In the realm of faceless people writing about movies from the safety of the internet, I like to think I’m one of the more reasonable you’ll find. But I could be wrong. (See?) It’s a point that’s come up before, but it bears repeating: Unlike most people who write about movies online, I’ve spent A LOT of time working in all corners of the film and television industries in virtually every position there is. I know well how hard people work, around the clock, to bring every show to an audience. I try not to take that hard-earned knowledge lightly. Besides, I have friends who still work in film and TV, and I’m not even all the way out myself. I try mighty hard not to put anything on a computer screen that I don’t feel ready to say to someone’s face. On top of all of that, I grew up with movies. I love this stuff as much now as I did when I was young — if not more. It doesn’t make me happy to be unkind. I’m in this to share my enthusiasm, plain and simple.
All of that said, and try as I might, it’s way harder to find new ways to be nice. It’s certainly harder to be funny that way. And sometimes, a movie is put in front of me about which I just can’t find much nice to say and still remain honest.
These are the movies that forced me to be unkind.
There will be a particular breed of smartass who chooses to refer to Tim Burton’s new Alice In Wonderland project as “Tim Burton’s Avatar.”
A different breed of smartass may prefer to think of it as “Tim Burton’s Lord Of The Rings.”
Personally, I happen to be both kinds of smartass.
It’s reminiscent of Avatar because it’s longer than it needs to be, because there are dragons flying around all over the place, because there are weird computer-generated forests, and because the 3-D element is still new enough to make it feel like an event, which has led huge audiences to happily overlook its story flaws. (Avatar is a much better movie, for the record.)
It’s reminiscent of Lord Of The Rings because it’s longer than it needs to be, because characters who look ridiculous in body armor are forced to wear body armor, because it has charmingly pudgy little men skipping through scenes, because the great Christopher Lee plays a villain (even if he only gets one line, in voiceover, here) and because there are more walking scenes in it than there are in the average episode of Lost.
It’s a little disappointing that my smartass tendencies were roused by Alice In Wonderland, because Tim Burton’s movies generally dispel cynicism and invite enthusiasm, particularly from a daydreaming wackadoo like me. Tim Burton’s movies imagine worlds of darkness which are always strangely populated by optimism. Tim Burton is one of my very favorite directors and there are no shortage of proclamations to that effect all across the internet, but the main reason is that his movies celebrate all the things I’ve always been most captivated by: Skeletons, shadows, monsters, ghosts, freaks, aliens, pretty girls, old horror movies, heroic acts of stupidity, stupid acts of heroism, love, death, and monkeys.
Alice In Wonderland has a couple of those things, but not many of them, and while it wouldn’t be accurate to say that he has been sticking to re-envisioning exisiting properties of late (he’s always done that – only a fraction of his movies began from his own original concepts), it could fairly be argued that Tim Burton as a ‘cover artist’ is getting somewhat stale. For one thing, Alice In Wonderland as source material isn’t really a good match for Burton’s sensibilities. The original Lewis Carroll stories and most of the subsequent interpretations are all about maddening nonsense, verging on insanity. They’re somewhat nightmarish, honestly. By story’s end, Alice wants to get the fuck out of Wonderland. In contrast, Burton’s best movies have a playful sense of fun that you’d love to visit, even if you wouldn’t want to live there.
Beyond the mismatch of filmmaker to material, there are problems with the new Alice In Wonderland movie. To begin with, the script credited to Linda Woolverton is a mess. The story is nonsense, and not in that compelling, affecting, memorable Lewis Carroll spirit of nonsense. Just try to describe the plot of the finished movie in any coherent way. Can’t be done! The script tries to weld a heroic, Lord Of The Rings type of fantasy structure onto the original story and it just doesn’t work. Johnny Depp, as the Mad Hatter, has some fun and is fun to watch as usual, but his role, beefed up and altered from the original stories, is more noble warrior than infuriating troublemaker. That’s not just disloyal to the original story; it’s boring. The most memorable thing Depp gets to do as the Mad Hatter is breakdance at the end, and that’s more because it’s incongruous and bizarre than enjoyable. Depp is one of the great impish rogues of the modern cinematic age, but he’s confined by weak dialogue, off-putting make-up, and an ill-defined role here.
With a couple exceptions, the rest of the cast is similarly ill-served. The great weirdo Crispin Glover is wasted in a humorless villain role. Anne Hathaway, as the White Queen, gives a wispy performance lighter than air, which drifts from the memory as soon as she steps off-screen. Maybe one of the movie’s biggest problems is that its Alice isn’t particularly interesting to watch. I don’t know the actress Mia Wasikowska from anything else – it’s possible she’s a very lively actress elsewhere, but I wasn’t interested in her at all here, and I didn’t think she brought anything that hundreds of other girls could do just as effectively. The cinematography, by the otherwise fantastic Dariusz Wolski, is uncharacteristically dingy and unpleasant, and the 3D element is totally useless.
To me, a Tim Burton movie is never less than watchable, although this one comes closer than any before. What turned me off is that it’s unrelentingly grim, which isn’t what I expect or need from a Tim Burton film. There was enough that I enjoyed to make the time spent feel worthwhile – I loved the freakish character design and execution of The Cheshire Cat and Tweedledee & Tweedledum. Those characters in particular, and Helena Bonham Carter’s giant head, were fairly awesome. Alan Rickman, as The Caterpillar, is always a welcome presence, on camera or in voice alone. And I liked the dragon, but I’m notoriously easy to please that way. Still, it wasn’t the most impressive dragon I’ve ever seen, to say the least.
Long story short, I’m very glad to see that Burton’s next project is a feature-length retelling of his early Disney short, Frankenweenie. It may be another retelling of a pre-existing property, but at least it’s one of his own! What the world needs right now is not Tim Burton, big-budget interpreter. The world needs Tim Burton, modern-day imagineer.
Disagree somehow? Hit me here: @jonnyabomb