Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Movie Review: Alice in Wonderland

Alice in Wonderland ***
Directed by:
Tim Burton.
Written By: Linda Woolverton based on the books by Lewis Carroll.
Starring: Johnny Depp (Mad Hatter), Mia Wasikowska (Alice), Helena Bonham Carter (Red Queen), Anne Hathaway (White Queen), Crispin Glover (Stayne), Matt Lucas (Tweedledee / Tweedledum), Stephen Fry (Cheshire Cat), Michael Sheen (White Rabbit), Alan Rickman (Blue Caterpillar), Barbara Windsor (Dormouse), Paul Whitehouse (March Hare), Timothy Spall (Bayard), Marton Csokas (Charles Kingsleigh), Leo Bill (Hamish), Michael Gough (Dodo Bird), Imelda Staunton (Tall Flower Faces), Christopher Lee (Jabberwocky).

Tim Burton has always been able to create movies that like no one else’s. The success or failure of those movies very rarely has anything to do with the visuals – which are usually a marvel to look at – but with the stories themselves. The few times he has made a truly great film – Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, Sleepy Hollow – are when the story actually matches the visual outlook. The rest of films are a mixed bag – often visually colorful and inventive, but emotionally hollow. Such was my reaction to his version of Alice in Wonderland. While I was dazzled by the visuals, and quite enjoyed the movie as a whole, it never really connected with me on any sort of emotional level. As such although I liked the film, it was kind of like eating Chinese food – you enjoy it while you’re eating it, but a half hour later you’re hungry again.

Burton has made significant changes from the Lewis Carroll novels he is adapting, but that doesn’t really bother me. The spirit of the books are there in every frame of the film. In this version, Alice (Mia Wasikowska) is 19 and is being pressured into a marriage with the nice, but nerdy and annoying Hamish (Leo Bill) because her family, which was once rich, has fallen on hard times, and Hamish’s family can help out. There is a huge party thrown in honor of their engagement – the one snag being that Alice hasn’t actually said yes yet. When Hamish proposes, she runs off and ends up falling down the rabbit hole. Everyone there seems to know Alice, but she has no idea what is happening. This is her dream world, so she assumes nothing here can hurt her. The strange creatures she meets – who are split as to whether she is “the” Alice or just “an” Alice know different. Alice is thrust into the middle of a war between the benevolent White Queen (Anne Hathaway), and her cruel older sister the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter), who has seized power militarily, and holds Wonderland in her grip of fear.

As I mentioned off the top of this review, I loved the visuals of the movie. The 3-D works marvelously well, but I couldn’t help wondering if this was the type of film that may have worked better in 2-D. 3-D has the awe factor going for it, but I find that 2-D can be more immersive. You are better able to see, and appreciate, all the visual details in the film. Nevertheless, I did enjoy the 3-D in the movie, which Burton uses more to add texture and depth, rather than to do crazy things like point harpoons at the audience.

This wonderful is a darkly colorful oasis of strange environments and creatures. I loved the Blue Caterpillar (with the voice of Alan Rickman), who sits there smoking his “Water Pipe”, while dispensing invaluable advice. Even better was the Cheshire Cat, brilliantly voiced by Stephen Frye, who seems even more mysterious than in previous versions. Johnny Depp has the top billing as the Mad Hatter, but it is a supporting role. Depp plays it with the same sort of crazed over the top brilliance he has shown in Pirates of the Caribbean and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. While his act can at times wear a little thin, most of the time he is onscreen, you cannot take your eyes off of him. Helena Bonham Carter, with a head inflated by CGI, is even better as the Red Queen, a petulant, spoiled brat of a woman who, like always, screams “Off with her head” every time she is crossed. Anne Hathaway seems to have been cast more for her looks than her acting ability as the White Queen, but I have to admit I quite enjoyed her every time she was on screen – she seems to be constantly posing for pictures. Newcomer Wasikowska is fine as Alice – a little bit spunky and modern perhaps – but overall she carries the movie admirably. The environments these characters move around in are dark and foreboding – perhaps a little scary for younger children, but for everyone else it will be wonderous.
I enjoyed the movie too much not to recommend it – and I think that the vast majority of people who go see the movie will get what they came to the theater for. But for, as a fan of Burton, I was still slightly disappointed. I maybe one of the only people who thought that his version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was superior to the 1970s version, but I did nonetheless. I expected a similarly twisted view on display in Alice in Wonderland. But despite many of the same ingredients this time around, the movie just doesn’t work as well as it should. It is still a fine film – don’t get me wrong. But I expected more from the film – and from Burton.

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