Monday, March 08, 2010

Review - Alice in Wonderland

No expense has been spared on Tim Burton's lavish production of Alice in Wonderland. Every penny of the film's sizable budget can be seen up there on the screen, as the director brings the full force of his distinctive sensibility to bear on this classic material. He is working in the third dimension for the first time, and he has employed his now-customary blend of American stars and British character actors to bring Lewis Carroll's memorable creations to life. It certainly sounds like an ideal combination, but for every single minute of Alice in Wonderland, I didn't feel a thing. The film didn't excite me, it didn't make me laugh, it didn't move me or show me anything that felt fresh, imaginative or bold. I simply sat there as a passive observer, dumbly staring through my 3D spectacles as one empty parade of CGI was swiftly followed by another, and so it continued ad nauseam. "Curiouser and curiouser" Alice exclaims as she wanders into Wonderland for the first time, but the only curious aspect of this misfire is how the filmmakers have managed to get everything so fundamentally wrong.

The problems begin with the screenplay through which Linda Woolverton has tried to impose some kind of order on Carroll's nonsensical rhymes and riddles, reshaping it as a dull Narnia clone with feminist overtones. Burton's film is actually a sort-of sequel, introducing Alice to us as a 19 year-old (Mia Wasikowska), who has suffered from strange dreams – featuring talking rabbits, tea parties, and suchlike – ever since she was six years old. Now, she is a rebellious young woman who pushes against the stifling conventions of Victorian society, and just as she is about to be pressed into an unhappy marriage, she spots a white rabbit tapping his pocket watch, and she leaves her husband-to-be standing as she follows the darting creature down a rabbit hole.

She lands, of course, in Wonderland. Actually, make that Underland as, for reasons that I never really understood, this is what Carroll's world has been renamed as here (Alice "misheard" it the first time, we are told). Whatever it's called, many familiar elements are still in place, with the size-altering "Drink Me" and "Eat Me" offerings appearing within a few minutes, but there's something rote about the way the film ticks off all of these devices. Burton never manages to imbue Alice in Wonderland with any sense of life or excitement, and there's an odd flatness about every supposedly fantastical encounter Alice has. The wan, blank-faced Wasikowska is a sullen lead who goes about her business with a dutiful air, and although the various British actors who play the creatures are well-matched to their roles, the performances they turn in are acceptable at best. Nothing in the film feels special.

Then there are the two actors without whom no Tim Burton film is complete – Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter. Of the pair, Bonham Carter, with a comically enlarged head, fares better, playing the Red Queen with a childish petulance that recalls Miranda Richardson's Queen Elizabeth I, but Depp's Mad Hatter is a flop. The actor has done some great work with Burton in the past, but he never clicks with this character in a satisfying way. It feels like a rare case of the actor trying a little too hard, filling his performance with tics and a variety of accents without any of them feeling quite right. His performance is manic but dismally unfunny, and the half-assed attempt to explain the Hatter's madness is yet another misjudgement that should have been vetoed at the script stage.

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of Alice in Wonderland, however, is its lack of impact as a visual spectacle. Burton paints every inch of the screen with his usual enthusiasm, but Wonderland doesn't seem to exist as anything more than a computer-generated backdrop. The film has the misfortune to be appearing in cinemas just after Avatar has raised the bar for both CGI-created environments and the use of 3D as a cinematic tool (the 3D conversion here is distracting), but even without that comparison, Alice in Wonderland just doesn't feel right. I think it's ultimately the sense that the filmmakers don't seem to have any real purpose behind any of the decisions they have made. The film is a compendium of choices that feel haphazardly thrown together, and the film's climactic Jabberwocky battle is unspeakably dreary in its predictability, while the final coda is simply baffling. We have reached a point in cinema where technology allows anything and everything to be brought to the screen in a convincing way, but that is not enough, and we still rely on the creativity and ingenuity of the artists using that technology if we are going to be truly transported to another world. In Alice in Wonderland, a beloved story has been desecrated by a complete poverty of imagination.