queen – an evil, shrieking harpy who loves to humorously use animals (a pig serves as her footstool) and shriek “Off with their head!” She makes a one-note freak into a vibrant, humorously frightening monarch that should draw even more public acclaim than Depp. And Crispin Glover as her evil assistant, the Knave of Hearts, surprisingly proves that he’s able to be more than a freak or a geek and becomes an effective badass villain, second only to the monstrous Jabberwock.

Ultimately, this “Alice” is destined to make a pile of money, but once viewers emerge from the dark theater and into the real world, the fantasy won’t maintain a long-lasting pull on their hearts and minds.

Sonny Bunch at The Weekly Standard:

This isn’t to say that there’s nothing to admire in this movie; as with most Burton features, it looks fantastic. He has a real eye for set design and a visual panache that is almost unmatched by other fantasy filmmakers. The creature design – from the Jabberwocky to the Bandersnatch to the Red Queens playing card soldiers – is all quite impressive – menacing and lifelike yet still clearly rooted in fantasy.

And Burton, working with regulars like Johnny Depp (as the Mad Hatter) and Carter, wrings excellent (if odd) performances out of his stars. Depp’s Hatter is mad, all right, veering wildly between a lisping tea partier and a raving lunatic with a deep Scottish brogue. It’s an oddly convincing turn (though one that is occasionally difficult to comprehend).

Still, the movie never quite gels into a convincing narrative. By trying to tame the underlying anarchy in Carroll’s original work and stuff it into a more conventional narrative, much of the joy is lost. It is an interesting failure.

Burton’s body of work is dotted with interesting failures. Mars Attacks, for example, had many of the same strengths and flaws of Alice in Wonderland: There were great performances from several actors (including Jack Nicholson, playing a multitude of roles) and some stunning set/creature design — who could forget the attempted seduction of an alien dressed as a bombshell blonde by a smarmy presidential aide? – but the overall narrative, which was derived from a set of trading cards from the 1960s, never came together: It was simply too episodic to make a convincing feature with a conventional three act structure.

Then there are his remakes of Planet of the Apes and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The less said about Apes, the better – “interesting” failure, snorted sarcastically, might be a better way to describe it – but Charlie and the Chocolate Factory had some real charm: Another strong, mad performance from Depp as candy maker Willy Wonka; more brilliantly designed sets complemented by excellent use of color; a real sense of love for the source material. But it all fell apart when Burton tried to force a Freudian back story filled with repression and evil father-dentists on Depp’s Wonka.

Perhaps the cleanest, most direct, way to enjoy Mr. Burton’s work is to head up to New York City and check out the exhibit of the director’s work at the Museum of Modern Art. Running through April 26, the exhibit showcases his sketches and paintings divorced from the need to fit them into a story or narrative structure.

Adam Charles at Film School Rejects:

Alice is not the Alice we remember from the story, nor the same Alice she was from the many film adaptations – only she is.  Tim Burton’s Alice In Wonderland is to “Alice In Wonderland” what Spielberg’s Hook was to the story of “Peter Pan”.  It’s Alice about fifteen years older than we remember her being from her first plunge down the rabbit hole.  She recollects certain snippets of her first go-round, but in the form of odd dreams she remembered having as a child.  Now, Alice is all grown up and faced with the responsibilities of choosing her path for her adult future when she again follows a well-tailored rabbit down a rabbit hole and finds herself back in Wonderland.  Upon arrival a debate is carried amongst the inhabitants as to whether or not Alice is the real Alice, and Alice not able to recall any of her doings from the last adventure doesn’t know if she’s the prophesized Alice to slay the Jabberwocky and release the grip the evil Red Queen has over Wonderland.

I’d imagine that on new eyes the film is visually imaginative and a little hypnotic.  This new Wonderland is more desolate and drained of a very prevalent history of vibrancy and life due to the actions of the air balloon-headed Red Queen (played with real pizazz by Helena Bonham Carter).  Burton’s world of Wonderland looks like the despair of Miss Havisham’s mansion from “Great Expectations” had escaped and infected someone’s dream and everyone in it.  It’s very bleak, but wondrous as it’s meant to be, meaning that it’s very “Burton.” However, with nearly twenty years worth of similar visuals from Burton it’s the first time I lacked the feeling of wonder.

Part of this may, unfortunately, be Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter who is occasionally distracting.  Depp, like Burton (which is probably why this is their seventh film together) can express a certain intriguing oddness that not many actors can.  However, Depp’s Mad Hatter feels like an amalgamation of other Depp/Burton personalities.  He’s sometimes quiet and sincere with a puppy-dog face like Edward Scissorhands and other times he’s a little bug-nuts happy like Willy Wonka, and when he’s not them he’s dancing a dance that the Hatter hadn’t danced in years and should never, ever have danced in the first place.  However, if you’re not familiar with Johnny Depp already you’ll see why he’s a fan favorite and why Tim Burton doesn’t seem to want to make movies without him.

Stephanie Zacharek at Salon:

Foreseeing the ending of a story isn’t necessarily a problem; particularly in fairy tales, getting there is supposed to be most of the fun. But the problem with Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland” is that it’s all production design and no storytelling. There’s no compelling thread to follow here. Burton doesn’t build a universe in which we have any real reason to fear some characters and to feel protective of others. There’s nothing at stake in this Wonderland/Underland: When the action gets droopy, Burton cuts back to the Red Queen’s castle, where we get to watch her toddling about and spewing her highly amusing self-important twaddle. (Her silliest riffs are spun from the fact that she herself knows her head is enormous, and so what of it?) The Red Queen, as Carter plays her — her head has been enlarged and glued, via CGI, onto a twig-size body — is the most entertaining character here, and her makeup alone is both fascinating and repellent: Her lips have been painted into a tiny heart-shaped pout; her eyelids are coated with a magnificent color I can describe only as old-lady Maybelline blue.

But this tiny prima donna isn’t enough to carry a movie, and so Burton has to come up with activities to occupy the other characters. Depp, in particular, gets lost in the shuffle. The Mad Hatter, as Burton has reimagined him here, with a matted puff of red hair and perpetually dilated crazy-ass eyes, is something of a lost soul, the very type of character that Depp is generally so wonderful at playing. But it’s hard to see anything genuinely moving behind his tics and mannerisms. Even though Burton and Depp have done some wonderful work together — in movies like “Edward Scissorhands” and “Sleepy Hollow” — it’s gotten to the point where I prefer to see Depp in performances where he’s not hidden under “Look at me!” makeup. There’s a point at which perpetual collaboration between a filmmaker and an actor becomes a liability, and Depp and Burton may have reached it, at least for now.

“Alice in Wonderland” does offer its share of slender pleasures: Wasikowska plays Alice as bright and unassuming, and watching her is never a chore, even when the story devolves into a “Girls can do cool stuff, too!” empowerment tale. And the sequence in which she takes her first swig from that little bottle marked “Drink me!” — followed by her nibbling on that adorable “Eat me!” petit four — is ingeniously designed and staged, taking place in a warped-perspective room that appears to be all corners. Alice’s costuming here is particularly clever: She’s dressed in a billowy, translucent blue gown that she can both shrink out of and grow into. I also loved looking at, and listening to, the Cheshire Cat (voiced by Stephen Fry), a creature whose iridescent teal-blue stripes have been carefully coordinated with his enormous, glowing eyes.

But as lavish-looking as this “Alice in Wonderland” is, it still feels cobbled together, albeit painstakingly. It’s not at all shallow to care about the look of a film. Visual seduction is part of the reason we go to the movies. But maybe Burton is working too hard at being visually impressive: In the end, “Alice in Wonderland” comes off as manufactured instead of dreamy. Burton delivers all the wonder money can buy; what’s missing is the wonder it can’t.

Leave a comment

Filed under Movies

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s