Sunday, March 14, 2010

Alice in Wonderland, reviewed.

The latest version of Lewis Carroll’s collection of nonsense poetry and illogic grotesquery departs from its episodic source material in favor of an ill-fitting hero’s journey. Alice’s classic adventure may be through a strange alternate world, but it is one intended for outlandish riffs on tea etiquette rather than Armageddon. The fantasy epic has already been done better—much better—so that the film only keeps from seeming Peter Jackson-esque white noise by virtue of director Tim Burton’s trademark weirdness. That goth-aeshetic has become so slick of late that it has neither novelty, nor grittiness, nor organic continuity with the stories he films. Even Sweeney Todd, which certainly suited Burton’s charcoal and sanguine palette, seemed a mere distillation of the motifs present in Batman, Sleepy Hollow, The Nightmare Before Christmas and so on.

His incarnation begins with an older Alice evading a stodgy proposal and following the white rabbit down the proverbial hole once again. The fantasy sequence thus comes at a crucial moment of decision so that the existential heft of the film remains rooted in the real world. Like Spielberg’s Hook, it relies on a certain amount of familiarity with its animated Disney original and the hero only discovers they’ve been there before after their arrival. This Wonderland (“Underland,” as per the script) is not the one she remembers: it is drab, grotesque and ravaged by violence. Its dead trees, burnt out villages and smoky vales give far less cause for wonder than Pandora, Middle Earth or Miyazaki’s forests.

I memorized the poem "Jabberwocky" in eighth grade—it was that or Poe’s "The Raven," by assignment—so I instantly recognized how Linda Woolverton’s script pillaged that poem to transmute nonsense poetry into mytho-poetry. Words like frumious, bandersnatch, vorpal and frabjous may root the film’s mythos in Carroll’s idiosyncratic language, but they stray from his (non-)meaning. Clearly Wonderland was never meant to be the place for straightforward self-improvement or heroism, a theme implicit to Where the Wild Things Are’s mild chaos. The Tolkien and Carroll sensibilities clash, and where one might have had either a mind-trip or a rousing adventure there is instead epic nonsense.

The film has its moments. Some were throwaway, winsome snapshots like the waist-coated white rabbit tapping his ticking pocket-watch or the red-vested frog twitching nervously under interrogation. But Helena Bonham Carter’s Red Queen steals the show. She plays the character as an anarchically absurd tyrant with a gargantuan, pallid strawberry of a head. Her performance has what I had hoped for from the rest of the movie: an entertaining synergy of humor, weirdness, and malleability. Depp’s Mad Hatter, though, does not gel. Despite a few inspired laughs and boldly bizarre costume and make-up (a happy, psychedelic joker version of Heath Ledger’s sad clown sadist), his work here is decidedly sub-Sparrow, an uneven amalgamation of other roles including the pirate, the barber, the chocolatier and even Shrek. 

Underland’s rote last battle lacks the urgency of a conflict with discernible stakes: we have been told by clairvoyant scroll that Alice will slay the Jabberwock in advance. Otherwise its chess board battlefield underscores the artificiality of the conflict, both in terms of scripted contrivance and digital creation. These creatures have none of the breath and flesh of those of Cameron or Jackson or del Toro. Alice ultimately learns a lesson in self-determination, returning home to eschew marriage for a business venture. This ending unintentionally begs the question of whether her archetypal trek wasn’t merely the training ground for an excursion in Victorian British imperialism. So much sound and fury adds up to a product less than the sum of its parts, not so much poorly made as poorly conceived. When the credits rolled I shrugged my shoulders indifferently and welcomed escape from its dreary sterility.

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