by Jim Tudor
Tim Burton has built a major career for himself with his particular brand of “outsider cinema”. This one-time outcast from the Disney Animation Studios is now one of the pre-eminent visual stylists in the world of filmmaking. His success has been such that major studios are willing spend untold millions to be in the Tim Burton business. Ironic, then, that this former outsider has become one the great, rare success stories in Hollywood, a land known for its blind conformity and lack of new vision. Then again, Burton himself has generally had nothing new to say since his earliest, most triumphant works. Perhaps it is this stunted artistic growth that leads to the conclusion that Tim Burton had in fact fallen into the Hollywood spin-cycle long ago, forever recycling his unique twisted visions into a string of overblown but commercially viable variations on the theme of “I’m a weirdo and no one understands me.”
His latest film, Disney’s colorful but dull “Alice in Wonderland”, brings the dualistic nature of Burton’s career to the forefront. On the surface, it embraces madness, claiming from the get-go that “some of the best people are absolutely mad”. But beneath that repeated claim, “Alice in Wonderland” is an almost shockingly conventional tale – a Campbellian hero’s journey, complete with Alice’s final sword-wielding showdown against a dragon, preceded all the while by her strongly felt denials that she is in fact “the one”. This sort of conventionality seems to fly in the face of the oddball freeform quality of Lewis Carroll’s original stories. But then, this is in fact not Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” at all; it is in fact a sequel. This is the very first problem one encounters with this film – the highly deceptive title.
The film centers on a nineteen year-old Alice (Mia Wasikowska), an outsider in aristocratic Victorian London. Not content with the era’s rigid notions of womanhood, we once again have a typically anachronistic female movie heroine – a character with values plucked from today but belonging to an earlier, contradictory time and place. This version of Alice only vaguely recalls her previous childhood trip down the rabbit hole. Once she returns as a young adult, the story becomes a series of overly familiar vignettes as she unknowingly repeats so much of what has gone before.
“Alice in Wonderland” looks, sounds, and feels like a typically overblown Tim Burton venture, complete with swirled tree branches, an overly-familiar Danny Elfman score, and plenty of his stock talent: Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham-Carter, and Christopher Lee voicing maybe two lines, tops, of the evil Jabberwock beast whom Alice must destroy in true Arthurian style. In this final battle, “Alice in Wonderland” turns into a “Narnia” movie on acid. It is a huge final battle that the audience is expected to take seriously, and yet it is stocked with cartoony talking mice and other obviously computer generated animals that are peppered amid the human chaos of it all. Silly white rabbits in topcoats running from dramatic flaming destruction just don’t add up.
But never mind all of that – “Alice in Wonderland” is just plain difficult to watch. Gaudy colors and shallow artifice everywhere, all of it overflowing with annoying, overacted eccentric weirdos. (Although it must be said that Depp has a few nice grace moments as the Mad Hatter.) The focal planes are downright screwy at times – foreground, middle ground, and background characters all in sharp focus while the background itself is in proper soft focus. For all of Burton’s visual flourishes, this aspect is a major failure. Perhaps it was meant to evoke a pop-up book, but instead it delivers a potentially headache-inducing experience.
I’m not trying to out-and-out condemn Burton for foregoing true artistic statements in favor of his trademark, huge, artifice. The man has forged a career doing what he loves, his way, in a town where few can make it. But bigger budgets and more impressive casts do not equal artistic growth – but that’s really all Burton has to show for himself after all these years. Not every movie with a large budget needs to justify its existence by having an artistic point, but this one is just a mess, devoid of fun. An overblown retread of a thousand other stories, “Alice in Wonderland”’s various odes to madness are superficial, hollow, and hypocritical.
Christian parents may appreciate knowing that nightmarish and surreal imagery abound in this film, not unlike all of Tim Burton’s other work. The film is built on its own overblown design, and ultimately betrays the anarchic spirit of Lewis Carroll by going the conventional Hollywood route. Those looking to expose their children to the central ideas of this film, which is a story of a spirited girl who must come to the realization that putting on one’s armor and taking up one’s sword – a metaphor in all our lives in one way or another – will likely find it a dull and lifeless retread of that idea, which is played out so much more effectively in “Lord of the Rings”, “Harry Potter”, and “Star Wars” films.
On a more specific note, there is a gratuitous extreme close-up of a beast getting one of its eyes plucked out that may trouble some. Also, although nineteen year old Alice does grow and shrink out of her many dresses throughout the film, it is only the idea of that, not the presentation of that which is sexualized here. All in all, this element is very latent, but I would argue that it is there. In any case, “Alice” is a trip not worth taking.
– Jim Tudor