Friday, July 9, 2010
Movie Review -- Tim Burton's ALICE IN WONDERLAND
I had to dig up my thoughts from a while back when I saw it in theaters in vaunted, unnecessary 3-D. I was inspired by The Alexandrian's post on movies last week. I was a little surprised--Justin Alexander's usually got really good insight and a critical eye for books, so I figured he'd dislike some films that I was surprised he ended up enjoying.
But for myself, there isn't much I can say about Alice in Wonderland.
It was better than Avatar.
It was. Avatar had zero storyline. It was all special effects and pretty as all get-out, but it was far, far from a moving storyline. The entire thing was a white-man's guilt-trip.
Alice in Wonderland was a Tim Burton movie, and that means that the movie is about misfits. Understand that fact, and you understand anything that he does. Every last film Burton has ever made has been about people who just can't seem to fit into society. Well, Alice in Wonderland is no different. It is basically a sequel to Lewis Carrol's original story, this time featuring an early-twenties Alice who has flights of imagination, independence, original thinking, and doesn't fit into the stereotypically dry, servile role due to women in an equally stereotypical Victorian British aristocratic society. She remembers her original trip to Wonderland as a dream, but then she's summoned back to kill the Jabberwocky and stop the Red Queen (a fusing of the original Red Queen from Through the Looking-Glass with the Queen of Hearts) from covering all the lands of Middle-Earth in Shadow--*ahem*--I mean tyrannically ruling Wonderland with an iron fist (behavior which, apparently, involves destroying everything and leaving it a desolate wasteland for no apparent reason than she's angry at having a big head).
Yeah, so, the Red Queen is a misfit villain who uses the Jabberwocky as her own personal "win" button. But there's this prophecy (read: total and utter removal of suspense, tension, or surprise from this movie) that says Alice is supposed to don some armor, grab a Vorpal sword of monster-slaying (roll a 1d6, baby, so see which limb gets severed) that'll turn her into some sort of anti-son-of-a-bitch machine and kill the Jabberwocky, causing the Red Queen to lose her crown to the fair and honest White Queen.
The movie merges a lot of Carrol's original Alice in Wonderland with Through the Looking Glass, if you haven't noticed.
Well, we get treated to a bunch of characters, mostly drawn up from Alice, not Looking Glass, but they really aren't give a lot of time to develop. Crispin Glover (yeah, that's right, Dad McFly from Back to the Future) is the Knave of Hearts, Helena Bonham Carter is the Red Queen, and Johnny Depp is the Mad Hatter. They're pretty much the entire reason to go see the movie, in my opinion, but even they aren't enough to save it from being nothing more than "alright." The Dormouse was effectively replaced with Reepicheep from Prince Caspian/Voyage of the Dawn Treader, for all intents and purposes. The damn thing is supposed to be drugged-out or a narcoleptic, not a swashbuckling warrior. But that's just a minor nit-pick.
No, what really kills the movie is the completely uninspired plot. It's standard and formulaic, done in an almost paint-by-numbers manner. Everything about this movie is just so standard and done-before. Granted, a good story makes use of tropes, but it should infuse those tropes with a great deal of emotional meaning. The characters develop, but along wholly predictable patterns. Alice, confused by her "dream" being far more real than she's accustomed to, gradually grows to accept Wonderland as a place, not a figment of her imagination. She comes to terms with her destiny of Jabberwocky-killing, has a fancy, emotionally devoid fight with the beast, and wins. Wow, big surprise, it was spoiled already by the damn prophecy.
Basically, there's no conflict except the obvious one. Alice isn't struggling with her destiny, she's just kind of confused. There's no real buildup of anxiety over her position as the bearer of prophecy, she just does what she thinks is right. There's a brief point where she almost backs out, but the White Queen comes in with some stereotypical words of wisdom that are 100% forgettable. I don't even remember the gist of what the White Queen said. Maybe something about having to do it yourself or somesuch. I literally didn't remember anything she had said by the time the film was finished.
As for the Red Queen, her motivation is all but nonexistent. There's really no logic behind her behavior. Yes, Alice in Wonderland isn't supposed to be about logic, but ironically, by creating a situation in which actions have consequences and making the characters actually care about them instead of running around being mad, illogical, and silly the writers actually forcibly introduced logic into the system. So the Red Queen's motivation is jealousy at her sister and anger that she has an enormous head (enter Tim Burton's incessant demand for misfitism, the same sort of demand that made Batman and Ed Wood great but made Batman Returns and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory less-than-stellar). But that doesn't explain why she wants to basically drive her kingdom into the ground. We see the effects of her "programme" on the countryside--it looks like the Pine Barrens of New Jersey in a post-apocalyptic setting (minus the mutants). If there's one thing I've learned from all of these history books and strategy-wargames is that as ruler you want to foster economic growth, not burninate the f--king countryside. What good is a kingdom if the king has no living subjects to rule? Where are you going to get your tarts now, bitch?
The answer is simple: the Red Queen is stupid. And stupid villains are not imposing, frightening ones. Ruthless ones are, but if they are stupid, our credulity gets stretched and we start expecting them to get a nasty knife in the back. There's no reason the Jabberwocky won't answer to the Knave if he just backstabs the Queen and takes over--he's obviously the smarter member of their partnership. But he never does (until the end, when it is completely unsurprising and totally designed to give us a sense of smug satisfaction, but really just comes off as a pointless, empty gesture). No, cunning, brutally ruthless, brilliant villains are the best. I'm thinking of the Joker in both Tim Burton's and Christopher Nolan's Batman films, but also Khan (Star Trek II), the Emperor (Star Wars), Hans Gruber (Die Hard) and a few others. When a villain falls because of hubris, or because they underestimated the hero, or because a trusted lieutenant had a change of heart and ended up throwing them down an elevator shaft while they were busy shooting blue lightning at the hero, it is more satisfying than if the villain loses out of stupidity. The Red Queen loses in the end because, fully aware of the prophecy, still marches to battle and gets her precious Jabberwocky killed anyway. And the film doesn't even address this fact!
Knave: My Queen, Alice with the Vorpal Sword is destined to kill the Jabberwocky.
Queen: Oh no! Knave, apprehend Alice! We must prevent the prophecy!
Knave: My Queen, Alice has the Vorpal Sword!
Queen: Prepare the Jabberwocky for battle!
What? No, your next move should be "get the Jabberwocky the hell out of Wonderland and get that damn sword back ASAP."
If it were a satire, I could understand the Queen being so dumb, but it isn't presented as one. And besides, Mel Brooks does stupid villains much better than Tim Burton (Dark Helmet and the Sheriff of Rottingham come to mind). They don't have to be dangerously genre savvy to be more interesting, they just have to be properly motivated and cunning enough to make the audience think they've a good chance at winning.
Basically, this is what happened: Disney partnered with director Tim Burton and scriptwriter Linda Woolverton to turn two works of Victorian-era literature into a completely uninteresting, cookie-cutter, assembly-line style story that plays out almost exactly like every other forgettable feature-film you've seen in the past fifteen-to-twenty years. It isn't satire, like Mars Attacks! had been, otherwise it'd have been funny. No, it was just a lame cash-grab. Sadly, the story was better than Avatar, but that's partially because it is dealing with pre-established characters with whom we are already familiar. Even then, it dumbs them down, and leeches as much magic out of Wonderland as possible.
This movie is, like Avatar 99% eye-candy. It's not bad eye-candy. Eh, there's better stuff to go see.