Friday, April 9, 2010

What Went Wrong -- Reflections on "Alice in Wonderland"

For this review, I decided to do something a bit different.

I went to go see Alice in Wonderland with my wonderful girlfriend, Marissa, a couple weeks ago, and it sparked a debate between us. I didn't care much for the movie, and she thought it was terrific. So, I thought it might be fun to not only give my review, but share her thoughts as well.

Her feelings will come after my initial review, mainly because she wrote them in response to this review. Also, because I'm a dick.

So, hope you enjoy! Leave a comment and let us know whom you think is right!

Jeremiah's Review

Tim Burton has long been one of Hollywood’s most compelling filmmakers. He has developed a style that makes him the Martin Scorcese of the geek community. Look at his resume:

Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure
Edward Scissorhands
Ed Wood
Mars Attacks!
Sleepy Hollow
Planet of the Apes
Big Fish
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
The Corpse Bride
Sweeny Todd

While there are a few clunkers on the list (Mars Attacks!, Planet of the Apes), Burton has an incredible resume. His imaginative, gothic, and occasionally nightmarish style has not only appealed to the “alternative” crowd, but to mainstream audiences, too. Everyone seems to love Tim Burton movies.

So, when we heard he was going to handle directing Disney’s new version of Alice in Wonderland (in 3-D, no less), it seemed like a home run. It was time to begin fantasizing about all the weirdness Burton would conjure out of that twisted imagination of his. Lewis Carroll’s warped novel has so many oddities and off-beat characters that Burton should feel right at home.

So, what happened?

Alice in Wonderland is a mediocre movie. It starts out with the promise of something original and daring as we pick up with an older Alice who is being pressured into marrying into the family of her deceased father’s business partner. Peculiar characters in Alice’s life weave in and out, telling her what to do, how to dress, how to behave. It’s emotionally engaging. Then, things get even better when Alice begins to feel the pull of the Wonderland she left behind as a child; a white rabbit tears through her possible mother-in-law’s garden. She makes chase, and once again drops through the rabbit hole into Wonderland.

And that’s when the wheels come off this ride.

Where’s the invention? The mayhem? Tim Burton? Once Alice falls through the rabbit hole, Burton’s film becomes—dare I say it—


We’ve seen this world before, and done better, too, I might add. Burton introduces the rogue’s gallery (the Caterpillar, Mad Hatter, Chesire Cat, Tweedledee and Tweedledum) in conventional ways. The Chesire Cat’s grin floats on the air. The Caterpillar’s hookah smoke twists and curls. The Mad Hatter is zany and silly.


Once we enter the fantasy world, it’s as if Burton forgot what movie he wanted to make. Did he want to re-imagine Alice for a new generation, or did he just want to do a greatest hits tour of Carroll’s world?

Why did this happen? I have some ideas. First of all, I think the pressure was too great. We all expected Burton to give us something we hadn’t seen before, and for as wild and crazy as the source material is, it might have been too much so. Look at Burton’s best films: Ed Wood, Beetlejuice, and Edward Scissorhands. These films are originals, not based on literary classics. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Planet of the Apes are often mentioned as two of his lamest films, and both are based on other people’s work. It seems that Burton is at his best when he’s imagining something from scratch.

Another reason for this movie’s failure, I believe is the presence of Disney in the production. After all, this movie was not titled Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. It was titled, Disney’s Alice in Wonderland. I think Disney had a lot more input in the making of this movie than is talked about. Burton’s best films have always had a macabre spin, something dark and tough about them. There’s nothing macabre here, and the only thing tough is the Jabberwocky, which looks less menacing than the Rancor monster in Star Wars: Return of the Jedi. Even the Red Queen, in all her balloon-headed anger, isn’t scary. “Off with their heads!” is a funny line, not a scary one. This film is impotent – all style with no substance.

And that is the biggest reason the movie is awful – the writing. Burton does not have a writing credit on this movie, and that seems like a shame in retrospect. Had he been more involved in that side of the project instead of the art direction, a lot of the problems facing this movie could have been abated. Maybe then we could have gotten some characters with more than two-dimensions (including the promising Alice, who becomes a one-note character once she leaves the real world behind). Perhaps we would have got some of Lewis Carroll’s trademarked logical absurdities and puzzles instead of a run-of-the-mill fantasy plot about chosen people, special weapons and a war between good and evil. I’m a sucker for a good epic story any day of the week – hell, I liked Avatar, which, despite its cliché plot, was an excellent movie – but I expect more from Tim Burton.

Tim Burton is not an epic film director. He is not the guy you go to when you want Narnia, or Avatar, or Star Wars. He is the guy you go to when you want gothic character story, like Nightmare Before Christmas, or Sweeney Todd.

For me, I don’t want to see Burton take on adapting anything anymore. I want to see him moving forward with more original works. That’s when I think his creativity will be at its peak again. Honestly, I didn’t love Alice in Wonderland, and I don’t think Tim Burton did either. It shows.

Marissa's Response

"Impotent" and "boring," huh? Okay, I admit, there are a lot of things in the movie that were predictable. For those of us who are familiar with Disney's version of the 1950's, we knew what to expect from the story. Most people of our generation are only familiar with the Disney version and not the actual book. Stories such as Peter Pan, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and many other Disney films were all based on books and had been re-created for modern audiences. Would you dare say this about Lord of The Rings and feel that it was true to the book? Today's youth only read the book versions of these movies because they "have to" in school -- and most rely solely on the film. When we think of The Great Gatsby, we think of Robert Redford, not F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Burton first caught our attention in 1984 by directing Pee Wee's Big Adventure and that put his name in our heads. When Edwards Scissorhands came out a few years later, we saw the budding romance in the Depp-Burton collaborations, with the musical backgrounds of Danny Elfman. These three work in perfect harmony. Over the years we have seen this trio of creativity stimulate the audio and visual senses of every macabre and Goth youth out there who idolize Burton and appreciate his dark visions. (Also remember that Burton comes from the Disney group and, as we all know, you cannot call the movie a true "Disney" flick unless they are killing off the mom in the first 10 minutes.) Disney films, just like Burton, are a dark sided recipe with a pinch of "Happily Ever After."

Back to the movie: we knew what to expect because of it being an adaptation -- Alice, Mad Hatter, White Rabbit. Okay, got it. But the visual appeal is what we look for in a movie. We go to SEE a movie, and everything else in it is just to further our senses. The special effects were what made this movie. I could have done without the 3-D glasses because they were annoying to someone who wears a prescription pair (I can see Lens Crafters selling 3-D prescription glasses now as every household turns to getting a 3-D TV -- good bye HD!) Burton's use of colors and special effects, and Depp's ability to go from hottie to weird looking are what the fans like. And on top of that, Danny Elfman is the quiet creator who lays the audio tantalizers to bring these separate elements together.

In a nutshell, I think you were looking for something else in this film that doesn't need to be looked for. We already knew what to expect as a basis of the film: the touch of Burton, Depp and Elfman. That's what we came to see.

On a final note, Burton is known for his dark films, Michael Bay is known for "blowing shit up," and Scorsese is notorious for cop/gangster Italian New York "shoot em' down" dramas. What do they all have in common? They take on the projects that they are comfortable with and specialize in.When they do take on a project outside of their norm, they are often scrutinized for it. When Burton directs a film based on a regurgitated Nicholas Sparks love-story, then I will feel differently. Until then, I am happy with what he puts out.