Saturday, March 20, 2010

Movie Review: Disney's Alice In Wonderland

Disney's Alice in Wonderland

Directed by Tim Burton

Starring Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Mia Wasikowska, Anne Hathaway and Crispin Glover.

Although it’s against geek orthodoxy, I’ve never been a big Alice in Wonderland fan. I’ve always liked the elements of Wonderland, particularly the Red Queen, but not the book itself.

It’s not really that surprising though, seeing as the book is rife with talking animals, and according to this article in the New Scientist the whole book is really about algebra. As we’ve discussed before, talking animals are a big NO in my book, and the same goes for books about math. (I’ve hated The Phantom Tollbooth for well unto two decades, ever sense my 6th grade reading teacher forced it upon me.)

Again, fighting the geek consensus, but I’m at best a casual Tim Burton fan. My favorite movie of his, The Nightmare Before Christmas, really isn’t his, it’s Henry Selick’s. Burton is just too strange for me sometimes. I like weirdness (seen every episode of The Prisoner, remain oddly fascinated with Lady Gaga) but there has to be a point behind it, and sometimes, I think Burton …doesn’t really have one.

Taking those to things into account, I wasn’t really looking forward to seeing Disney’s Alice in Wonderland. The trailers made it look like Mad Hatter --Plus Alice! However, I have an 8 year old who likes spunky girl stories and a husband who’s much more invested in Tim Burton than I am, so we went.

And surprisingly, I liked it. I liked it a lot more than I thought I would.
Before I go on, let me say that this is not Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. I’m usually the first person screaming about deviation from the original texts, particularly when they happen for no good reason, but a “reimagining” or “reinterpretation” of Carroll’s works doesn’t really bother me. I’m not attached.

The pairing of Burton and Carroll makes sense, at least superficially. However, I wonder if the modern conception of Wonderland is more American McGee and Tom Petty than Victorian Mathematician. You can feel Burton’s visual stamp all over Wonderland – the trees are twisty, the architecture freaky, the characters lurid and exaggerated. It’s an interesting movie to look at.

The plot is sort of mediocre. Alice, now a teen, must return to Wonderland to fulfill a prophecy, blah, blah, blah. It’s a standard quest plot. Like in a lot of Tim Burton’s work, plot is not really the point. It’s more about the look and the characters.

Luckily, the characters are pretty great. Alice is a little bit of a blank slate, but since she’s the audience’s stand-in, her blandness really isn’t a problem. Helena Bonham Carter is great as the Red Queen, really working the character, not just letting the costume and CGI do the work for her. Carter has said that her interpretation of the Red Queen was inspired by her toddler, and you can see it in the way she plays it. It’s a really fun take on the character. Crispin Glover turns the creepy up to 11 for the Knave, and since creepy is what he does, it works.

As for Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter, he was O.K. I get tired of Johnny Depp playing outrĂ© characters, because you always know that behind the Chicklet teeth or shaved head or creepy contacts, it is still Johnny Depp. I think Depp’s a good actor, but I would like to see him play some normal humans for a change. He did give the Hatter an edge of melancholy that I wasn’t really expecting, and it took me a while to figure out why the Hatter would turn Scottish all of a sudden, but when I did, it made sense.

Burton was smart enough to get some really good voice actors to play the talking animals – Stephen Fry as the Cheshire Cat was my favorite – which made the anthropomorphized antics more bearable. My daughter liked the Dormouse, mostly because she was so feisty.

So, all in all, I would recommend this movie, if you can take it for what it is. If you are a Wonderland purist, stay far, far away.

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