Former college dorm-mate Dena Trugman asked me for a travel guide for people visiting Los Angeles from out of state on vacation. Here is my response, complete with the details of where you can go for cheap beers, aging film auteurs, and decaying mammals.
With its $116 million dollar opening and two weekends of box office domination, Alice in Wonderland is already Tim Burton’s most successful cinematic debut and easily stands to be one of his most profitable films of all time. But is it one of his best? That question almost seems unnecessary in age of cinema obsessed with 3d goggles and mind-boggling effects. The standard by which the success of a motion picture can be determined has been rewritten by Avatar, just as The Matrix rewrote it a decade prior. It seems that Hollywood and audiences across America are reveling in the benefits of an extra dimension of filmmaking, resulting in higher ticket prices and higher ticket sales correspondingly. But are we paying for an added dimension of storytelling, or just a few extra moments of flash and pizzazz?
Alice in Wonderland intimately represents the tightrope walk between innovation and redundancy so omnipresent in Hollywood. It starts innocently enough, with a bit of flashback storytelling establishing the all-too-familiar tropes of stuffy British aristocracy and that maddeningly young woman cavalier enough to upset them all. This is all well done and as charming as the thousands of other dips into Brit-Lit that have borrowed the cliché, but it’s the careful preparation and calculated delivery of the exchanges between characters, the set design and costuming that make Alice’s pre-Wonderland experiences so likable. It’s almost a shame that Burton spends so little time here, as his uncharacteristically direct approach to satire and duality is a welcome treat in this instance, as opposed to his Big Fish, which almost reeked of bland banality. Could it be that in his later years, Burton has discovered an insight into the human condition that makes his treatment of the inhumane less interesting? It could be, because as soon as Alice tumbles down the rabbit hole, all sense of satire and merriment is lost on the story, and we are instead “treated” to a dark and half-formed bastardization of Wonderland that shares more in common with Coraline‘s twisted alternate dimension or a bad trope of light-world/dark-world video game storytelling than it does the deeply satiric and mesmerizing writing of Lewis Carroll.
The thing that made the books special was Carroll’s ability to interweave then-modern social and political satire into a comical and otherworldly experience. Children could amuse themselves with the rich and beautiful storytelling, while adults could marvel at the inside jokes and chuckle at the digs that make the novels memorable. The whole nature of Wonderland acting as an alternate universe to the real world speaks to a basic duality, and the “fun-for-children, clever-for-adults” nature of the original Wonderland stories served to underscore that. Burton’s vision of the stories presents a half-baked Wonderland swimming on the outskirts of a painfully more interesting real world, where the almost absurdly convoluted rules of Wonderland undercut the fun to be had by both Alice and the audience, to the point where the almost Pirates of the Carribean-y vibe of Alice’s real world seems a welcome alternative.
Much of the blame can be laid at the feet of screenwriter Linda Woolverton, who meaninglessly strives to construct an action movie out of a British political farce. Certainly there is something to be said about Alice coming into womanhood through her larger-than-life adventures in Wonderland, but never has that notion been trivialized so severely as when Alice is forced to don a suit of armor and decapitate a literal Jabberwocky. The Jabberwocky, a mythic and terrible creature from one of Carroll’s best moments of poetry, is nothing more than a Lord of the Rings-ian analogy in this picture, serving no purpose other than to give the heroine something to slaughter in the third act so we can all go home thinking we saw a big movie. It’s almost too difficult to fault individual moments of the story for being unnecessary since all of Wonderland is a series of meaningless contrivances designed to comically poke fun at a real world analog. Rather than giving the audience any time to wonder about anything, Alice is shuffled off into another series of vaguely grotesque events that feature a handful of memorable fairytale characters being imprisoned, attacked or CGI’d beyond recognition. As much fun as it is to see them live on camera, it would have been more fun if any of the sights in Wonderland had contained a snippet of significance that Alice could carry back with her to the real world. The Alice of this universe enters Wonderland with as much preposterous rebellion as she leaves it with, leaving her little room as a character to change or grow. How does killing a mythical beast correlate to Alice’s ability to plot trade routes in the Far East for her father’s company? This movie would like to make the claim that it does directly, and that any dream one has can give them the courage to learn nothing from it and continue behaving exactly as you did before you ever fell asleep.
I do not mean to imply that there is nothing to be admired about Burton’s Wonderland. There is plenty to be visually compelled by, and the three-dimensional glasses actively behave as your colleague on this maddening adventure, vying harder than the screenwriter ever could to make this experience less dreadful. Certainly, there is nothing to be enjoyed about Alice in Wonderland without the aid of the 3d glasses, and the thought of wearing regular reading glasses during the proceedings would devolve the experience into a worse-than-Chronicles-of-Narnia level torture-fest. There are beautiful moments, though they are few and far between, and unless the thought of seeing a dormouse pluck an eyeball out of a bandersnatch’s head is delightful to you, you’ll have a very difficult time justifying why the physical landscape of Wonderland seems so burned-out and sparsely populated, a visual bastard son of even Planet of the Apes‘ set design. It is a sad state of affairs when I long for Alice to wander the terrifying forests of Sleepy Hollow, for at least there she could be surrounded by atmospheric tension as opposed to the un-artful approximation of Dali-esque fantasy in Wonderland.
Johnny Depp’s performance is confusing, but clearly more a fault of the screenwriting than his own design. As a performer he is charming and effortless in movement and expression, but the parameters of his Mad Hatter are hard to follow and beyond the feeling of, “Oh, isn’t that whimsical,” there isn’t much depth to consider. The real steal-the-show moments come from Helena Bonham Carter’s Red Queen, whose petulant humanity shines through in spite of the gaudy computer-generated madness applied to her forehead. Crispin Glover performs adequately as a character who vaguely resembles a human being, and unfortunately for Anne Hathaway, she does the same. As for Alice, it is hard to get a read on the performance of an actor shamelessly wandering from situation to situation and only occasionally coerced into action. She does a good job of looking a combination of stern and forgetful, which is fair, because Alice suffers from a needlessly crushing bout of amnesia for nine-tenths of this movie, only to remember that she is Alice at the last minute, has done this all before, and it was just as boring and meaningless the first time. Yes, you do get to see Alice drinking to shrink and eating to grow, but you also have characters commenting on the fact that she’s done it all before, even though she doesn’t know it. Then you get to hear Alice complaining that she doesn’t remember doing it before. Then they say they are confused because she should remember. Then she remembers. And it changes nothing. Not one bit. She says, “Oh, now I remember,” we see a brief montage of scenes from a much more interesting movie featuring a much more age appropriate Alice, and we cut back to the grown-up Alice, she slays the monster, and yadda, yadda, yadda.
I hope I haven’t spoiled too much of the story for you, as Linda Woolverton has strived tirelessly to provide that service for you herself, robbing all subtlety and grace from Wonderland, all inquisitive nature from Alice, and almost all humor from this picture. There are a few laughs, and a few majestic moments of CGI perfection that will make you say, “Wow! That extra seventeen dollars I paid at the door really did come through!” but did it really? Afterwards your pocket is still empty and you’ll have a decidedly shallow feeling of dissatisfaction, as if the Milk Duds and Junior Whoppers you consumed during the movie weren’t as satisfying as a balanced meal, complete with character and heart. The problem with Woolverton’s Wonderland is that it lacks any parallel to the real world, and provides no insight into its own proceedings or the correlating lives of real people. Things that were pointless for the sake of fun in the original are pointless for the sake of inclusion in this picture, and nothing about the original stories are explored in further detail. Instead Burton’s Alice provides a shallow mixtape of Wonderland memories, for some reason double-packaged with amnesia.
But it’s damned pretty to look at sometimes. And it’s all thanks to the 3d. Three-dimensional motion pictures are the latest in a string of tricks used by Hollywood to convince people to overlook the flaws of an already broken picture. The only difference between this trick and Hollywood’s regular schemes is that with Alice, the tricks are actually working. It’s kind of fun to get caught up in the stupid madness while it’s happening thanks to your magic goggles, and I can even see people buying this film on Blu-Ray or DVD only to be disappointed that the small screen experience can never live up to the cookie-cutter big screen comparison. But by then it’ll already be too late. Most big pictures in the next two years are already slated for 3d release. What does that mean for you as a filmgoer? Possibly nothing. Maybe a bunch of bad movies will be made glaringly less bad thanks to the visual leg-up program provided by 3d. But for me, I’ll be wallowing in my own liminal state between spectacle and meaning, praying that filmmakers don’t lose all sense of storytelling in the jump to approximate weird computer-generated lizard things spiraling pointlessly toward the audience.