Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Alice in Wonderland (Burton 2010)

Let’s go back to 1992, and examine a little film known as Batman Returns from director Tim Burton. A sequel to 1989’s Batman, also by Burton, Batman Returns is a bit of a departure for fans of the first film, as it transforms Batman’s world into more of a fairytale as opposed to the fantastic noir hell of the first film: characters are resurrected by cats without any explanation; the settings or more fantastical and elaborate; the character’s more symbolic and stylized than before; etc. However, the film never goes far enough with this fairytale concept, as the film is still partly rooted in realism, with story lines involving backdoor politics and corporate maneuvering, which calls for more cohesive logic than a fairytale does. Hence, elements such as rocket launching penguins, which would work in fairytale logic, seem out of place and illogical as the two sides of the film battle it out.

Why do I bring up Batman Returns in a review for Alice in Wonderland, Burton’s newest film? In an odd way, the problem that Batman Returns suffers from also plagues Alice in Wonderland, only in reverse. Despite the source material offering Burton a chance to truly follow his imagination to its full, unfettered heart’s content, he has instead crafted a narrative that is oddly conservative, brining a level of logic and coherence to a universe that itself was designed to counter, or at least question, the logic of everyday reality.

The story of Alice in Wonderland is not that of the classic tales, but is rather something of a sequel. Alice (Mia Wasikowska), now nineteen, discovers that the party she has been dragged to by her mother is an engagement party, with Alice herself being asked to marry the son of a wealthy lord. At the moment of decision, Alice flees, following the infamous White Rabbit down a rabbit hole, leading her to Wonderland, a place she has forgotten. However, Wonderland itself is now ruled by the Red Queen (Helen Bonham Carter), having used the Jabberwocky as a means of taking control from her sister, the White Queen (Anne Hathaway). Alice is prophesized to slay the Jabberwocky, an idea which she resists, but when many of her friends, including the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) are captured, Alice begins a mission to rescue them, one which will force her to face the prophecy head on.

It’s no secret that Burton’s best characters, and the ones he always seems most interested in, are those that are outsiders to everyday society, each of these characters being visual and ideological contrasts to accepted societal norms. It is no mistake that Burton’s worst film, Planet of the Apes, forced him to work with an average, archetypal leading man and focus on the human characters: Burton is clearly far more interested in the apes and their world.

Thankfully since Planet of the Apes, Burton has avoided this issue and stuck with his outsider characters, including this version of Alice in Wonderland. Alice here is a woman conflicted by the path before her, with either the option of following tradition and society’s expectations by giving into the idea of marriage, or carving out her own path. Given to flights of fancy and distraction, Alice is a true Burton heroine, shy and awkward, but with big dreams which put her in conflict with the world around her. Alice thus becomes the film's main strength.

The problem with the film lies with Wonderland itself and the conflict Alice becomes wrapped up in upon returning to the fantastic world. By making the battle in Wonderland one over the rightful ruler of the land and having its citizens choose sides, Wonderland is politicized, thus reducing the contrast between the fantastical world that works against logic, and the world of rules from which Alice comes. It brings a level of organization to Wonderland which ultimately absorbs the supposed fringe characters into the mainstream: they are given official sanction to be crazed and peculiar by the White Queen, thus diluting their subversive edge.

This is made all the worse by the biggest casting mistaking in a Burton film since Mark Wahlberg in Planet of the Apes: Anne Hathaway as the White Queen. Try as Burton might, he is unable to make Hathaway into a Burton character. Hathaway is too much of a mainstream Disney Princess to be an outsider. The battle for her to be restored to rightful leadership hence comes off as a battle for restoring the safe Disney brand more than anything else, and her performance only adds to this concept, appearing to put up with her subjects rather than actually like them. She is open to accepting certain levels of eccentricity, but no more than that. The White Queen, to work in this narrative at all, needed to be someone more subversive and not already beloved little children. Someone a little edgier like Winona Ryder would have worked better in the role.

However, to really understand how tame Alice in Wonderland has become, one needs look no further than Depp’s Mad Hatter. Now, Depp is in fine form as usual, and his visual look is amazing. However, the Hatter here isn’t really all that mad. He is far too aware of what is going on around him, too dedicated to a cause to be mad. He is transformed into a sympathetic clown, rather than a dangerous threat to law and order, bouncing between great anger and great sorrow. The Hatter should be more along the lines of Hunter S. Thompson, but instead we are given a sanitized figure that parents can feel comfortable with.

Flaws aside, Alice in Wonderland truly shines in its visual design. This is a Tim Burton world through and through, exaggerated and bordering on creepy in at least a few areas. It is a richly layered world, filled to the brim with little details and working well outside the special effects limits of previous live action adaptations. While it is still early in the year, I would honestly be surprised if the film is passed over for production design awards at next year’s Academy Awards. Only the Jabberwocky disappoints, coming off as a rejected Godzilla monster design, but that is but a small issue in an otherwise gorgeous film.

Still, I would be lying if I didn’t say I was slightly disappointed in the Alice in Wonderland. It isn’t terrible at any rate, but after the greatness of Burton’s last few efforts, it comes off as a lesser work. With any luck, the more dangerous Burton will come out to play next time, hopefully sooner rather than later.

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