Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Alice in Wonderland (Review)

Spoilers Ahoy!

Last night I went to see Tim Burton's vision of Alice in Wonderland. Methinks it a little odd that such is the title, since transparently this film is not a telling of that story. Rather it is a sequel of sorts. Alice, a young woman who does not recall her earlier adventures, finds herself in as awkward a position as one might suppose--expected to agree to a marriage proposal from her family's oldest friend's son, a young nobleman named Hamish. Worse, she's the only one who didn't know that was the reason for this party. Worse still, the entire party is on hand, watching expectantly for her to say yes (there is even an artist nearby to capture the event on canvas). Worst of all is Hamish, her would-be fiancee. He has a chin, but barely. His teeth aren't quite those of a horse, but close. His nose isn't a bad shape but the way he carries it--up in the air, sniffing his way amidst the lower orders--makes an unremarkable profile into something memorable and unpleasant.

That is when she spots a rabbit in a waistcoat, tapping a watch...and follows him. So she enters again the world of madness and fancy, where animals talk and caterpillars smoke from hookas.

Many are the versions of Alice I've seen and enjoyed. My favorite honestly has been Alice at the Palace, a stage production starring Meryl Streep, Debbie Allen, Michael Jeter, Betty Aberlin and others. How does Burton's measure up?

Well, to start with, it is a good movie. Entertaining, a visual feast, with a good story and interesting characters brought to life by an excellent cast. Much has been made in discussions I've read about Helena Bonham Carter's Red Queen (essentially based on the Queen of Hearts) and Johnny Depp's Mad Hatter. Both deserve great praise, not least because they make such bizarre characters real. Carter's Queen is a borderline sociopath, a lonely brat with violent tendencies for whom maturity has meant greater sophistication but no greater wisdom. Depp's Hatter on the other hand seems like an already unstable victim of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, one with an intense sense of whimsy now coupled with a fierce belief in right and wrong (and very, very cunning).

But who most impressed me were Mia Wasakowski as Alice and Anne Hathaway as the White Queen. They stole the whole thing, at least in my eyes.

Wasakowski, as the lead, did a fine job of balancing the two impulses vying within her Alice at almost every turn. On the one hand, she likes being a child--one without responsibilities save to obey a few rules and be protected. Yet she also longs for adulthood--to make her own rules, to do what she thinks right. Coupled with all this is her bubbling imagination (a burden in some ways) and a genuinely good heart. Her solution to retrieving the Vorpal Sword, for example, reveals a lot about her character.

But Hathaway's White Queen frankly steals every frame of footage in which she appears. It would have been easy to make such a character little more than a style. She does not walk so much as she floats gently. Her words are intoned almost sung, her hands posed in genteel friendship, her every gesture soothing and graceful. Yet she is so much more. All throughout the film she seems on the edge of something. When she assures Alice that she can indeed imagine what goes on in the Red Queen's castle, one gets a sense that she and her sister have a lot more in common than one would like to imagine. But her "oath" binds her not to harm any living thing, even to the point where she feels (or feigns) nausea at the sight of physical violence.

Wonderland, after all, is a place of madness. The political struggle in this story seems to be a choice between forms of insanity--Don Qixote or Hannibal Lecter.

I've three critiques of the movie, which involve what keeps the film from being "excellent" and relegates it to "very good."

First, it doesn't really capture the weirdness of Lewis Carroll's vision. His Wonderland (no less than his Through the Looking Glass) is the stuff of dreams, and such gives them their power. Dreams (said someone, probably Joseph Campbell) are the myths of the individual, just as myths are the dreams of the society. Well, this film fails to create a myth. It tries, but ultimately what we are seeing a land of whimsy not a realm of the inner mind.

Second, a lack of backstory. Perhaps this isn't strictly needed. I don't need to know all the details. How did the Red Queen come to control the Jabberwocky, the Gib-Gib Bird as well as the frumious Bandersnatch? What happened to Alice's father? What is Underland, really? (Parenthetically, the borrowing from The Wizard of Oz was cute but a tad self-conscious). Perhaps I'd've preferred more hints of the history behind events. Entirely personal, this reaction. Maybe.

Third and finally, something about the arc of Alice herself doesn't quite ring true. She makes an emotional commitment rather quickly and honestly I didn't see it happen. Not in terms of exact moment, but some part of the process ended up off screen and its absence was felt.

Please note these are nuances. Nuances can, often do make the difference between Good and Great. Yet I would not hesitate to recommend this film to others (provided they enjoy this sort of thing--the Disney version this is not, nor indeed is it really an adaptation of the original at all).

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