Alice In Wonderland (2010)

Last weekend, I saw Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland.  Three times.  I went alone to a midnight showing (which featured a surprising number of impressive costumes, way to go fanfolk!), then to a matinee the next day with my wife.  And on Sunday, when my daughter wanted to go to a movie and my wife wanted to see Alice again, how could I refuse?

There’s a full review and commentary after the jump, but some readers may consider that content spoilerish, so here’s the bottom line.

Burton gives us a compelling vision of Wonderland, well-cast and well-acted.  Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter turn in the quality performances we’ve come to expect; Crispin Glover, Anne Hathaway, and Stephen Fry are likewise well suited to their roles.  Most importantly, the movie has in Mia Wasikowska a worthy and capable Alice, well-balanced between seeming confident and seeming lost.  Unfortunately the ending is rather weak, and you probably shouldn’t try very hard to analyze the plot and theme.  Still, this can rightly be called a new look at the Alice story, and there are plenty of moments that will lodge themselves in your imagination for some time to come.  And anyone who can finds new life to breathe into a story which has been told and retold as often as this one deserves a lot of credit, even if it’s not as much new life as we might have wanted.  I give this movie a quite-respectable A-.

Central to the movie’s story is Lewis Carroll’s poem “Jabberwocky”, which has always been a favorite of mine, or rather a re-write of Jabberwocky.  The Mad Hatter recites an abridged version for Alice early in the movie — I don’t begrudge them the rewrite, but on two points I must be critical.

The monster is the Jabberwock.  The poem is “Jabberwocky” with a “y”.  I started twitching every time someone in this movie repeated the misnomer.  (This one always bothers me, much the way it bothers some people when people say Frankenstein was the monster when in fact he was a scientist.)  Also, “mimsy were the borogoves“.  Not borogroves, Mr. Depp.  Seriously, they spent how much money on this movie?  How much time?

But there is much that I loved.

Both in voice acting and in visual style, this is my all-time favorite Cheshire Cat, even surpassing the one that I imagine when I read the original book.  Especially the eyes.  Ditto that for the Caterpillar; thanks for that, Alan Rickman.

Likewise, the card soldiers are fantastic.  (Not so sure about the bandersnatch… he didn’t seem quite frumious enough.)

And the Knave, he with heart-shaped eyepatch, that was rather brilliant.  Because you can’t spell “verging-on-batshit-crazy” without “Crispin Glover”.  Particularly the way he seemed to move in badly-done stop motion, even while the CGI playing cards and animals moved fluidly.

And Johnny Depp, way to be.  This Hatter embodies madness and all that goes with it.  The relentlessness, the vulnerability, the sudden swings.  Some critics have been harsh, claiming that his half-mad, but extremely-competent-when-the-chips-are-down, and accent are something we’ve seen before from Depp (*ahem* Jack Sparrow *ahem*), but I don’t think that’s fair.  There was only one moment when I thought of pirates, and that’s when he says “vigorously”.

Unfortunately, many of the movie’s brilliancies are undercut by blunders or missed opportunities.

Wonderland lacked its sense of scale (its “muchness”, if you like).  I liked the fact that all the characters had names, not just “The White Rabbit” but “Twisp”.  It made them realer; on the other hand, it also made me aware of how few of the inhabitants of Wonderland we actually got to meet.  The Duchess, maybe (though some of her traits got absorbed into the March Hare), the Mock Turtle, the Lion and the Unicorn… there was a lot more material, and I think a little bit more could have gone a long way.  The Red Queen’s Castle and the White Queen’s Castle were each spectacular… but by the end I felt like the whole world was just two castles and a road.  But that’s me.  I want to check out Snud and Queast.  And everything was quite … straightforward.  This “re-envisioning” made Wonderland (or Underland) into “just another fantasy realm”.

The adventure in Wonderland doesn’t seem to connect to the real-world beginning and ending.  If you had seen only the real-world scenes (the beginning, where Alice is trying to deal with others’ expectations for her life, with an arranged marriage, then the end, where she defies these expectations) and slept through the fantasy part, you’d think that her fantasy adventure taught her about how to make your our destiny, about how to challenge expectations.  But the actual story is just the opposite of that.  Alice falls into a world that has a long list of expectations and prophecies about who she is, who she should be, and what she should do, and over the course of the movie learns how to just give in to these expectations, to do things she said she wouldn’t do because everyone wants her to.  The parallelism between the crowd watching Alice getting proposed to, and the crowd waiting for Alice to volunteer as champion are unmissable, but that just emphasizes the schizophrenia of the theme.  Not that I don’t like the real-world frame of the movie, and not that I don’t like the Wonderland part of the plot.  They just don’t belong to a coherent whole.

So that’s the climactic battle?  Alice slays the Jabberwock exactly the way that it was foretold?  Using the sword that, somehow, is actually the hero?  And the seriously creepy White Queen is queen?  Oh, don’t get me wrong.  Alice and Hatter’s exchange when watching the Jabberwock approach is cool, Alice counting down the impossible things is cool, Hatter and Stayne dueling is very cool.  The futterwacken is cool (but quite not as cool as it should have been, not after it got so hyped up… the pacing seemed off, and needed more… something, maybe cowbell).

But it’s not enough. Oh, I like the Jean d’Arc armor.  I like the look of disgust on the Hatter’s face as he tosses aside his sword.  But dammit Alice, don’t just play along with the role they want you to play!  If “Underland” *wince* is real, then let’s think things through.  Are we really fulfilled by the White Queen wearing the crown?  She gives me the jibblies.  So give us a different climax.  Sure, kill the Jabberwock, but then use the sword to shatter the Oraculum and let the Underlanders choose their own destiny. Or take the crown for yourself.  Or shatter that too.  Shake something up.

I really don’t trust Anne Hathaway.

Don’t get me wrong.  I had a lot of fun.  And I don’t regret a penny of the cost of three tickets that I bought for myself.  Was it a good movie?  Absolutely.  Was it a great movie? Probably not, but it didn’t miss by much. If you stand on this movie, you’re close enough to great to hit it with a rock. And if I’m disappointed, that’s why.  The amount of time, energy, and creativity that went into making this just-short-of-great movie could have, with just a little more originality, with just another couple new ideas, given us something truly great, truly memorable.  Imagine what could have happened if one-tenth the creativity that went into the visuals had gone into the story. (Or maybe don’t, because it will just make you wish you’d seen that movie.)

But if you were thinking about seeing this movie, if you were excited at all by the trailer, then don’t let this critique or any other dissuade you.  It’s pretty, it’s fun, it’s compelling, at least most of the time.  As someone who’s seen this movie three times, I can honestly say that it’s worth seeing twice.

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