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Movie Review: Alice In Wonderland

March 5, 2010
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Skip The 3D If You Jump Down This Rabbit Hole

The Mad Hatter Alice in WonderlandEven when he tackles darker subject matter Tim Burton always manages to bring a touch of whimsy to his films.  On the surface, Alice in Wonderland seems to be the perfect tale for the eccentric filmmaker to put his own spin on.  What with Alice oscillating wildly between giant and diminutive proportions, two queens vying for control of the land, and anthropomorphic fauna and animals, the tale seems ripe for a wild re-imagining.

Trouble is, Burton leaves the enchantment at home along with warmth and heart.  The resulting  movie is rather cold, devoid of color and brightness (save for the mad hatter’s shock of orange hair and startling green eyes) and not a lot of fun. I’m not saying that makes it bad, but it was very different from what I was expecting.

In this particular retelling, Alice is a grown woman instead of a little girl.  At a large party she learns that she is to marry a stodgy bore of a man. She rushes off to be by herself and falls down the rabbit hole into the “underworld.”  There she encounters the characters that we are all familiar with.  There is the white rabbit (voiced by Michael Sheen), the Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry), the stoned-out-of-his-cocoon caterpillar (Alan Rickman), and of course, the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp.)

This version of the  Mad Hatter is a more tragic character with a brutal back story to explain his madness.  I found Depp’s portrayal of the Hatter annoying and frenetic, crazy for the sake of being crazy.  He drifts in and out of a heavy Scottish brogue for reasons not immediately clear to me.  I wish that the character would have been toned down a bit, I think it would have made him a little more likable.

Helena Bonham Carter Red Queen

Helena Bonham Carter's Red Queen

Much more enjoyable to me was Helena Bonham Carter’s gigantic-headed queen of hearts.  She looks like she might topple under the weight of her bulbous head, and her grotesque makeup compliments this macabre  version of the queen.  She is at once wry and wicked, and she is one of the best characters of the movie, and perfectly cast. I shudder to think how badly this character would have fared with a big name like Julia Roberts.

I loved the Cheshire Cat, and Rickman’s rich velvety voice is perfect for the caterpillar.  Quirky Crispin Glover (sporting facial scars and an eye patch) is also quite welcome as the Queen’s right hand henchman, the Knave of Hearts.

Aussie newcomer Mia Wasikowska plays Alice as a rebellious, self-assured woman.  She has spunk to spare, and gorgeous hair to boot. I’ve no doubt she will be in high demand after this.

Burton’s screenwriter Linda Woolverton decides to add an element to the final act of the film that felt very forced, like she was trying to make the film fit into  a conventional action movie mold.  I don’t believe this was ever intended to be an action movie.  Shoving an “Alice must fulfill her predetermined destiny” storyline into the film felt really disingenuous and pandering to certain demographics.

On the flip side, I liked seeing Alice portrayed as a capable, strong warrior type instead of the typical damsel in distress who needs rescuing.  Here, Alice has an entire kingdom relying on her to set them free.

Now, for the look of the film.  Film posters lead you to believe that this is going to be an eye popping color explosion.  If only.  At times the entire landscape (computer generated) would have been right at home in a post-apocalyptic themed movie.  It was awfully drab, and even the Red Queen’s court of red soldiers were a muted shade of red.  Though many scenes were still gorgeous, I think a serious brightening up was in order.
Unfortunately, I believe this will be the first example that is trotted out when people argue that not every movie is going to benefit from 3D.  Here it was unnecessary and actually detracted from my viewing experience.

A rather drab tea party, don't you think?

This is the first movie I have personally seen that has been “converted” to 3D after the filming was complete.  I’ve got to say, it was not pretty.  This 3D lacked the crispness and subtlety that I have become accustomed to experiencing. The 3D (particularly in the first 30 minutes or so) seemed like I was watching one of those pop-up books that children are so fond of.  Everything looked like cardboard cutouts.  Additionally, it was blurry, murky and dark.  I kept taking my glasses off and on, because I felt like I was sitting in a dark theater watching a movie with sunglasses on. I thought perhaps it was my screening, but I spoke to people in other parts of the country, and it seems to have been the universal experience.

I really hope to see the movie again sometime in 2D.  This was not enhanced one bit by the shoddy 3D, and let’s face it, Avatar set the bar ridiculously high for 3D movies.  If you are really excited to see this, I recommend seeking out a 2D screening.

I laud Burton as a filmmaker, and he may have created the very film he intended to, but beware it might not be the one you are hoping for.

Rating 3/5

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