Saturday, March 20, 2010

Movie Review: Alice in Wonderland

STARRING: Johnny Depp, Mia Wasikowska Helena Bonham Carter and Crispin Glover

Despite it's huge haul at the box office, one of the most anticipated films of 2010 is also one of its biggest duds.

Tim Burton's disappointingly dull re-imagining of the famous Lewis Carroll story, Alice in Wonderland suffers from extreme bouts of boredom and poor script pacing.

Alice (Aussie newcomer Mia Wasikowska) is much older, but none the wiser, in Burton's Wonderland sequel. Now nineteen years old and expected to marry, Alice once again falls down that crazy rabbit hole and into a world fantasy and violence. She can't recall her first time spent in Wonderland as a child and brushes off her current adventures as nothing more than an outlandish dream. Along the way she reunites with old friends, specifically the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp), who informs her that the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) leaves behind destruction and death wherever she goes. Alice is expected to slay a dragon (?!) and help the White Queen (Anne Hathaway) regain the throne she lost to the Red Queen after an epic battle.

Despite everything just mentioned, there actually isn't any discernible plot. Burton and his screenwriters have taken bits and pieces from both of Carroll's books and strung them together into little vignettes which amount to nothing of any significance. Alice still takes a drink from a bottle and grows in size. She still meets up with the Mad Hatter in the midst of a tea party. But why replay these scenes if this film is to be treated as a sequel? Despite the subplots of having to slay a dragon and aide the White Queen, Alice in Wonderland does very little during its two hour running time. The pace is so leisurely that it quickly becomes boring; something is never recovers from.

The much ballyhooed 3D amounts to nothing. Unlike James Cameron's Avatar, which made full use of its CGI and 3D technology, Alice in Wonderland pales in comparison. The 3D effects are so poorly utilized it's easy to forget you aren't just watching it in normal 2D.

Tim Burton's lavish sets (often inspired by his love for the German Expressionist films of the 1920's) are lacking due to the largely CGI-created visuals. The unique visual style Burton so often brings to his modern fables is missing here. Instead of dark, ominous corridors (Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street), structurally inept houses (Beetlejuice) and dark, threatening skies (Batman, Sleepy Hollow), we get a computer-animated world that bears no resemblance to the Burton films we know and love. One of the charms of Burton's films are his set designs and the fact that he rarely relies heavily on CGI. Too much green screen and so few actual props and sets makes for an unimaginative and an un-Burtonesque film.

Burton excels at bringing out the humanity in every quirk and weirdo in his films. Alice in Wonderland is full of these types of characters. What Wonderland lacked, more than anything, was that human touch that Burton so charmingly brought to life with his unique characters in Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood.

As Alice, Wasikowska is a bore. There is no reason to root for Alice or to even worry about her character's fate. She moves through each scene in a charming blue dress, with little to do or say. Granted, the script gave Wasikowska little to work with, however, she wasn't able to rise above the drudge and create a feisty heroine. Johnny Depp's Mad Hatter is given little to do. It's as though Burton decided to rely solely on giving Mad Hatter a strange costume and CGI-enlargened eyes; as though that would be enough to make everyone rave about Depp and the film. It would have been more effective had Burton and Depp conspired to make Mad Hatter a genuinely unhinged character; someone who wanted to help Alice while also making sure that his Wonderland maintained an air of lunacy. It seemed as though Depp was just going through the motions. Three excellent British actors (Stephen Fry as the Cheshire Cat, Michael Sheen as the White Rabbit and Alan Rickman as the Blue Caterpillar)are all wasted in small speaking roles that are given such a tiny amount of screen time that their roles are rendered pointless.

The two standouts are the always reliable Helena Bonham Carter as the ranting and raving Red Queen and the wonderfully oddball Crispin Glover as her eye-patched henchman, Stayne.

What once seemed like an ideal pairing (Burton and Carroll) has instead become a major disappointment. Instead of a dark, dangerous and terrifying Wonderland for adults and teens, we get, at best, a mediocre children's film. Burton has such a strong resume that it's doubtless that he will bounce back and recover with a better film. Here's hoping he goes back to his roots doing what he does best: making Tim Burton films.