Saturday, March 13, 2010

Are You THAT Alice?

Alice in Wonderland

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Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland has one eye bent toward visual reinvention, the other towards narrative revisionism. Truth be told, this Alice is more "Through the Looking Glass" than "Alice in Wonderland," although scribe Linda Woolverton takes elements of both and adds her own stuff in.

As would be expected, Alice is a visual showcase for Burton. He gives it his penchant for gothic expressionism and vibrant colors. It's a strange, beautiful world that seems more in line with his Sleepy Hollow than Edward Scissorhands - there's not a sense that Wonderland is a lived in place, but rather a world of diversions and episodes where nothing connects and nothing seems to extend more than several hundred yards past the edge of the frame. In a way, that's how it should feel. It's long been held that Carroll's work is a mix of sexual awakening and massive drug trip, and this one's no different. From the second 19-year old Alice just "needs a minute" before falling down the rabbit hole to experience Wonderland again, there's a chronic idea that Wonderland represents an escape, a tortured break from coherence and logic.

That's Burton's cinema, but unfortunately the director gets too hung up on his quirks to really figure out how to make Alice in Wonderland all of a piece. He's a great visualist, and the production design, costuming, visual effects, and make-up are all first-rate throughout the film. It's pure sensation, a movie so detached it almost detaches us from the screen. Part of the problem is in Alice herself, as youngster Mia Wasikowska hasn't the depth or the flair for a surprisingly demanding role. She can't seem to get past the effects-driven nature of the environments, and delivers most everything in a flat-line.

Thankfully, there's Johnny Depp, who turns the Mad Hatter into a deranged resistance fighter suppressing his political unrest beneath a guise of tea-driven lunacy. In pale make-up and crazy eyes, Depp is always flashy, but always interesting. He makes all his scenes pop. There's too little popping in the rest of Alice, though. It all feels so routine, so lacking in spontaneity or sincere filmmaking prowess.

Whereas Spike Jonze and Wes Anderson (I daresay) reinvented children's movies and their adaptations on a whole new intellectual level with Where the Wild Things Are and Fantastic Mr. Fox, Burton's Alice in Wonderland just treads back over established ground. It's almost Alice, but it's a deflated Alice. Even as she grows larger, it feels like she's only shrinking. The real lamentation here is that Burton himself seems so far removed from something like Ed Wood - his opus - or even Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - a visually daring adaptation that's everything Alice in Wonderland isn't.

Oddly, it's the film's mish-mash of A-Z plotting and simultaneously its insistence on a lack of plot that create its central contradiction and makes the rest of it flail out in a dozen different directions. Everything that makes it Wonderland and that makes it Tim Burton is up on the screen, and while it's easy to revel in the sheer creativity of the world, there's not much beyond the aforementioned technical aspects.

A fleeting thing of beauty, but one that dramatically underplays the potential of all involved.

Also, it's rated PG for a smoking caterpillar. No, I'm serious. The MPAA rocks.

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