Wednesday, April 7, 2010
Alice in Wonderland ***
Director: Tim Burton
Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter,
Anne Hathaway, Crispin Glover, Matt Lucas, Stephen Fry
Michael Sheen, Alan Rickman, Marton Csokas, Timothy Spall
Lewis Carroll's books of Alice in Wonderland have been adapted into movie form since the medium began. From silent versions to the subversive animation of 1950's Disney to Jan Svankmajer; Alice's story has always fascinated artists who tend to explore the horror that lies in the innocent.
It makes sense that Tim Burton would want to do his own version, and even if it's not the definitive take fans of the filmmaker were expecting it to be, it's a lovely ride and one of Burton's most mature films to date.
Taking Carroll's text for a spin, he makes Alice (Wasikowska) a nineteen year old girl about to be married to a man she barely knows.
Encouraged by her deceased father (Csokas) to use her imagination and spoiled by the dreams she's had all her life about strange characters and a mysterious land, she follows a white rabbit (voiced by Sheen) on the day of her engagement.
She falls inside an all too familiar hole in the ground where she finds the door to Underland, a place populated by weird characters who insist she's come to fulfill a prophecy.
Soon she learns that not only she has been there before (creating an interest dilemma between what reality is in dreams while giving Disney the opportunity to make endless sequels relying on this concept) but this time in particular she's set to end the reign of the evil Red Queen (Carter) and hand the crown to her sister the benevolent White Queen (Hathaway).
Alice teams up with Tweedledee and Tweedledum (Lucas), the Cheshire cat (Fry), the blue caterpillar Ebsolem (Rickman) and the Mad Hatter (Depp), among more famous characters, as she explores this wonderland and learns lessons for her own life.
Obviously stuck somewhere between the director's vision and the studio's demands Alice in Wonderland is uneven in narrative terms as it struggles between the edge of Burton and Carroll, with the status quo preserving by way of forced naivete Disney specializes in (it's surprising but the animated version is much darker than this).
Therefore we see how Burton inserts his dark humor and macabre nature by way of the art direction, concealed symbols and unexpected character quirks.
In this way Hathaway's, Nigela Lawson-inspired, White Queen takes an aim at social terms of perfection with a lunatic side (watch as the actress deliciously travels from Barbie to Chucky in seconds), Carter indulges in the oddity of her character's construction (her giant head and blood red lips are almost iconic), while Depp surprisingly underacts his way out of the Hatter's madness, creating a character that moves more than it disturbs (his character's post traumatic stress disorder might be a bit too facile but also allows Burton to take a subtle aim at the effects of war).
Perhaps it served Burton to tone down his darkness because the film achieves a calm and sense of equilibrium that allows both opposing visions to co-exist and deliver entertainment that's clever and simple.
In many ways the film is more shaped after The Wizard of Oz than any previous incarnation of the Alice story and in the same way frames the protagonist's adventure against unconscious manifestations.
At first Burton stresses too much what "real life" character will inspire each Wonderland inhabitant but soon this becomes an opportunity to decipher if Burton finally found a way to comment on the power of dreams.
The fact that this Alice often wonders out loud if she's inside a dream doesn't make her smarter than Oz's Dorothy, but serves as a well meant, if underwritten, attempt to encompass female liberation and the Industrial Revolution overthrowing Victorianism.
For all the flaws in Alice in Wonderland we are rewarded with lush scenery, extremely thought out character design and a filmmaker surprisingly finding marvels under restraint.
Like his heroine, Burton enters a land that thrives with the promise of unknown terror but his ability to refresh his aesthetics despite compromise is the real wonder.