Thursday, March 4, 2010

Where is the Wonder in this dark land?

Tim Burton’s library must be a mess. A long time ago he reached for Alice in Wonderland on a shelf and inadvertently grabbed a Chronicles of Narnia. That accident is preserved for us in his charmless and vapid retelling of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, a book far wittier than Tim Burton’s version will allow us to believe.

If you recall, Carroll’s book was about a girl encountering, via rabbit hole, a dream-like repertory of silliness: absurdist wordplay, nonsensical double-talk, riddling puns and punning riddles, and bizarre tests of logic. It’s no wonder the drug culture of the ’60s seized on the elements of the story for their hallucinogenic properties (see Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit”).

But Burton, master of all of things gothic and ghouly for suicidal emo-inflicted adolescents, deviates around much of Alice’s central themes so he can, of all things, create a clunky fantasy-adventure in the spirit of Lord of the Rings or one of the Narnia movies, complete with magical swords, talking animals, epic army battles and the required dragon slaying. And, as if to add injury to insult, I found Mad Hatter Johnny Depp, Burton’s favorite muse, to be an absolute bore.

And it started so promising, too, with young Mia Wasikowska as the domineering, free-spirited Alice fleeing a marriage proposal and tumbling down that famous rabbit hole into the fantastic world of Wonderland. Although Alice spends a ridiculous amount of time shrinking and enlarging into and out of her dress — I hope those hems are reinforced — she’s a plucky heroine who’s given a curiosity level proportionate to that of Wonderland’s unusual oddities.

And there are many oddities. Consider Tweedledee and Tweedledum (both played by Matt Lucas), who are so round and doughy that a pizza chef might cover them with flour and flatten them. All of Carroll’s other creations are accounted for as well: the hookah-smoking caterpillar, the army of playing cards (shouldn't the villain be the Ace of Spades?), flamingos and hedgehogs that complete a croquet set, a slippery and evaporating Cheshire Cat, and the White Rabbit, who to my recollection never says “We’re late.”

Dare I forget Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter, whose role is enlarged needlessly to give Depp the screen time his audience feels he deserves. Depp — cowering behind a silly lisp, a Carrot Top fright wig and what must be gallons of makeup — does nothing for the story outside of his tea party scene, and even there he’s pushing it as he stomps over the teapots and dodges thrown saucers. Yes, the Burton/Depp legacy goes way back, but after this and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, maybe it’s time for the pair to work apart more often.

The world of Wonderland, which looks a lot like Avatar’s Pandora because they were designed by some of the same people, is gloomy and dark even as plants with neon blooms and glowing mushrooms drape the scenery. Blame the 3-D process, which makes the picture dark and muddy and then requires audiences to wear sunglasses to view it. Even a bright movie like Up was dimmed by the 3-D glasses, so a trademark Burton film is turned hopelessly murky for a 3-D effect that wasn’t even that noticeable. If you have an option, see Alice in regular ol’ 2-D.

The first half of the film seems to function as we remember the book and the other films functioning: Alice is sucked into Wonderland where she reacts to the strangeness around her with her quirky intelligence and innocence. Toward the middle of Burton’s film, though, he turns it into a fantasy adventure by requiring Alice to rescue characters from dungeons and slay monsters with special swords. It’s as if Burton felt obligated to keep his Alice in Wonderland from being too smart for its own good, so he threw in some battles and chases. Shame on directors for thinking that’s what’s needed in any film.

Driving home the third act is Helena Bonham Carter as the Red Queen, whose head is as abnormally large as her temper. Out of self-pity and jealousy of her sister, the White Queen — a goth-accented Anne Hathaway — the Red Queen is determined to rule Wonderland with an iron fist. She plans to use a dragon that only Alice can destroy, which of course sets off a race to kill Alice by "offing her head" or stopping her from stealing the only sword that can slay the dragon. It’s all mindless fantasy fare, and could have been left out completely. However, I did like the Red Queen’s castle, which is full of legless tables and chairs; holding them up are little monkeys or pot-bellied pigs.

Although I loved Wasikowska as Alice and some of the minor characters, I’m concerned at the liberties Burton took with his Alice in Wonderland. Not because he deviates from the book, which is fine by me, but because he changes the tone of the book into this glowing mess of mediocrity. The book was unique because it was free of the elements Burton seemed so inclined to add into his version.

For years I’ve said that Hollywood was going to do an action-adventure version of the Bible, maybe with Bruce Willis as a sword-wielding Moses and perhaps Zac Efron as a joke-hurling Jesus — maybe Michael Bay can direct. This version of Alice in Wonderland is an evolutionary step in that direction.

(All the photos with this review are reproduced here exactly as the studio sent them out. You can see for yourself how dark the film is. Now look at pictures with sunglasses on to appreciate the whole 3-D effect.)