[27 May 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
If there is a lesson to be learned from the overwhelming success of Tim Burton’s reinvention of Alice in Wonderland, it’s that novelty plus a visual gimmick has the ability to overcome even the oddest creative choices. Apparently, in Lewis Carroll’s world, it’s better to go bonkers with his story of a little girl who falls down a rabbit hole than try for anything tradition. But part of the aforementioned equation is the 3D technology, an optical tweak that, while planned in advance, still seemed like a risk. Of course, the bulging box office returns proved both aspects of the idea right.
Now comes the inevitable home video release and another new question - does the lack of a cinematic stunt keep this film from being successful on the small screen. Put another way, lacking the polarized glasses aspect of the theatrical experience, can Burton’s trek through Carroll’s famous fantasy world still work. The answer, oddly is “Yes”, since the new Blu-ray version of Alice in Wonderland is so dazzling, so digitally definitive, that you nary miss a moment when furniture or other flying objects are sailing directly into your line of sight.
Burton’s work here is indeed brilliant. From the post-Red Queen ruins of his overgrown and sinister “Wonder” world to the eccentric look and feel of the characters, he has taken the well-worn work and mutated it to fit a new vision or pre/post/past modern mindset. Here, our heroine is no longer a bored little sprite eager to visit a place filled with magic and mystery. Instead, she’s a disgruntled Victorian teen desperate to break free of the strict societal mandates being placed on her and discover her own path in life.
This updated Alice (played with requisite passivity by Mia Wasikowska) is being forced to marry the morbidly dull nobleman Hamish. During the garden party proposal, our heroine balks, uneasy about such strict gender standards. Catching a glimpse of a rabbit in a waistcoat (similar to one in her recurring ‘dreams’), she strays from the gathering and soon falls into a dark and endless void. When she awakens, she discovers that she is locked in a tiny room, a bottle labeled “Drink Me” sitting on a nearby table…
Once again, Alice is in Wonderland (though we learn it is actually called “Underland”) and after a trial and error exercise in escape, she is immediately surrounded by seemingly familiar faces - Tweedledee and Tweedledum (Matt Lucas), the March Hare (Paul Whitehouse), the hookah smoking caterpillar Absalom (Alan Rickman), the Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry), and the quite insane Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp). They all remember her quite well. She has no memory of them at all. Still, they hope she will take up the cause of championing the White Queen (Anne Hathaway).
As the rightful ruler of the now decimated kingdom, she is in a power struggle with her despotic sister the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter). Thanks to her faithful servant Stayne, The Knave of Hearts (Crispin Glover), the wicked ruler has managed a cruel stranglehold over everyone. What Wonder/Underland needs now is someone to defeat the Red Queen’s chief enforcer - the wicked winged Jabberwocky - and Alice appears to be the answer…that is, if she can be convinced to do so.
If eye candy had any cinematic health benefits, Tim Burton’s work on Alice in Wonderland would indeed be a massive fountain of youth spouting mega-vitamin. From the look of Wonder/Underland - simultaneously alive while being burnt down and overgrown - to his take on Carroll’s iconic creatures, nothing about this Alice is typical. Instead, Burton expands our understanding of what this material means, of how madness derives from personal loss, or why certain individuals hold decapitation-oriented grudges. Certainly not everything works, and there are times when you wish Linda Wolverton’s sloppy script captured some of Carroll’s lunatic poetry, but when you’ve got astonishing wonders like these, do you really need natty nonsense rhymes?
There’s a keen sense of familiarity at play, of an artist indulging in elements he is wholly familiar with. Tweedledum and Tweedledee may look like funky flesh balls, but actor Matt Lucas gives them a loveable lameness that’s hard to ignore. Similarly, Frye and Rickman more than deliver in their voice-only efforts for the Cheshire Cat and Absalom, respectively. They are so good in fact that we wish there was more of each in the narrative. Certainly, the monsters have a tactile-less CG quality to their movement, and Crispin Glover just looks silly as a seven foot tall attendant to her raving royal Majesty. Speaking of Bonham Carter, she’s decent here, but not truly villainous. Instead, she comes off as sad and rather pathetic, no amount of screamed scenery chewing convincing us of her proposed evil ways.
That just leaves Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter, and his is a very interesting turn indeed. Instead of being crazed or unhinged, the popular matinee idol decides to get lost in the dementia, taking the audience along for the brazen, sometimes bittersweet ride. There are times when Depp, eyes encased in huge saucer-like contacts, seems positively crushed by what’s happened to his homeland. Luckily, there are other moments (as when he’s back designing hats for the Red Queen) where the energy we expect from the character comes careening through. Though his look is one of the art design’s weaker extrapolations (does he have to come off as a combination mime and reprobate member of Cirque du Soliel?), everything the man beneath the mask does is delightful.
Of course, the real idol here is Burton, a director who’s made a mint off of being misunderstood, geeky, and outré-outrageous. When you break Wolverton’s script down into its individual beats, it’s not long before you marvel at what the finicky filmmaker has made out of it. The opening celebration is so cold and charmless that it seems to lack pigment, while almost everything associated with the White Queen is equally unexceptional. This appears to be planned in advance, the better to mark the startling differences throughout the rest of the film’s frenzied landscape. Elsewhere, Burton also seems set on reliving his greatest hits, familiar facets of Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, and even Sweeny Todd sneaking into the mix.
All of which comes careening off the flat screen in this amazing high definition release. Sure, the bonus features do their EPK best to explain away some of the F/X secrets, but the real star here is the 1080p 1.85:1 image. The colors are so vibrant they’re almost blinding and the level of detail is delicious. If you watch closely, you can see Depp’s eyes literally chance hue. Unlike the 3D experience theatrically, which tends to wash out the picture is odd ways, the clean, crisp mastering here reinvigorates the film. What it misses in depth of field, it more than makes up for in crystal clarity.
The result is a feast for the mind, if not necessarily the intellect. The updated Alice herself has an emotional arc drawn straight out of any frilly grrrl power epic (it’s all about destiny and being true to yourself, you know) and the rest of the cast does little except serve said storyline. But if you’re going to turn Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland into something akin to Dungeons and Dragons ala Dodgson, it would be nice if your narrative was as knotty and imaginative as the man behind the lens. Sadly, everything about the plotting here is derivative and dull. Without Burton composing the shots, this Alice would be awful. Now, it’s a near masterpiece, lacking just enough focus to keep it from being a 100% complete success.