Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Film review: James Bower gives Alice a kicking - clearly Nutshell does Wonderland better than Burton...

Dir. Tim Burton, USA, 2010, cert PG, 108 mins

Mia Wasikowska,
Johnny Depp,
Helena Bonham-Carter

Alice was surprised to discover that her rabbit-hole contained a magical world full of whimsy and nonsense. Tim Burton’s adaptation of this beloved classic opts for a grittier, more realistic depiction of a girl falling down a rabbit-hole.

It’s full of shit.

Welcome to Burton’s wonderland, a fantasy experience that is both meticulously branded and utterly disappointing. Sound familiar? It should. If movies were music, this would be Burton singing a karaoke version of his own greatest hits. Evidently it’s now more important to him to make a Tim Burton movie than to make a good movie. It’s painfully predictable. But if you’re a pea-brained teenage goth, you’ll love it.

Oh, and don’t let the title fool you. This is not Alice in Wonderland. It’s a tiresome yarn woven from the trailing threads of Lewis Carroll’s books. Alice (Mia Wasikowska) is now 19, and has forgotten her original adventures in wonderland entirely. A shame, since they were far more entertaining than this bloated dirge. Once again Alice chases a rabbit down a hole, and once again she finds herself in wonderland. Here’s where the film’s big problems start; abandoning the original story would be fine if the film had a good story of its own to tell. But it doesn’t.

Alice in Wonderland isn’t a huge story. It’s little, and it’s cute. It’s a travelogue in which Alice stumbles from one impossible situation to another with barely any narrative glue to hold them together. Burton’s Alice doesn’t get this, and is hell-bent on mushing these neat little plays, songs and riddles into drab blob of sub-LOTR epicness. The parlour-game cuteness of the books is thrown out in favour of sweeping shots of Alice riding across landscapes to thunderous music to thwart the ill-defined machinations of the Red Queen. It just doesn’t fit; for one thing, the denizens of wonderland aren’t especially versatile. They don’t work well when removed from their traditional roles and places. A prime example is Depp’s Mad Hatter. He’s an action hero. He’s a leading man. He has an origin story and multiple personality disorder. Which is a lot to ask of a guy who only ever existed to drink tea. Depp’s lazy performance does little to paint over the cracks; Tim has finally stretched his Johnny too thin.

It gets worse. Remember the exploding penguins from the climax of Batman Returns? Alice wraps up with something equally stupid; a big fight. It’s hard to imagine a cast of characters more ill-suited to a massive, LOTR style dust-up. I do not feel any richer from having seen Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum doing kung fu, nor from seeing Alice transformed into Joan of Arc.

Visually the whole thing is an ordeal. The film’s palette is the colour of chewed up M&Ms, with psychadelic colours dotted across a drab brown canvas. The cast is stellar, but the only one to claw his way out of out of the film’s CGI murk is Stephen Fry as a smoky, billowing cheshire cat. It’s a real pity to see Rickman and Glover submerged in such a turgid piece of filmmaking. And it would’ve been nice to give Christopher Lee more than 2 lines of dialogue.

Lee plays the Jabberwocky, realised in eyeball-rattling CGI. But this leathery monster is symptomatic of the film’s deep flaws. A computer generated lizard is no substitute for the beautiful wordplay of Carroll’s nonsense poem. A single stanza of the poem itself is recited by (who else?) Depp’s Mad Hatter. There’s no love of screwing around with language and no recognition at all of the poem’s awesomeness (which is considerable). I’d foolishly raised my hopes that Lee would recite the whole thing; instead the film misses a huge opportunity to do something really cool in favour of that lousy action finale. What’s a vorpal blade if it doesn’t even go snicker-snack?



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