ALICE IN WONDERLAND review

Featured Critic; St. Louis, MO
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ALICE IN WONDERLAND review
Tim Burton has built a major career for himself with his particular brand of "outsider cinema". This one-time outcast from the Disney Animation Studios is now one of the pre-eminent visual stylists in the world of filmmaking. His success has been such that major studios are willing spend untold millions to be in the Tim Burton business. Ironic, then, that this former outsider has become one the great, rare success stories in Hollywood, a land known for its blind conformity and lack of new vision. Then again, Burton himself has generally had nothing new to say since his earliest, most triumphant works. With the exception of 2003's "Big Fish" - an undeniably deeply personal film for him, albeit a strangely unmemorable one - Burton has done nothing but go back to the well of surface-level weirdness again and again. Perhaps it is this stunted artistic growth that leads to the conclusion that Tim Burton had in fact fallen into the Hollywood spin-cycle long ago, forever recycling his unique twisted visions into a string of overblown but commercially viable variations on the theme of "I'm a weirdo and no one understands me."

His latest film, Disney's colorful but dull "Alice in Wonderland", brings the dualistic nature of Burton's career to the forefront. On the surface, it embraces madness, claiming from the get-go that "some of the best people are absolutely mad". But beneath that repeated claim, "Alice in Wonderland" is an almost shockingly conventional tale - a Campbellian hero's journey, complete with Alice's final sword-wielding showdown against a dragon, preceded all the while by her strong felt denials that she is in fact "the one". This sort of conventionality seems to fly in the face of the oddball freeform quality of Lewis Carroll's original stories. But then, this is in fact not Lewis Carroll's "Alice in Wonderland" at all; it is in fact a sequel. This is the very first problem one encounters with this film - the highly deceptive title. It's as though the people at Disney thought it would be neat if they got Tim Burton to do a live-action version of "Alice in Wonderland", and this is what he gave them. Oh well, name recognition is king in Hollywood, right?

The film centers on a nineteen year-old Alice (Mia Wasikowska), an outsider in aristocratic Victorian London. Not content with the era's rigid notions of womanhood, we once again have a typically anachronistic female movie heroine - a character with values plucked from today but belonging to an earlier, contradictory time and place. This version of Alice only vaguely recalls her previous childhood trip down the rabbit hole. Once she returns as a young adult, the story becomes a series of overly familiar vignettes as she unknowingly repeats so much of what has gone before. Only this time, when Alice chronically grows and shrinks, she is growing in and out of her dress, a repeated occurrence that is at once ever-so-sexualizing to a children's story (and given full allowance by the fact that this Alice is beyond today's age of consent), and enables this big-budget high roller production to grant Alice a new "dress" each time, all of them fashioned from scraps, yet appearing meticulously handcrafted, as though created by a modern movie's vast wardrobe department. But hey, this is all dream logic anyway.

Almost every Tim Burton film features a character that is somehow his own visual surrogate - a character with not just a pale complexion, but who is downright ghostly, and probably with large flying black hair. So often it has been a character played by Johnny Depp, an eccentric actor who feeds off of Burton's eccentricities, and vice versa. Although Depp is back with Burton for the umpteenth time, this time as the Mad Hatter (in a role considerably expanded from Carroll's original), Burton manages to spread the surrogate quality around a bit more. Alice, when we first meet her, appears almost sickly - pale, thin, and with pink circles under her eyes. Clearly this is someone in need of a Wonderland nap. Once in Wonderland, Alice's pale complexion gives way to other characters that are painted white (ala Jack Nicholson's Joker, the true lead of Burton's 1989 "Batman") such as The Hatter and the diabolical Queen of Hearts, played by Burton's domestic partner and stock-company player, Helena Bonham Carter. In addition, this film offers up the Burton debut of legendary weirdo actor Crispin Glover. Glover plays a villain known as Stayne - Knave of Hearts, complete with a heart-shaped eye patch, and exploding Burtonesque black hair. While in Burton's other work the presence of these surrogates may point to an artistic presence beyond mere work-for-hire, in this film, it all amounts to a glorified Hitchcockian cameo of sorts.

"Alice in Wonderland" looks, sounds, and feels like a typically overblown Tim Burton venture, complete with swirled tree branches, an overly-familiar Danny Elfman score, and plenty of his stock talent: Depp, Carter, and Christopher Lee voicing maybe two lines, tops, of the evil Jabberwock beast whom Alice must destroy in true Arthurian style. In this final battle, "Alice in Wonderland" turns into a "Narnia" movie on acid. It is a huge final battle that the audience is expected to take seriously, and yet it is stocked with cartoony talking mice and other obviously computer generated animals that are peppered amid the human chaos of it all. Silly white rabbits in topcoats running from dramatic flaming destruction just don't add up.

But never mind all of that - "Alice in Wonderland" is just plain difficult to watch. As the early trailers and television commercials indicated, the movie is simply an eyesore. Gaudy colors and shallow artifice everywhere, all of it overflowing with annoying, overacted eccentric weirdos. (Although it must be said that Depp has a few nice grace moments as the Mad Hatter.) The focal planes are downright screwy at times - foreground, middle ground, and background characters all in sharp focus while the background itself is in proper soft focus. Perhaps it's the interjection of the eleventh hour 3-D effect - which is yet more useless razzle-dazzle intended to wow viewers away from the empty proceedings - or perhaps it's the careless blending of all the forced-perspective characters (something that the "Lord of the Rings" series had no problem with nearly ten years ago). In any case, for all of Burton's visual flourishes, this aspect is a major failure. Perhaps it was meant to evoke a pop-up book, but instead it delivers a potentially headache-inducing experience.

I'm not trying to out-and-out condemn Burton for foregoing true artistic statements in favor of his trademark, huge, artifice. The man has forged a career doing what he loves, his way, in a town where few can make it. But it is that very aspect that he's done it "his way" that is disturbing. It's not that Burton has forsaken larger and more personal messages in his films. Rather, we have every reason to believe he has nothing more to say than what he's been saying from the beginning. Bigger budgets and more impressive casts do not equal artistic growth - but that's really all Burton has to show for himself after all these years.

It is sad and eye opening to compare Burton to fellow oddball fantasy filmmaker Terry Gilliam - a director who has sank in an altogether different kind of artistic quicksand. "Alice in Wonderland" begs comparison to Gilliam's even-worse 2005 fairy tale nightmare, "The Brothers Grimm". Both films are based upon classic children's stories, and both were made with major studio involvement. Gilliam, ever the frustrated nihilist, could not tame the mess his production had become, and the result is an unwatchable film by a once-noteworthy director. The "Brothers Grimm" is true madness, and in a bad way. Burton is much more capable of playing ball with the big dogs, but his film collapses purely under its own massive uselessness. Here we have a film that could've really been so much more, but instead takes the easy and familiar roads. Not every movie with a large budget needs to justify its existence by having an artistic point, but this one is just a mess, devoid of fun. An overblown retread of a thousand other stories, "Alice in Wonderland"'s various odes to madness are superficial, hollow, and hypocritical.

- Jim Tudor
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