Thursday, March 11, 2010
Off With Their Heads
Watching Tim Burton's Return to Wonderland -- wait; no -- The Hatter The Bitch and the Rabbit Hole -- no; sorry -- Alice In Wonderland, you can't help but think that whatever else he may be interested in, actual human beings are rather low on this director's list of loves. (And by the way: DO NOT (repeat) DO NOT waste your money on the 3D version of this. It's visually stunning, but it is not Avatar. Nothing much except a couple of dragonflies at the beginning and a blue butterfly at the end have that great zoom-out-at-you 3D effect.) (Oh, and Johnny Depp, who is getting more and more like a CGI effect with every film.)
Actually? I lied. It's exactly like Avatar; it has the same what-passes-for-plot, which is actually a character description: The Reluctant Outsider-Of-Destiny who joins one side in a battle and helps them win against all odds. Because of the immutable law of Hollywood which says you can never ever have your main character be the straight woman for a bunch of nut cases, Alice now has a lethal case of that modern artistic disease called a Character Arc. This comes complete with a missing father, a helpless mother, an impending marriage to a dentally-challenged ninny, and a Pitch Line: Alice must embrace her destiny as the savior of Underland (a word she mispronounced as Wonderland when she was a kid--idn't dat kewt?), which only takes place when she remembers that what she thought was a childhood dream actually happened to her. (Insert allegory about child abuse here.) (No--wait--sorry--that's A Thousand Acres.)
Insert names, too. The Red and White Queens have names, their kingdoms have names, the Dormouse and White Rabbit have names, even the Caterpillar has a name. (But though he puffs on a hookah, he never inhales the smoke. God forbid we show the children a blue worm inhaling.) Only the Hatter doesn't have a name. But Depp makes up for that by switching back and forth between Loopy British Accent and Sarcastic Scottish Accent, just to fulfill the Mad part of his character. This is all part of the general design, which is aimed at giving a local habitation and a name to what was originally a satire on Victorian manners and politics, none of which makes it into this version (no Mock Turtle, no Knight, no Lion and Unicorn). Instead, what we have is a scroll with a Latin name I have already forgotten (something like The Oraculum, which is Latin for Unobtainium), in which the end of the film is predicted and everybody tries to prevent it. This is what happens when a bunch of people in suits shoehorn a story into a concept. You get nothing but a gigantic echo chamber.
And there are echoes galore. On one level, watching this movie is like playing How Many References Can You Find. When you’re not thinking “Stephen King did this so much better in It,” you’re thinking “CS Lewis did this so much better in the Narnia novels.” And when you’re not saying to yourself “All this needs is a couple of Harburg/Arlen songs to be Wizard of Oz,” you’re saying “All this needs is a couple of French accents to be Joan of Arc.” Me, I sat there thinking, "I know exactly how the Disney suits thought of this movie."
DISNEY SUITS: We're going to to do to Alice In Wonderland what Hook did to Peter Pan!
ME: If you mean fuck it up? You're exactly right.
But don't listen to me; I'm the jaded adult in the theatre. The kids who were there when I saw this? Loved it. They squealed at the action sequences, cheered at the finale, giggled during the Futterwhack (don't ask), and were generally awed at the visuals. Which are deservedly awesome. When it actually stops to breathe, this is a gorgeous movie to see on a big screen, just for design alone. You can spend the entire film grooving on all the heart-shaped props in the Red Queen's castle. And Helena Bonham Carter's giant bobble-head is the perfect expression of both character and actress. The movie is full of brilliant little touches like that. But, like Avatar, you walk out wishing the script was as brilliant as the visuals. Which just shows to go you that, whatever else he may be interested in , set design and atmosphere are sky-high on Tim Burton's list of loves.