Sunday, March 7, 2010

Film Review: Alice in Wonderland

Minor spoilers ahead.

I had the chance to see the new Alice in Wonderland film by Tim Burton this weekend (oddly, I didn't see it with my 8 year old daughter, who saw it the day before with my wife). I liked it immensely, but I have some reservations and some observations.

I should preface this review by saying that I have never read either Alice in Wonderland or Through the Looking Glass. My experience with the "Wonderland" milieu is limited to the 1951 Disney cartoon (and only dim recollections of that, I might add) and the pair of iconic AD&D modules "The Land Beyond the Magic Mirror" and "Dungeonland", penned by Gary Gygax in the early 1980's*. So I fall firmly into the camp of those who are unfamiliar with the original source material, and whose knowledge is based entirely on secondary sources and pop-culture references.

First off, most people don't seem to realize that this is not an original film. It is not an interpretation of the books, it is not a re-imagining of the material. It is, in fact, a sequel. Specifically, it is a sequel to the 1951 masterpiece, also done by Disney, Alice in Wonderland. 

This is something that's alluded to throughout the film, and is carried throughout in both the visual design of the picture as well as the plot (although through some clever contrivances, the writer manages to obfuscate that particular point to the non-observant for quite some time).

Let me get the obvious out of the way. This is a visually stunning film. The visual design really brings Wonderland (or "Underland" as it's called; I might just take that name up as a generic short-hand name for the mythic underworld of megadungeons and the like) to life. I only saw the film in 3D, not Imax 3D, and I found the 3D technology somewhat lacking. There were shadows and blurring (especially when there were light-colored backgrounds or foregrounds). And aside from the iconic scene where Alice falls down the rabbit hole, there really weren't any places where the 3D was actually necessary or even warranted. I felt like I could have seen this film in regular 2D and been just as satisfied with it, visually. Danny Elfman's score was workmanlike, and the Avril Levigne song at the end credits was completely unnecessary.

One thing I didn't like was the fact that the Mad Hatter (played, as everyone knows, by long time Tim Burton collaborator Johnny Depp) had such a prominent role. I know why he did. Johnny Depp puts butts in seats. And Depp did a good enough job in the role (I could have done without the foreshadowed dance at the end, and the dip into a Scottish accent from time to time was interesting the first time or two, but would have been much more so had he done a whole range of accents, à la Tony Randall as Dr. Lao. But I wish the story could have been written with less Hatter and more Alice. Maybe his screen time could have been filled by the Walrus and the Carpenter, or other minor characters that never made it into this version. And the continual unnecessary addition of a "y" at the end of the Jabberwock's name was either sloppiness on the part of the writer or a conscious nod to the Terry Gilliam film. I choose to believe it was the latter.

But these are, ultimately, minor quibbles. What really sold this film to me was the fact that it moved the story of Alice and (W)underland forward. This is a Wonderland ruled over by the Red Queen, and it's a Wonderland that's seen better days. It has a wonderfully worn quality, and a lack of spark that, once one realizes what's going on, makes perfect sense. I love it when things that I originally put down as flaws are revealed to actually have a purpose. This Wonderland is dreary and tired for a reason. And that reason is that it's been fifteen years since Alice's original visit to Wonderland. And it is here that we see that this film is, in actuality, a sequel to the 1951 version. Or some close approximation.

We even get some flashbacks to that happier time. We see the Tea Party as it was when Alice first arrived in Wonderland. We see how the Red Queen came to dominate the landscape. The design of those flashbacks seems deliberately to harken back to the 1951 Disney version. Even the design of some of the characters-- notably the March Hare-- seems to be a deliberate nod. And I loved it. Excellent stuff, and it turns this film from yet another rehash of a classic story into something that makes the story more than it was originally.

On the whole, this was a great film, although it could have been done without the 3D technology and been just as enjoyable. I had some personal questions about some of the choices the writer made, but they were swept away by the vision of the story and the visual make-up of the film. I would absolutely recommend this to anyone, and in terms of those DM's who might be looking for ways to adapt their copies of EX1 and EX2 to an audience that might be a bit jaded with the originals, this film most certainly gives the enterprising DM some ideas for ways to move the story forward in ways that will give his players nightmares.
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* Oh, I should add that my knowledge of Wonderland is also informed by the following. Just in the interest of full disclosure. Man, Grace Slick was so hot back then. And no, I don't remember when this song came out; I'm not that old. Although I was alive when it did. Now get off my lawn.

5 comments:

The Badger King said...

So, I take it this movie is somehwat in the spirit of the novel "The Looking-Glass War" by Frank Beddoe? Because if it is.... I think I'll skip it, because I *HATED* that book.

Marshall Smith said...

@BadgerKing: Somewhat in that vein, and yet thoroughly different. And far, far superior. Take what you wanted "The Looking Glass War" to be, simplify it a bit (Alice does not have a complex plot), and add Tim Burton's style. For me, it was fairly close to that (as I, too, was ultimately disappointed in TLGW).

Talysman said...

If they're going to call it "Underland", then it shouldn't be ruled by the Red Queen, but by Girl Hitler.

Oh, and if you haven't read the books, you need to. Adaptations tend to be heavy on the wonder and light on the nonsense, which is a serious flaw. And then, you can watch Jan Svankmeyer's Alice, and as comparison the Alice mini-series that SyFy showed recently. I guarantee that all other versions of Alice beat the one on SyFy.

Norman Harman said...

That video made me look up the lyrics. Holy crap man, for the past 30yrs I've thought the last line was

"Feed your head."

I'm moderately saddened now.

Matthew Slepin said...

...or "Underland" as it's called; I might just take that name up as a generic short-hand name for the mythic underworld of megadungeons and the like...

That's exactly what I'm doing (although I thought of that long before this movie came to be).