Sunday, March 07, 2010

Gone for a Burton

I've been looking forward to Tim Burton's take on 'Alice' ever since I first read about it. The two Alice books were childhood favourites of mine; mostly, it must be said, because of John Tenniel's beautifully crisp black and white illustrations but also because of the sheer lunacy of it all. In the 1970s, another favourite artist of mine - Ralph Steadman - also had a crack at producing an illustrated version and the hardback is one of my favourite keepsakes from that time. It's hugely collectible now (see here) and also contains Lewis Carroll's 'Hunting of the Snark' poem and a lost chapter of Looking Glass rediscovered in 1977 and featuring Alice's encounter with a giant wasp. I was also hugely taken by artist Rodney Matthew's versions of the Alice characters too (see here). And it was because of my long relationship with the books and some of my favourite artists that I so looked forward to this new film. Tim Burton ties with Terry Gilliam at the top of my list of most artistic directors.

In terms of artistic vision, the film does not disappoint. The characters are wonderfully and idiosyncratically Burtonesque from Depp's star turn as the Mad Hatter to the creatures from the poem Jabberwocky. Incidentally ... isn't the creature called the Jabberwock? It is certainly referred to as such throughout the poem (I had to learn it word-perfect for a school production in 1976 and I still remember it, amazingly, along with how to pronounce Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch) but, for some reason it's called the Jabberwocky in the film (and voiced by Christopher Lee). It irked me as did the scene where Depp walks through a devastated forest reciting it. Wrongly. Grrr.

The 3D was good but not spectacular. Nothing is likely to match Avatar for some time but I'm sad to say that even rubbish like The Final Destination was more effective. The film was also very dark, especially when Alice first falls down the rabbit hole. That scene and the one that follows were so dark I struggled to make out details. Thinking it was my grey 3D glasses I took them off but it was just the same without. And blurry. Things brighten a little once she enters Wonderland - or 'Underland' as Burton has rebadged it (Maybe Disney couldn't bear the thought of not being able to copyright something - it's Winnie the Pooh and Peter Pan all over again) but it still has that trademark melancholic Burton feel to it throughout.

It's no secret (so I'm not spoiling anything here) that this version of Alice takes place 13 years after her initial visits to Underland (TM and (c) 2010 Walt Disney Corporation). Alice is about to be married off to a chap she doesn't love and finds distraction in Michael Sheen's White Rabbit who leads her back underground to a world devasted by the evil rule of the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter). Supported by a playing card army, the Jabberwock(y), the bloke who played Marty McFly's dad in Back to the Future (Crispin Glover) and a frumious Bandersnatch, Red has usurped the White Queen's peaceful reign. Anne Hathaway (White Queen) does a passable imitation of Nigella throughout - she really does - and I've discovered this morning that she was asked by Burton to do exactly that after he'd seen La Lawson on TV. Curiouser and curiouser.

Alice is told by a succession of characters including Stephen Fry's Cheshire Cat and Alan Rickman's Caterpillar, that she is part of a prophesy that on the Frabjous Day she will slay the Jabberwocky. The film then follows Alice's various misadventures and culminates in a predictable uprising against the Red Queen. I shall say no more for fear of ruining it for those of you planning to see it but I will give you my general impressions. Firstly, casting.

Burton has such cache in Hollywood these days that he can select the cream. Despite this he does have a cadre of favourites that he invites back time after time. But what a great bunch of people to have at your disposal! Quite apart from those I've mentioned already, his eclectic dramatis personae also includes Michael Gough as the Dodo, Paul Whitehouse as the March Hare (my favourite character in the film), Barbara 'Saucy!' Windsor as the Dormouse, Matt Lucas as Tweedledum and Tweedledee (did he get two fees?), Tim Spall as a bloodhound, Imelda Staunton as some talking flowers and, back in the real world, various characters played by Tim Piggot-Smith, Frances de la Tour, Lindsay Duncan and Geraldine James. All wonderful actors to the tips of their toes and he gets some polished performances from them all. Newcomer Mia Wasikovska does a passable Alice, both pretty and tomboyish in equal measure, and holds her own well against the weight of talent she's acting with. Nope, can't criticise the casting or acting. So what about the look of the film?

As I said earlier, Burton's films have such a particular look about them that they've spawned the adjective of 'Burtonesque'. With the exception of maybe Ed Wood and Planet of the Apes, all of his films have a dark comic Gothic undertone and look just like 3D renderings of the kind of doodles would carry about in his sketchbook. The gnarly tree from Sleepy Hollow makes a reappearance as Alice enters Wonderland. The strange curlicued wrought ironwork gates from The Nightmare before Christmas and The Corpse Bride are everywhere. The costumes are likewise heavy on the reds with black and white stripes proliferating. Oh, and I have to say how good the wigs and hair design is because I went to school with Emmy-nominated Paul Gooch, the chap who designed them all, and he is exceptionally gifted in the tonsorial department. No, really, he is and it's an often overlooked but vital part of any fantasy film (I also must congratulate my good chum Justin Pollard who acted as historical adviser). The various creatures all look oddly warped and moth-eaten and not so much Disney as Taxidermy. I particularly liked the Bandersnatch which looked like a Bobby Chiu monster made pseudo-flesh. Ah! Quelle surprise! Chiu was a concept artist on the film (see here). It's a Tim Burton movie to the core so it does what you expect it to do in terms of the visuals. So no real criticism there ... except one. The film is mostly CGI, as you'd expect, but I couldn't help feel that this has given Mr B an excuse to overly tinker with reality. Just as George Lucas can't seem to stop re-inventing his Star Wars films, Burton has overcranked the fine details in places. Johnny Depp's eyes, for instance, change size alarmingly at regular intervals as do Anne Hathaways' lips. I'm quite happy for CGI to produce frog courtiers, fish that waddle on land and Jub Jub Birds, but the minute you start cocking around with people's facial features, you distract from the actor's performance. I want to see what Johnny Depp does with the character, not what some geeky animator can knock up on his Mac. So what, if anything, can I criticise if not the acting, directing, casting or visuals? Well, sadly, it's the biggie. It's the script. It's bloody awful.

Screenwriters get the short straw in Hollywood. If a film is magnificent, all credit goes to the cast and director. If a film is seven shades of shite, it's always the poor writer who gets torn up for arse paper. However, in this case, it's justified. I appreciate that the name on the screen may have written a very different script from what makes it to the final cut but, even then, this is a dog of a film script-wise. Wonderland and Looking Glass have been clumsily thrown together to create an alternative world (the Red Queen is apparently the same person as the Queen of Hearts) and the script has far too many central characters to keep a sensible narrative going. Alice changes size more to play with the CGI (and get Ms. Wasikovska in and out of as many dresses as possible) than to further the story and the whole thing utterly fails to make any sense. The deposed White Queen seems to live in a palace filled with happy courtiers ... why has she not staged a coup before? Why hasn't the bulbous-headed (and why is it that big?) Red Queen banged her up in prison if she's such a threat? The Red Queen's lackeys, meanwhile, sport a range of curious prosthetics but it's never really explained why. I can't say too much more without lots of plot spoilers but, suffice to say, the story didn't hang together at all well and some of the lines were execrable. Alice repeats one particular comment all the way through regarding something she'd never do ... and then does it without explanation or justification. I feel particularly sorry for Johnny Depp who never really seemed to establish any kind of depth to his character and, at times, was irritatingly repetitive. I never thought I'd ever say anything bad about the Deppster but this was not his film. Oh no.

So ... how to sum it up? In one word ... disappointment. I love Tim Burton's work and have huge respect for all of the actors involved in this project. But it just didn't work. It's clumsy, disjointed and way too dark for the Alice canon. If I had young kids, I wouldn't be taking them to see it as it's creepy, weird and quite violent at times. It doesn't have the quirky Halloween charm of The Nightmare before Christmas or Edward Scissorhands or Beetlejuice and it isn't even that funny despite some great comic performances, especially by Paul Whitehouse and Matt Lucas. I left the cinema with a slightly deflated feeling which is such a shame. It could have been wonderful.

Or should I now say 'Underful'? (TM and (c) Walt Disney Corporation)

They also own all of the images in this blog post - please don't sue.


Persephone said...

Darn. I was looking forward to this. Alice in Wonderland has always held a special place in my heart and in our home. The film has been getting mixed reviews here in Canada, none ecstatic.

We have an amazing audio-book version of both Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, narrated by Christopher Plummer, who, of course, has a marvelous time doing all the voices. I can heartily recommend it for pure Alice fans.

Stevyn Colgan said...

All I can offer is my own poor subjective assessment. Others may see it as the greatest film ever made. It was an enjoyable enough romp and I'm glad I went to see it, especially with the 3D. However, it could have been soooo much better (as could the 3D). I stick by my initial comment - disappointing.

@Angpang aka Angela Montague said...

May I give you a high five?

I totally agree with this having seen the film on Saturday.

All the things that sweep you along with a story were missing or feeble efforts. Heros, villans, threats, twists, revelations, romance, shocks, laughs, show downs...

Such a shame because it looked wonderful, and I have a lot of admiration for everyone involved.

Debby said...

I hadn't planned to see this movie. At least not pay to see it at the theatre. Alice in Wonderland is such a strange book, written with a deft hand that keep it just this side of being terribly terribly frightening. I thought that Tim Burton (although admittedly a creative genius) would cross over to the 'dark side'.

The Factory said...

Hmmm, I can't say I'm surprised. Personally I didn't expect much, and this looked like Charlie & The Chocolate Factory which was simply dreadful. Like a lot of his stuff perhaps it's just style over substance. He does know how to tell a story, but you'd be forgiven for forgetting that sometimes.

punk in writing said...

I saw it this weekend, and I liked it. But then I was expecting "Alice in Wonderland according to Tim Burton" and that's what I got.

The 3D was a bit blurry at times...

But I do wish Tim Burton would make another original story like Nightmare Before Christmas, Beeteljuice or Edward Scissorhands.