Friday, November 19, 2010

Visually Exceptional, Alice In Wonderland Dazzles!

The Good: Visually amazing, Surprisingly well-written, Moments of acting
The Bad: A little predictable/predictable use of actors
The Basics: With a dark Tim Burton look and an accompanying creepy Danny Elfman Score, Tim Burton reimagines Alice In Wonderland remarkably well!

A lot of people got their hopes up for Tim Burton's rendition of Alice In Wonderland and in 3-D or home on DVD, those people had good reason to get their hopes up!

Truth-be-told, I’ve never read either Alice In Wonderland or Through The Looking Glass, the works by Lewis Carroll which started the franchise. In fact, the closest I’ve come to knowing anything about Alice from Alice In Wonderland is Lost Girls (click here for my review!), which features Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie’s interpretation of the character. Fortunately, one may easily be ignorant and enter Tim Burton’s Alice In Wonderland and get caught up with ridiculous speed. This version of Alice In Wonderland is a sequel, of sorts, to the original, features an older Alice and a very dark tone. From what I hear about the book – as opposed to the animated Disney version (this, too, is from Disney) – there is a pretty sinister tone throughout. Regardless, I shall offer no contrast to any prior Alice In Wonderland because of my ignorance and the fact that this film is intended as a standalone.

Alice, a nineteen year-old, is attending a gala at the estate of a friend of the family, Hamish Ascot, when she gets wind that he will be proposing to her during the meal. Not overwhelmingly fond of Hamish, Alice does not want to marry him and when she sees a rabbit nearby, she uses that as a means to flee the dinner party. She follows the rabbit back to its warren and in so doing, she falls through a vortex to a mystical realm. Shrunk by a potion she takes at the bottom of the hole, she arrives in Wonderland and soon after meets the insane Mad Hatter, who recognizes her instantly. Alice does not recall the strange setting she finds herself in immediately, but soon elements come back to her. Unfortunately for her, the Red Queen, a maniacal dictator now rules over all of Wonderland.

Amazed by the world around her, Alice encounters fantastic talking beings, like the Cheshire Cat and the White Rabbit, learning about the oppression of the Red Queen. When the Mad Hatter, who has been much abused under the reign of the Red Queen, encounters Alice, he sees his chance to rid Wonderland of the villainess. He aids Alice in getting to the White Queen, who is more quietly dangerous, and Alice steps up to lead the White Queen’s forces against those of the Red Queen and fulfill her destiny of slaying the Red Queen’s most vicious pet, the Jabberwock!

Alice In Wonderland is a pretty classic hero story set in a fantastic setting. The two elements that impressed me most about Tim Burton’s new vision for Alice In Wonderland were not (ironically) the special effects and the soundtrack, but rather the level of character development throughout the story and the acting, most notably of Mia Wasikowska (Alice). The special effects are appropriately special and the soundtrack is a very standard and obvious Danny Elfman soundtrack. This is not bad, but it is largely what one would predict from a collaboration between Burton and Elfman. In Alice In Wonderland, Elfman augments the dark palate of Burton’s drained realm with creepy underlying music and appropriately grand and spasmodic themes during the battle scenes. Alice In Wonderland, to be fair to the collaborators, has a magical feeling that the pair has not (arguably) had for quite some time. Fortunately, when they create a winner together, they truly get it right!

As for the visual effects, considering that is what most people seem to care about these days, Burton and his team manage to do an exceptional job with the effects and that translated exceptionally well to the 3-D version when it was theatrically released. Burton employs quite a bit of CG animation in both creating and augmenting both his characters and the landscapes the characters find themselves in. However, the biggest difference between Alice In Wonderland and the recent special-effects blockbuster Avatar is that Burton and his team more consistently got it right. For sure, there are elements that still look animated – the Cheshire Cat, Tweedledum and Tweedledee, and the White Rabbit – but the way they interact with the Wonderland world, as well as the consistently live-action elements, like Alice, the Mad Hatter and the levitating White Queen, makes one feel like they are watching a live-action film, as opposed to an animated one. Where Burton’s team gets it really right is with the setting, lighting and the Red Queen. The Red Queen is a computer-altered character, with a bloated Helena Bonham Carter’s head on a diminished body. But the character looks absolutely real in every frame of the film and the achievement is on par with the creation of Gollum in The Lord Of The Rings. The Red Queen’s effect was the most consistently wonderful and those looking to feel like they are truly entering a desiccating, but incredible world will be blown away by the visual effects (as well as the way Elfman’s soundtrack melds with them).

More impressive than the visual effects is the fact that Burton and screenwriter Linda Woolverton have a story to tell and it is one more about character than setting. Alice is an unlikely hero and while the “hero with amnesia” thing has been done before, the denial Alice has lived in of her prior encounter with Wonderland plays out feeling surprisingly fresh. As a result, Alice In Wonderland is not the story of a little girl overcome by her settings, it is a tale of a young woman taking control of her destiny and standing up for a principle. As Alice makes the transition from ignorant to informed, she becomes empowered and fortunately for those looking at the film for a message, Alice is not used as a simple tool of either the Mad Hatter or the White Queen. Instead, the film is about how those around her help her to make an informed decision and how she takes control of her own powers. And yes, she does manage to discover there is a leader inside her and this ties in quite nicely with her “real world” experience at the beginning of the film.

Alice is an outsider – in both worlds – and she is ably played by Mia Wasikowska. Wasikowska has a great sense of physical acting throughout the film, slouching through some of the movie’s early scenes before standing up taller as her character becomes emotionally stronger. She delivers her lines convincingly and she makes for both a likable character and a realistic one. When she is forced to look around in amazement, she doesn’t look like she is hamming it up. Nor does she look like she is uncertain when her character is supposed to be confident in her resolve. Hers is an excellent performance from a new, young talent.

The same cannot, unfortunately, be said of Johnny Depp. Depp plays the Mad Hatter and this is not the millionth time he has collaborated with Tim Burton, but it sure feels like it. The crazed nature of The Mad Hatter does not remind one of the manic moments when Depp played Willy Wonka, but rather his character of Jack Sparrow from Pirates Of The Caribbean. Depp seems too familiar in the role and while he’s good, it is nothing we haven’t seen from him before. Similarly, Burton now-regular Helena Bonham Carter is fine, but familiar as the Red Queen (Christopher Lee who might seem poised to take slack in the same manner is fine voicing the Jabberwock). Anne Hathaway fans will enjoy how Hathaway stretches her acting chops as the White Queen, though. There is something unsettling (more than just the black eyebrows under the white hair) about Hathaway’s performance and it comes from the way she gives her character a faraway look in her eyes constantly. The viewer gets the sense she is looking through other characters and Hathaway delivers that beautifully.

The resulting film is one that is exciting, visually spectacular and surprisingly adult for a film that seems to be erring on the side of kid-safe. In fact, the only real hang-up most kids might have (I can imagine how annoying it might be in theaters now!) would be the language. In keeping with the Lewis Carroll story, Alice and many of the denizens of Wonderland speak with made-up words with a fair amount of frequency. While adults are likely to understand from context, children might, annoyingly, be asking “What does that mean?” every few minutes. I loathe the idea of being part of an audience like that.

Adults, the 3-D experience is sensational, go to a late-night 3-D showing and leave the kids at home: this is a creepy, fun adventure that has Tim Burton stamped all over it. It feels far more Burton than Disney . . . thankfully.

For other films that delve into the fantastic, check out my reviews of:
The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus
The Men Who Stare At Goats
Shutter Island


For other movie reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2010 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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