Friday, March 12, 2010


Since the moment I left the theater on Saturday afternoon, dazed and blinking and sugar-shaky from the Mountain Dew I'd just consumed, I have dreaded writing this post.  Of all the writers, filmmakers, and graphic artists I adored in childhood – Jim Henson, William Sleator, Gary Larson – Tim Burton is the one I still love the most, the one whose work has continued to reward repeat viewings and surprise me even long after the initial whizz-bang factor has worn off.  Movies like Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, and Pee-wee's Big Adventure have grown up along with me, revealing themselves to be darker, funnier, and more grown-up than their man-child heroes and toylike props would suggest.  Even while reveling in the gorgeous impossibilities of the imagination (silver screen monsters, tall-tale Americana), Ed Wood and Big Fish, Burton's two true masterpieces, present complicated, emotionally ambivalent views of what it means to be – or to love – an artist.  And recent films like Sweeney Todd and the underrated Charlie and the Chocolate Factory have constructed entire landscapes governed by obsession.  Like Steven Millhauser's hotels or Poe's "Haunted Palace," the settings of these pictures form large-scale models of a disordered human mind.  Tim Burton constantly employs references to film history, folk and fairy tales, television, and pop culture, but the meaning of these references is intensely personal and sincere (a perfect example of what I described in the last post).

Not so with his latest.  If Alice in Wonderland had been made by a lesser filmmaker (and it easily could have been), I no doubt would have succumbed more willingly to its charms.  The computer-animated creatures are, refreshingly, more hallucinatory than adorable, incarnate scratches of a lunatic pen, and the costumes, particularly an array of hats made by a rapidly unravelling Johnny Depp (who lists their names – "porkpie... fez... bowler..." – in a disconcerting whisper) would alone be reason enough to rent this on BluRay.  Some shots, particularly when Alice first arrives in the garden, could be cribbed from a Mark Ryden painting.  But, as one reviewer snarkily put it, this film seemed more like a Burton imitation than the real deal: it lacked the identification, the investment, in its material that characterizes his best work.

I certainly admit that the costumes could have been worse.

Most of the problems came from the screenplay.  I admired their choice to write this as a kind of sequel to the familiar Alice story.  Making her a young adult, rather than a child, could potentially shape her into a far stranger character.  In the first few scenes, I thought she would be.  Alice doesn't wear a corset to a formal soirée – the Victorian-era equivalent of showing up to a catered dinner bra-less in a wifebeater – and she hallucinates during a heart-to-heart with her potential mother-in-law.  The movie seemed to be setting her up as an 1860's hysteric, a stone's throw from batshit Freud patients, Mary Todd Lincoln, and that chick from "The Yellow Wallpaper."  There's even a delusional spinster aunt who seems to represent one of her two possible futures in this world; the alternative, of course, is marriage to an unbearable prig.  I'd go crazy too.

For all intents and purposes, Alice is trapped, and though her situation in this film is new, the nightmarish frustration she feels is familar.  After all, the original Alice books commented on a deeply illogical society that hid itself – just barely – behind a highly structured class system and the rote proprieties immortalized in children's etiquette texts.  In the books, when Alice succeeds, it's not because she's changed the system; she's simply learned to manuver within it, flattering the powerful, playing croquet by the rules, and munching on the large and small mushrooms at just the right time.  The only real escape from the madness is to wake up.  Showing Alice as a powerless grown woman, though, raises the stakes by suggesting a new question: What if the reality outside of Wonderland was just as oppressively nuts as the reality within it?

The filmmakers choose to avoid this question by yanking any potentially troubling elements out of the story.  First, they remove the insanity from Wonderland.  It becomes a simplistic video-gamescape where good battles evil and wins.  Then they remove the insanity from the real world frame.  In the Victorian era of this film, all a woman has to do to become an entrepreneur is point at China on a map.  When movie-Alice returns from her trip down the rabbit hole, looking like a ravished victim of Del Toro's Wolfman, her would-be father-in-law offers her a job and the last we see of her, she's set off on a business venture around the world.  Just in case we didn't catch it, Wonderland's caterpillar (now a butterfly, natch) flutters across the screen to herald her transformation.

This is nonsense, but it's not the interesting kind.  Watching the film, I found myself wondering why they chose to make Alice in Wonderland when the result was something a lot more similar to a half-assed version of the Wizard of Oz.  Like Dorothy, Alice here travels to a magic world where, along with a quickly assembled team of friends, she picks sides in a battle between a good witch and a bad witch; like Dorothy, after kicking ass, she chooses to return home to confront her problems.  There's even a "Scarecrow-I'll-miss-you-most-of-all" moment with the Mad Hatter, of all people.  Yet unlike Dorothy, the Alice of this film doesn't have a clear goal, a clear point of view; there's nothing like Toto she's trying to protect, and her psychology isn't reflected revealingly in the fantasyland her mind creates.  In fact, the Wonderland of this movie isn't a fantasyland at all: it's supposed to be a real place that Alice first visited as a child.  Her subsequent dreams of it are a form of PTSD, I guess, though how and why she went there in the first place is never explained.

Watching Wonderland just seemed to me like touring a theme park of missed opportunities.  As a misunderstood dreamer in a world of Victorian summer whites, Alice could have been a tragic Burtonian figure – à la Edward Scissorhands – whose happiness is not quite possible in the world she inhabits, but whose imagination is hauntingly beautiful just the same.  Instead, she's become a pawn, both in the hands of the White Queen and in the hands of the filmmakers.  Her actions are meaningless, hollow gestures, motivated by nothing internal.  I never mind it when a Burton character is dead, like Beetlejuice or Large Marge; I only hate it when they're dead inside.


Laina said...

You have brilliantly articulated what I couldn't quite put my finger on when I left the theater too and didn't feel like talking about it (it wasn't nearly as good as what I'd been anticipating, but the reasons weren't immediately apparent).
You are such a gifted writer, and must have been a psychology major in another life too! :-)

The Chawmonger said...

Oh, Laina, thanks so much for reading, and for the kind words! I'm glad you enjoyed the post.

Carly said...

you totally jsut talked me out of seeing it.

Have you thought about seeking a column, reviewing suits youe

Meredith said...

I liked your post so much I sent it to the central illinois film commission yahoo group.

The Chawmonger said...

You guys are such sweeties. Thanks for the encouragement, seriously.

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