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Monday, March 8, 2010

Reviews by Hubie Goode: Alice in Wonderland

Alice in Wonderland

Mad Hatter Johnny Depp
Alice Mia Wasikowska
Red Queen Helena Bonham Carter
White Queen Anne Hathaway
Knave Crispin Glover

And the voices of:
Caterpillar Alan Rickman
Cheshire Cat Stephen Fry
White Rabbit Michael Sheen
Bayard Timothy Spall
Jabberwocky Christopher Lee

Disney presents a film directed by Tim Burton. Written by Linda Woolverton, based on the books Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll. Running time: 108 minutes. Rated PG (for fantasy action/violence involving scary images and situations, and a smoking caterpillar).

This is the kind of movie that makes me sit in the theater and think of other things besides what is happening on the screen. I think about the countless hours that college kids spend in various classes around the world, whether they be writers, costume designers, directors or whatever you may have to achieve college degree wise to be accepted into the industry at some level in order to end up producing works such as Alice in Wonderland. I imagine those job hunts, those rejections, those striving days and hours of work and practice that they all go through. The “hoops”, if you will, that they all must jump through in order to be accepted at the studio production level.

Now, independent film doesn’t suffer as much from the problem of studio “suits” as does the big studio movie. They get to be odd and interesting on a different level because the mass audience is not the primary focus of the draw or reach of the movie itself. This opens many doors for introspective creativity as you rarely see in mass produced big budget movies. It’s an unfortunate fact that the 80-20 rule plays more of a role in major studio releases than smaller more intimate films. That is, students learn about 80% of what it takes to be an integral part of what it takes to make a film but only really get to use about 20% of what they have learned. (Oh, but they DO pay for 100% of their student loans.)

Alice in Wonderland’s studio mass produced restrictions play out for all to see in glorious 3-D beauty. Having done a little reading on the production, I was tipped off to notice certain things about the costume design and such that your average moviegoer probably won’t realize. For instance, the Red Queen has little gold hearts on her costume that are made from the cheapest materials you can find. This is so the “tin foil” look reveals her character which is somewhat of a “white trash” type construction. (Really??) Anyone out there notice that? Also, the Mad Hatter’s hat was researched and constructed of some old style “Roman” era leather that had been treated with flame in order to gain a certain type of quality. (Is that right?)

Well, I can certainly understand that someone who loves costume design like Ms. Atwood would never question the lengths and breaths to which she reaches to make her art meaningful and resident. I am quite sure from the incredible job she has done here that she loves her work. The down side is that her efforts are couched inside of the inexorable studio executive board meeting control methods which are mostly concerned with the bottom line that the picture will produce. And that, for any artist, is a crying shame.

Board meeting members are, of course, beholding to the stock holders and innovation is something for street performers and fine art students who have a degree but pour coffee at Starbucks for a living. Alice in Wonderland suffers from serving up more of the same thing to its audience, and it is quite annoying. Beautiful to see, but mostly a story line you have, once again, seen before. I have truly seen comic book epics that had more of an intellectual creativity to their inner scripting, but then again, they are not afraid of missing the larger audience.

I have recently read two books on writing, one called “The 7 Basic Plot Lines” and the other, the “The 20 Common Stories”, and I do understand that the commonness of stories is not totally the fault of Hollywood executives. Some stories work, they always have and they always will. Why not cash in on that? Movie making is of course always first and foremost a business. But why, I ask you, does every adventure story have to have a final fight scene?

Alice is placed in full body armor and must fight the terrible dragon with her “excaliber” type sword in order to set things right in the kingdom. I won’t tell you what happens, since you can imagine it anyway. I have no problem with “empowered” Alice. “Progressive” Alice. But why not show us clever Alice instead of swashbuckling Alice who goes from kept waif to Wonderland Woman in the span of a short period of time? Try this. All movie Alice has been shrinking and growing by taking the potions provided her by the denizens of Wonderland. She keeps a little bottle of it in her dress pocket. The fierce dragon attacks, Alice tosses the shrinking potion into the dragon’s mouth, he shrinks to three inches. Alice grabs the cigarette out of the hand of the blue caterpillar and lights it with her new “bic lighter”, she then turns to the Red Queen and says, “What else you got?”

Yeah Baby!

I’m joking of course, but it would have been an unexpected twist that played right into the script which had Alice shrinking and trying to find her own way in the world, telling herself and others around her that she wanted to find a way to do things by her own directives. Having the character step out of the usual Hollywood and storytelling conventions would have been just the ticket considering the young woman she ends up becoming in the epilogue.

As for Alice herself, actress Mia Wasikowska plays her well, with just enough gravity, and she is easy on the eyes also. What is strange is that she actually looks like a different person when the movie begins and then has a strange dimensional shift in her features when she enters Wonderland, this effect never changes. It’s an interesting dynamic and I can’t say if it was on purpose or just a matter of lensing and lighting. She does provide one with a character that you won’t mind spending a few hours with though. Alice is likable, and not obnoxious in her desire to be freed from the conventional constraints of her society. The problem for her in the future is, however, that she will always have to conform to something somewhere. That’s just the way the world works.

Johnny Depp is, of course, totally enveloped by the Mad Hatter he plays. You never see HIM, and it’s quite the amazing transformation. Makeup helps, but the real acting here is what makes the fantasy of this fictional character come alive. Somehow though, the Hatter is not truly a MAD hatter, he is just goofy. He can do magic with a tea pot, but sits in the jail cell of the Red Queen with depressing resignation. He is afraid of the Knave of Hearts and his card player soldiers but also has no problem wielding a sword in the final great fight scene. In my estimation those sort of conventions make the Hatter a little boring as a character. Why not have him counting the strands of sawdust on the cell room floor, giggling to himself in abandon? Why not have the sword in the battle do the fighting for him, floating in mid air? He’s the “Mad Hatter” after all!

Helena Bonham Carter plays her Red Queen with interesting dimension though, and actually reveals a little vulnerability in her villain that was a bit unexpected. That was a nice thing to see. How often do you see that nasty Queen in these types of stories, being impish and flashing her eyes at the men in the story. Her CGI and makeup are a thing to behold and I can’t see as a whole the production credits not being given their due awards. Top flight performances to all involved to be sure.

My favorite thing in the whole production, however, was the incredible Cheshire cat. I could have seen a whole movie just based on this innovation. Completely CGI and voiced by actor Stephen Fry, the cat brought the true magic of the Wonderland experience to a new dimension. Seeing him appear and disappear in a puff of smoke with just a hint of larceny in his delivery was great stuff! If only he had been more of a “Yoda” or “Jimminy Cricket” for Alice, he could have been more than just a side line attraction. He also performs a magical rescue that makes giant skips in logic according to the movie’s set of rules, but I would not have minded more of that. Perhaps Wonderland could have been less mundane and more Wonderful as the Cheshire cat was, and that would have made the whole production teeter on the edge of the fantastic. Ah well, the road not taken.

Overall, a nicely done production, but it could have had a more innovative story especially considering the subject matter. Adhering a little too closely to the “nice” tone of Lewis Carroll’s original may have hamstrung a deeper experience the movie could have reached. Starting out that way is fine, for Alice herself starts out that way, but if she had changed and the movie itself had progressed along with her, I’d be sitting here telling you to go see it now! As it is, the whole production is a 3 out of 5 stars, and a nice outing for parents and their kids. There is nothing remotely offensive here, unless you consider the insistence on individuality at the expense of “what has been foretold” to be a rebellion preaching. If so, you might have a problem, but what do you expect from a populist industry?

3 of 5 stars (Don’t pay for the 3-D, you can’t let your head turn sideways or you lose the effect anyway)

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