Saturday, March 13, 2010

THE LOOKING GLASS HAS TWO FACES



There are few films about which I can say that I've been waiting (close to) my whole life for, and not have it be an outrageous hyperbole. So when I tell you that I've been waiting this long for a live-action Alice in Wonderland, you should know that I'm as serious as Johnny Depp is about squeezing every last dime out of Disney.

When I was little, Disney's 1951 animated Alice in Wonderland was my absolute favorite of Walt's classics. I remember - even as a child - admiring this movie for daring to be different. Not just because of the "unique" source material, but more because it was a Disney movie that didn't involve a princess. There's no romance in Alice, unless you count Alice's love affair with her own curiosity. Add to this the fact that I was fully enthralled by the notion of Wonderland and its inhabitants, and I'm a huge AiW enthusiast. Always have been.



There had been rumblings for years that Tim Burton was interested in telling his version of Lewis Carroll's classic story. While some balked, I was a quiet proponent. Wonderland is a place where logic itself is an abstract idea, and without it...well, there's an opportunity for things to turn dark; even malicious. I've always trusted Tim Burton (almost without question after 1992's Batman Returns) to deliver a style of film that I would enjoy, no matter what the material.

As details concerning the plot became public, I realized that not only was I going to get the live-action
Alice I had been waiting for - I was going to get a version reminiscent of my most treasured film from Disney's 80s period of swing-and-misses: Return to Oz. Without getting too much off topic, I will simply say this - it's a dark masterpiece. And just as Dorothy returned to an Oz that was bleak and in ruins, Alice would now be returning to a Wonderland in a very similar state.

I very much enjoyed this
Alice in Wonderland. Based on the previous paragraphs, I realize that I haven't given any reason for you to believe that I'm an impartial judge. But I think that it's my love for all things AiW that really helped me to see this film more clearly...as well as see a few of it's flaws.



I think it's pretty out in the open now that this is not a remake. It's a sequel (or technically the third part of a trilogy) to Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. Alice Kingsley - note the presence of her surname - is now 19 years old, and truly believes that her memories of Wonderland were nothing more than a dream...one that is now recurring. She's also about to be proposed to by a hideous ginger, until she sees the White Rabbit and gives chase. Enter rabbit hole, and enter Wonderland.

From the moment she arrives, she doesn't remember a thing. The film uses this plot device as an opportunity to recycle some of the original story's iconic moments (The room of doors, the key, Drink Me elixir, Eat Me cakes), while at the same time drawing attention to the fact that we've seen this before. At one point the White Rabbit even says, "You'd think she'd remember this from last time." But Alice continues to be played as a little thick, to the point that the White Rabbit - who apparently brought a few other Alices to Wonderland in looking for the real one - still doesn't think he's got the genuine article. You see, Alice is here for a singular purpose: She must slay the Jabberwocky and defeat the Red Queen in order to return Underland to its former beauty.



You may have noticed that I referred to it as Underland instead of Wonderland. This is where I feel that the film really succeeds in bringing something new to the table. As I mentioned earlier, Alice is given a last name in this AiW. But it doesn't stop there! The Red Queen is Iracebeth, The White Queen is Mirana, The Mad Hatter is Tarrant, and the Caterpillar is Absolem. When I first heard that the characters were going to be given actual names, it was my first sign of apprehension. But the explanation is both simple and masterful.

When Alice was first in Wonderland, she was approximately six years old. A child in an unfamiliar world is going to refer to the things and people she sees as best they can. And given Alice's slight center-of-the-universe complex, it's unlikely that she would have taken the time to really get to know anyone. Hence, the royal sisters with their distinct color palettes would become The Red Queen and The White Queen, and so on. It's only now, as a young adult, that Alice begins to really examine the world around her. Screenwriter Linda Woolverton really seals this deal in a conversation between Alice and Absolem, when he recalls (quite sardonically) that the last time she was here, she "...went on and on. Even called it
Wonderland, I believe." Some may view it as a monumental retcon, but the revelation that Alice (and readers/viewers) has been wrong this whole time was very edgy. And it worked.


Obviously, The Mad Hatter plays a very important role in this film. Disney called on their go-to weirdo Johnny Depp to step into the role, and I won't lie that it made me nervous. Call it Depp Fatigue or what have you, but the Mad Hatter has also always been my favorite character. Which is why the marketing materials annoyed me slightly. The movie isn't called
The Mad Hatter in Wonderland - why was Alice taking a backseat to a heretofore peripheral character? I will say however, that my harsh critique of this aspect is now limited only to the ads and posters. Johnny Depp, for all the reasons I think he's overrated, did a fantastic job at bringing this character to life - and also bringing him more depth. His accent, his mannerisms (not just a rip-off of Jack Sparrow!) and the emotion in his enormous eyes all combined to make something special. And a brief flashback to a time when Tarrant the Mad Hatter was simply Tarrant the Hatter? For a split second I saw shades of Smeagol/Golem in The Lord of the Rings, only the descent into madness was anything but malevolent.



For all my praise, I have one less-than-positive thing to say. The only way in which
Alice in Wonderland doesn't knock it out of the park is the film's lack of urgency. Even with clear cut goals, established conflict and larger than life villains, none of it seems especially...important. I even dare say that it felt like setup for an even more extraordinary sequel (pretty please?). We know that The Red Queen controls Underland, but as far as I could see there were few people imprisoned or subject to slavery. In other words - the place looks like shit, but everyone's still basically doing their own thing. I chalk this up to possible Disneyfication. It's almost as if the Mouse didn't want Helena Bonham Carter to be too evil, so instead they simply had her scream "Off with their head!" over and over. And over. She's a capable actress, but she doesn't have a lot of nuance. She simply excels at "playing" crazy women. It's clearly not much of a stretch.



But save for these minor quibbles, the film overall delivers splendidly. As soon as I got home from the theater, I immediately wanted to watch it again. It's definitely a feast for the senses, and the 3D really helps immerse you in this fantastic world. Perhaps my favorite character in the movie was the Cheshire Cat, voiced exquisitely by Stephen Fry. Something about the vanishing feline's demeanor really surrounded you with the spirit of the story, which at it's heart is benevolent madness. The absence of logic doesn't create evil, it just opens the doors to any and all behaviors. Tim Burton has always grasped this, and there's a definite reason why he is now referred to as a "visionary director". It's quite a vision he's given us with
Alice in Wonderland, and it's a trip I look forward to taking again soon...and often.

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