Sunday, March 07, 2010

Classic Burton

Maybe it's because I'm a fan of anything that comes from the wild artistic visions of Tim Burton, but I enjoyed Alice in Wonderland in spite of less than enthusiastic reviews from critics and audiences alike. Like the last Burton movie I saw, the underappreciated Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Alice has the director's signature dark and deviant elements, a distinctly Danny Elfman score, and Burton's favorite muses: Johnny Depp, and the missus, Helena Bonham-Carter.

HBC steals the show as the malevolent Red Queen, whose reign of terror in Wonderland ("Underland", in this reimagining of Lewis Carroll's story) is challenged by the reappearance of now 19-year old Alice (newcomer Mia Wasikowska, who looks like the deathly pale love child of Gwyneth Paltrow and Calista Flockhart). Despite her comical appearance in the movie, HBC is still to be taken seriously, as she masterfully portrays the Red Queen as not simply cruel and petty, but miserable and lonely as well.
She totally owns the role and gives the most layered performance among the cast, gigantic head notwithstanding. (By the way, was it just me or did the Red Queen remind anyone of a certain megalomaniac midget leader we all love to hate, hmm?)

Aiding and abetting Alice in her quest to restore power to
the White Queen (the disarmingly charming Anne Hathaway) are the Mad Hatter (Depp, disappearing into another psychologically imbalanced character), the White Rabbit, Tweedledee and Tweedledum, the Cheshire Cat, and Absolem the Caterpillar (voiced by too-sexy-for-this-CGI Alan Rickman). Burton transforms Alice from sweet little girl to Goth ingenue, then puts her in armor and turns her into Joan of Arc. It would have worked better if Wasikowska were more... plucky, or had anything akin to a personality (or pulse). Ironically, one of the best lines in the movie is the Mad Hatter musing to Alice, "You have lost your muchness." Throughout the film, even if she's in practically every scene, there is not "much" of Alice to engage, or be engaging, and she gets lost amidst the talking animals and playing card foot-soldiers.

The art direction is gorgeous, as to be expected from any Burton production, with the stark contrast between Underland and Alice's real world highlighted wonderfully. Burton's version of Wonderland is grayer, gloomier, grimmer, ghostlier, as he replaces whimsy with otherworldliness, imbuing everything with a spectral touch. I'm curious how it all appears in 3D, if the nightmare-like atmosphere is enhanced, or if it would merely distract from the serviceable screenplay. Either way, I think it would be pretty cool to see the Cheshire cat grin in 3D.

I enjoy alternative fiction, and Alice in Wonderland reminds me of how one of my favorite authors, Gregory Maguire (Wicked), takes popular fairy tales and tweak them to show the "real" story. With his own reworking of a beloved classic, Burton has firmly established himself as the Mad Hatter of cinema, and as they say, there is a fine line between madness and genius.


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