Monday, March 8, 2010

Burtonfest Conclusion: Alice In Wonderland

As so often with films that become immensely polarizing, I find myself with Burton’s Alice In Wonderland, curiously in the middle. I certainly don’t think it’s a great movie, but its not the full bore disaster its detractors are making it out to be. It’s a movie made equal parts of baffling decisions and stunning moments. In the end it reminds me of nothing so much as those B Fantasy movies that got cranked out in the eighties. And while there are some who would argue that using 150 million dollars to create a film that would sit comfortably at the back half of a double bill with Ladyhawke is in itself a failure, I disagree. Could this be a better movie? Yes. Is it decidedly second tier Burton? Yes. But for all its flaws I enjoyed every moment I spent in Tim Burton’s Wonderland and eagerly await a return trip.

A lot of the controversy is centered around the decision to turn the film into a sequel. And while it really doesn’t add anything to the film and it didn’t detract either, as the film takes care to replicate the stories most well known beats. The real problem with the movie is one of tone, it never quite manages to be get the gravity it needs to sell the high melodrama (its probably Burton’s most sentimental work, ) nor light enough to do as straight comedy. The film is neither here nor there, with Burton’s images never quite capturing the unsettling depth or occasional perversity of Carrol’s work in the way that say the Henson’s did with Dream Child. But his vision has its own interests.

Quality? Terrible. Content? Terrifying.

For a PG film its pretty rough, treating kids like the eighties survived. His Wonderland is a like a rotting Garden Of Earthly Delights. Everything is in a state of decay and putrescence where even the White Queen (Anne Hathaway, who I think is getting underrated in her performance. Playing The White Queen as a Disney Princess with some serious cracks in her façade. ) is of little comfort.

The imagery, though occasionally on autopilot, is often striking. From the symmetrical nightmare that is the red queen’s palace staffed by a court who seems to have borrowed their costumes from Eyes Wide Shut, Alice’s hop across a moat of severed heads, to the delirious deep focus of The Hatter being marched through the doors of the palace with the Crimson Guard Behind him. Burton has unlike so many directors an idea of what he wants 3D to be (and for the record, I still prefer Disney’s system to any I’ve seen. There’s a real solidity to their images I find lacking even in Avatar) He uses it as a kind of super deep focus, letting us see the breadth of wonderland. Creating an oppressive nigh unbearable tension in the nightmarish garden party that opens the film and even throwing a few “shit flying out of the screen shots (he has too much William Castle in him not to) for good measure.

The real problem with the film, is that it gets so wrapped up in the big over arcing quest that it forgets to stop and smell the berating flowers. This would be less of a problem if it wasn’t for the fact that Burton does Wonderland so awfully well, and has the film so perfectly cast. Every moment your not spending with Michael Gough, Alan Rickman’s Catepillar, or Michael Sheen’s White Rabbit, or Stephen Fry’s Cheshire Cat (Though to be fair Burton pulling off an awesome Cheshire Cat is shooting fish in a barrel on the ole difficulty meter) and most pleasantly unexpected Barbara Windsor’s charming Dormouse who steals every scene she’s in, feels like a moment wasted. Leaving you wanting more is usually good advice, but Burton’s stuffed so much life into the corner’s of the film that damnit I wanted to spend some more time in the corners.

Still the rest of the cast all do their best with what they have. Crispin Glover and Helena Bohnam Carter both give gleefully malicious performances. And I even enjoyed Johnny Depp’s much maligned turn as The Mad Hatter. Which goofy origin story and frequent mincing aside had an intensity that at times was unsettling.

Even if Alice finds Burton as a fantasist stuck in second gear. It remains one of his loosest funniest films in years, sequences like The Mad Tea Party and the Red Queen's animalistic court ("I love my fat boys") are clearly the work of the man who made Beetlejuice. It’s rare to see films with this big of budgets step so lightly.

Alice may not be one of Burton’s best work. But its an example of Burton doing what he does best. It may not add up to much, but I had a fun time watching it do so.


Marcus said...

I can't wait to see this. How come you didn't cover Big Fish? Never cared for it?

Bryce Wilson said...

I actually love Big Fish. Just didn't have a way to fit it in. I'll definitely write it up later though.

Daniel Silberberg said...

Big Fish and Ed Wood are the only Burton films I really like. They feel so much more sincere and relatable than the rest.