Saturday, March 6, 2010

Burton in Wonderland

I know I said I was going to report on The Crazies, but the siren song of 3D and a new Tim Burton movie proved too much to resist, so I saw Alice in Wonderland instead. Though it's gotten a surprisingly weak 53% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, I'm happy to report that it's quite an enjoyable film with humor, pacing and a coherent (if fantastic) storyline. Of course, it still allows Burton to indulge his passion for bizarre visuals, unusual creatures and gothic landscapes.

Purists may object to the liberties taken with the story, which has been reconstructed as a journey of discovery and female empowerment (not as yawn-inducing as it sounds). Mia Wasikowska is a 19-year-old Alice in Victorian England whose free-spiritedness is frowned upon by her family. When she receives a marriage proposal from a doughy, priggish aristocrat, she avoids answering him by running into the woods and falling into the legendary rabbit hole (a spectacular sequence for 3D). As she encounters all the characters that are so familiar to us, they are familiar to her, too—she'd been dreaming about them since she was a child.

Depp, in his seventh collaboration with Burton, makes for a bizarre Mad Hatter, with goggly green eyes and Bozo hair, but the actor doesn't go too far over the top as he did in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (a film I've already admitted that I despise). Helena Bonham Carter, inflated head perched upon a tiny body, is absolutely hilarious as the Red Queen, whose moods change in the blink of an eye and is constantly screaming "Off with (his/her) head!" Anne Hathaway is also amusing as her delicate and super-feminine sister, the White Queen, who stifles the urge to vomit whenever she must face unpleasantness. Crispin Glover is the kowtowing Knave of Hearts in a mostly thankless role. Wasikowska is fine as Alice, but I couldn't understand why she looked so unwell: pale and drawn with dark circles under her eyes.

The rest of the lead characters are CGI creations voiced by some wonderful talent: Alan Rickman, Michael Sheen, Stephen Fry, Timothy Spall—even Michael Gough and Christopher Lee. They're a far cry from the dead-eyed, false teeth-wearing Polar Express-type. I found Fry's Cheshire Cat to be particularly amusing, and Rickman's dulcet tones bring to life the hookah-smoking caterpillar. As Tweedledum and Tweedledee, Little Britain's Matt Lucas at first brought to mind the unhappy memory of the Oompah-Loompahs in Charlie, but fortunately they didn't come off that way. And Spall's bloodhound, Bayard, is so convincing I wondered if they used a real dog and gave him some subtle digital anthropomorphism. The production cost a bundle and looks it. Burton's trademark imagery—twisted trees, dramatically clouded skies, ominous castles—look great in 3D, even though the polarized glasses tend to darken everything.

Many reviewers are complaining about the flatness of the story; others accuse Burton of selling out commercially. I found Alice to be an agreeable melding of Burton weirdness and comprehensible storyline. And what's wrong with that?

Universal has released the 1933 Paramount version on DVD to capitalize on the Burton remake, and though I've never seen it, it sounds intriguing. Paramount's contract players, including Gary Cooper, Cary Grant and W.C. Fields (in heavy makeup based on the classic illustrations) play against hallucinatory, off-kilter sets, said to be created by famed production designer William Cameron Menzies (Gone with the Wind, Invaders from Mars). And according to the New York Times, it draws heavily on German expressionism "to view a cold, grotesque and foreboding adult world through the eyes of a child." I have to check it out.

Other Alice adaptations have been less fortuitous. Disney's own 1951 animated version is one of the least-beloved "classics" in the company's canon. And 1988's Alice, by surrealist filmmaker Jan Svankmajer, made me want to scream, although it's surprisingly well-regarded and currently boasts a 100% on Rotten Tomatoes! I like surrealism as much as the next guy, but I guess he's an acquired taste. One that has indications of being so-bad-it's-good is a 1985 television adaptation produced by Irwin Allen (The Poseidon Adventure) and featuring a jaw-dropping cast that includes Sid Caesar, Ann Jillian, Red Buttons, Sammy Davis, Jr., Robert Morley and Carol Channing.

All in all, I think Alice in Wonderland is one of those stories that everyone carries around in their head from childhood and has their own "adaptation," making them prejudiced against any attempt at making their visions concrete in film. But as far as adaptations go—and in 3D!—you could do a lot worse than Burton's reboot.


Russell Adams said...

There was also a musical version produced for NBC in 1966. Nanette Fabray and Agnes Moorehead starred as the White and Red Queens, respectively. Jimmy Durante was Humpty Dumpty, Jack Palance played Jabberwock, and the Smothers Brothers appeared as Tweedledum and Tweedledee. The music was composed by 'Moose' Charlap, whose most beloved creation was the Mary Martin version of 'Peter Pan'.

John Fricke said...

The Irwin Allen TV "Alice" was also a musical, shown over two nights of programming. I remember that the publicity at the time trumpeted something like "127 new songs by Steve Allen!" (Okay, the numeral's an exaggeration...but you get the idea.)

In all the whoopla attendant to the Burton approach, I'd read that the '33 "Alice" was finally on DVD. It was occasionally shown on Milwaukee TV in the late 1950s and early 1960s. There was also a much-truncated version (probably 40 minutes or so in length) that circulated on 16mm through the school system during those years. We got it several times over when I was in the elementary grades, usually on the Friday afternoon before a vacation holiday.

So I'd retained fond/bemused memories of it and looked forward to the home video. And this week's re-viewing underscored all of those early emotions. It's a bizarre, episodic, oddly-directed and edited amalgam. But my early predilection for types like May Robson, Edna Mae Oliver, and Louise Fazenda was certainly telling...and brought home in the return "visit." (One additional reason the three of them come off more memorably than many of the others is that you CAN see most of their faces; Grant, Fields, Holloway, Ruggles, et al, are totally obscured by the masks.)


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