6 March 2010

Missing Muchness

Avatar has been sitting atop the UK box office since its release on December 18th, dazzling people with its stunning 3D vistas and comparatively negligible story. On the eve of its almost certain triumph at the Academy Awards, a similar competitor has burst onto UK screens, Tim Burton's Disney's Alice in Wonderland by Disney. After arguments between Disney and UK cinema chains getting film fans worried about whether or not the film would ever arrive on these shores, this should really take down Avatar this weekend. If it doesn't, that film needs slaying with a fucking vorpal sword or something, but onwards!

As something of a regular disclaimer, it's only my opinion here- others are available. As ever, mild spoilers may occur in the process of reviewing, but never so far as to spoil any major plot developments.

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As with Disney's A Christmas Carol, Disney's Alice in Wonderland covers ground that the House of Mouse have been to before, but they've enlisted Tim Burton to "re-imagine" the story. There've been hits and misses with that strategy in the past, and the story of this one veers wildly between the two. Alice Kingsley has been plagued by dreams of talking animals and a magical world all of her young life, and while escaping from a dreary but insistent suitor, she stumbles down a rabbit hole and lands in that very same world. But far from Carroll's curiouser and curiouser little girl, observing the absurdities of this fantasy land, Burton's Alice is The Chosen One of Wonderland (Underland?), and is sent on a quest to retrieve a magic sword from the tyrannical Red Queen.

Did this story need a Narnia vibe? It almost certainly didn't, and it has to be said from the start of the review that this decision hobbles the third act entirely. Although the action towards the end is surprisingly well directed by Burton, who's come a long way since the slightly shonky fight scenes in 1989's Batman, it all feels unnecessary in a story that's supposed to be about a dark and whimsical place rather than prophecies and battles. Similarly out of place is the gender empowerment angle on Alice, who ends up wielding a vorpal sword, donning armour and riding a Bandersnatch into battle. Given how it's about the adventure, I doubt Carroll would've minded too much if it had to be "Alec in Wonderland", but Mia Wasikowska can't really be faulted for her winsome and arresting performance.

Another general failure of the film is the depth in which the Mad Hatter's madness is explored. A similar exploration of Depp's Willy Wonka was the most laboured part of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, although the Hatter's reminiscences are mercifully sparse. In that slightly over-hyped role, Johnny Depp is as competent as he always is, but there's really nothing new there. He's good in almost everything, but I maintain that his best performances were as Ed Wood and as J.M. Barrie in Finding Neverland, and those were relatively normal roles- the wackiness is starting to wear now. As for the other fixture of Burton's films, Helena Bonham Carter plays Miranda Richardson playing the Red Queen, with the actual casting presumably down to Richardson having already done that role. She chews the scenery with aplomb and remains an entertaining villain throughout.

The rest of the rather sterling cast is somewhat obscured by the three leads and by the visuals, much like the early Harry Potter films. Anne Hathaway gives a floaty and fey performance as the White Queen, looking and sounding as if she stepped right out of a fairytale and thus being perfect in the role. Matt Lucas makes a decent comic relief showing as Tweedles dum and dee, looking particularly surreal in CGI fleshy-potato mode. But then Alan Rickman, Stephen Fry, Frances de la Tour, Christopher Lee, Michael Sheen, Lindsay Duncan, Crispin Glover and Timothy Spall are all lost in the frantic chaos of this unofficial sequel. If anything, that flaw is the closest the film gets to the oddities of its source material- there is so much to take in that it probably warrants repeated viewings to fully appreciate everything.

And there is a fair amount to appreciate. Despite the fact that if you've seen one gnarled tree by Tim Burton, you've seen them all, there's a great visual sensibility at work, if not a unique one. The art direction and wardrobe work as a whole is just astounding, even if the CGI isn't totally convincing if we take Avatar as the new benchmark for computer-generated worlds and creatures (especially in 3D). It also gambols along at an entertaining pace, with the right combination of laughs, thrills and spills to engage most audiences. It taps into that mainstream of oddball that Burton has cultivated over the course of his career, thankfully looking and feeling closer to The Nightmare Before Christmas than to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. At the same time, Disney's guiding hand is felt in the battle-oriented radicalisation of the monomyth, and so this still veers close to his studio-mandated Batman.

And once again, I'm saving the 3D rant for the end. I saw it in 3D just to catch a glimpse of the new Doctor Who trailer on a big screen- I am nothing if not an unscrupulous fanboy. I saw it in full knowledge of the fact that it was shot in 2D and then "upgraded", even though the intention was always to release it in 3D. And it really shows. If the 3D in Avatar didn't work, with Cameron painstakingly syncing up the background with the foreground to immerse the audience, it certainly doesn't work here. This is typified by the scenery being out of focus in several scenes, in a technical sight that's only in films, not real life- the real world doesn't slide out of focus when you're looking at someone in front of you. Immediately, you're distanced rather than immersed in the film, and Burton's colourful Underland also suffers as a result of the 30% colour-loss that troubles 3D. There's more eye-popping going on in the film itself, courtesy of a sword-happy Dormouse voiced by Barbara Windsor. Hollywood can shove the money-grubbing technology up their rabbit hole.
Alice in Wonderland is an oddly droopy continuation of Lewis Carroll's tale, ignoring the fact that Carroll wrote a sequel himself. There's always the feeling of a "missing muchness", as the Mad Hatter puts it to Alice. In its darker moments, Burton's work really shines through, but the entire third act could have been much improved by the omission of a destiny angle on the heroine. It feels somewhat like Disney has stunted the potential of Burton's interpretation, but this remains a fun and visually astounding romp that families can enjoy immensely. That said, you should definitely go and see it in 2D if you go at all, or else wait for the DVD release in 13 weeks' time (go Odeon!) Oh, and it lost a whole mark out of five for me when Depp started breakdancing. Urgh. As a whole though, it's flawed, but a rather frabjous effort.

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If you go and see Alice in Wonderland in the next few weeks- and I'm sure you will, this thing is going to be huge- then why not share your comments on the film and on my review below?

Next up: awards speak, probably. The Oscars go out on Sunday night/Monday morning. As for reviews, there's a fair few films in cinemas this week that I haven't covered- Legion, The Crazies, Crazy Heart and Ondine.

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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