I've been meaning to write about Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland for weeks now. But every time I so much as thought about doing so I felt a pit in my stomach as deep as that rabbit hole to Underland. I hate the movie sooooooo much. The flames... breathing... on the side of my face.
Why must it exist to taunt me with its billion dollar gross? Way to reward a filmmaker for lazy stagnation. Just pick a famous property, collect your usual coconspirators and then throw shit at the screen. Literally! You can convert it to 3D later. A billion dollars will be yours! As long as the masses recognize the title and you have a bankable star, you're gold. (See also: Sherlock Holmes).
I can't bear to watch the movie a second time. I usually skim back over when I write about films -- so these are just a few scattered thoughts expanded from my notes and my tortured memories of the nightmare witnessed.
<--- Alice sees a green spotted pig because, why the hell not? Nothing has to make any sense. The very essence of the property robs the lazy of having to pick which of their visual ideas to use.
What was with the "Underland" thing anyway? If you wanna get cute about messing with the title, at least have the balls to change it. Tim Burton's Alice in Underland would still be a stinking pile, but a rose by any other name would not smell as rancid. It can be quite enjoyable and fascinating to see artists riff on past stories, concepts and ideas from previous artists which is why we should all be thankful for the public domain (which greedy corporations are always trying to end... as if they had any hand in the original blood sweat and tears creativity). Once a story has been around for 50-75 years, shouldn't it belong to the world in actuality the way it belongs to the world in the abstract sense?
But just because you can riff on a past work, doesn't mean you should. Especially if you have nothing of value to add.
Mia Wasikowska is a pretty young thing but Alice is a dud. And she's even slightly ugly of personality at the end. Why does the screenplay make her mean spirited? At the end of the movie she actually humiliates her suitor by mentioning an unattractive health problem he has (I forget what it was). Yes, she is right to refuse the marriage offer from Lord Doofus (I don't care what his character name is, it matters not). But to humiliate him while doing so? Most lazy pandering movies present the unsuitable suitor as SO unsuitable that virtually no one should ever marry them. Said suitor should die miserable and alone. Remember WAY back in the day (a decade back, I guess) when movie women did not have hateful suitors or fiancees? As recently as the 90s filmmakers used to trust the audience to understand the nuance of "this guy is not right for her, which is too bad because he's kind of cool/nice." (see Reality Bites, Sleepless in Seattle and others). It wasn't always "this guy MUST be humiliated because he is so awful and oh, the very thought of her with him! You go girl, dump his ugly/insufferable/rude/unfeeling/cheating ass!" I swear to God Hollywood thinks we all have the EQs of lint. "This character good *grunt*. This character bad *grunt*."
Wouldn't her film-ending decision have had more gravitas if she had to say no to a good guy because, the dull domestic life wasn't for her. She's made for larger world travelling ambitions. Wouldn't that be more stirring? Something to actually think about while the credits played? I mean who wouldn't run from the life choice presented her? What kind of a character arc is that?
But her ugly insult and lame story arc is only a tiny thing. Everything in the film is ugly, whether by design, color combinations or sheer excess: The sets, the busy costumes, the special effects. Even Anne Hathaway is ugly and how is that possible exactly? That's not possible without the aid of hideous lighting and makeup design.
It's hard to feel bad about The Court and its way of life being destroyed in The Mad Hatter's backstory exposition flashback scene because that is ALSO garish. Sure, burn it down. No one will miss it.
Johnny & Helena & Alan
Johnny Depp has starred in seven Tim Burton films. The first two collaborations are classics (Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood) The third is solid (Sleepy Hollow). Thereafter its tough to argue that he was necessary or even right for any of the roles. You can't be a daring unpredictable weirdo icon if you become totally safe, predictable and familiar in your daring unpredictable weirdness. These things don't go together. MOVE ON.
The only actors who seem to be working above the material are Alan Rickman, a droll voice choice for the stoned caterpillar with that resonating slightly phlegmy bass of his and Helena Bonham-Carter. Her red queen is the saving grace of the film. Or rather the life raft. The film is not saved but her impeccable timing and focused stylization generally make her scenes tolerable. It's even hard to be annoyed by the nonstop CGI "help" because she knows what she's doing and she's doing it skillfully.
"You've lost your muchness."
This line, spoken by the Mad Hatter to Alice is a good one. It could well apply to Tim Burton, though. He has definitely lost his muchness. In its absence, he compensates with MUCH. The film is always always always too much. Every scene is tricked up with gaseous CGI swirls as if the celluloid can't stop farting.
Even the Chesshire Cat, usually a textbook example of the simplicity of great illusions, doesn't really disappear so much as dissapate into computer generated fumes. Adding to the smell is the distinct impression that the print had been urinated on by someone with a Jabberwocky sized bladder. Why was garish yellow their color of choice?
The movie's over compensating muchness, most obvious in its hideous color palette, busy f/x detailing (wait, this quarter of the frame is empty... throw some weird animal into it! Hurry!!!) and super long redundant sequences which manage to convey exactly one idea each -- fall, chase, fly, fight, etcetera -- reminded me of four other movies. George Lucas's entire ugly Star Wars prequel trilogy has a similar redundancy of one note scenes as well as a shared affinity for grotesque but unappealing creature designs. And most of the action sequences, lamely executed to a one, reminded of that patience testing dinosaur run in King Kong. King Kong was a fairly successful remake but that one scene stuck out like a sore thumb. It added virtually nothing to the story, it was redundant visually, it was OBVIOUSLY special effects (so the film stopped feeling seamless) and it went on forever... at least twice its justifiable length.
These are not good things to be reminded of.
<--- "Goodbye sweet hat"
Some final statistics & observations
- Running time in Underland: 108 minutes
- Running time in Nathaniel's apartment: 108 hours
- Length of time before I became annoyed: 41 seconds. I blame the absolutely unsurprising score by Danny Elfman. Same as it ever was. I liked his score for Milk a lot recently. Step away from the Burton, Danny Elfman, Danny Elfman.
- Standard length of time before Nathaniel usually starts shifting uncomfortably in his seat hoping that the movie will soon end: 91 minutes (comedy) / 109 minutes (drama) / never (A/A- minus level movies. I just watched The Best Years of Our Lives which is 172 minutes long and I could have watched an additional 220 minutes if William Wyler had only let me. But that's a topic for a forthcoming post.)
- Moment in which I stopped hating the movie briefly but can't for the life of me remember why: Something about the Mad Hatter in his new office making hats for The Red Queen.
- Percentage of scenes with more f/x than there needed to be: 89%
- Missed opportunities for subtext: ∞
- Last time it was super easy to love a Tim Burton live-action movie without reservations: 1996's Mars Attacks!
- Last time Tim Burton made a truly excellent movie: 1994's Ed Wood
- Moment I began to suspect that Alice was by far the worst movie Tim Burton had ever made: The 43 second sequence in which Alice falls down through the
green scree-- rabbit hole and keeps on falling. And keeps on falling. And kept on falling through sloppy green screens and random imagery, furniture and obstacles that she had to duck or collide with. Was it a movie? A video game level? A test reel? A bad drug trip? Whatever it was, it was pointless. I don't know if you've ever timed other big movie sequences but 43 seconds is a really long time. You can fit a lot into 43 seconds if you aren't phoning it in or editing on quaaludes.
- Offscreen moment of which I am most ashamed: Wishing Helena Bonham-Carter and Tim Burton would have a horrible row and break up for good. One should never wish ill on happy couples. But she's such a good actress and she's just stuck in ever worsening movies.
- Number of times I wished that Anne Hathaway had never seen Amy Adams' Enchanted performance: 1,194
- Number of times you miss something 3D cool if you watch it in 2D: 0
- Number of times I thought about great Tim Burton films wistfully: 94
- Number of times I even wished I was watching Planet of the Apes or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: 4
- Number of times I lost the will to live: 1*
- Number of times I actually died: 0
- Number of future films by Tim Burton I'd like to see: ...guess.
*I made it all the way through this article without once mentioning Johnny Depp's breakdancing. Wait, oops!