Monday, March 8, 2010


Directed by Tim Burton Starring Mia Wasikowska, Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter

Someone stop Tim Burton and Johnny Depp before they make another movie together. Twenty years after their first collaboration came in the form of the brilliant and moving Edward Scissorhands, the duo seem determined to erase the memory of that film and any other decent work they've produced collectively. Instead it appears that they want to be remembered as modern day interpreters of classic childrens tales, making them boring, unimaginative, and ugly.

Let's be honest: Tim Burton has not made a great film in quite some time. The closest he's come to reaching the heights of greatness he soared to with 1994's Ed Wood (still his best film, still Johnny Depp's best role) was with 2003's Big Fish (and, some would argue, 2007's Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street - but not me), and even that film is getting rickety with age. In the past decade he's directed one good film (Big Fish), two forgettable ones (the aforementioned Sweeney Todd and Corpse Bride), and two flat-out disasters: 2001's unnecessary reboot of Planet of the Apes and 2005's light-weight Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The aught's have given us barely anything worthy of repeat viewing from Mr. Burton, and the second decade of the 21st century doesn't see him getting any better.

Case in point: Alice in Wonderland. Full disclosure: I have never read the Lewis Carroll book on which this version is based. Apparently that's ok, because the story in Burton's version is different than the original. In Burton's version, Alice is on the verge of her 20's. She's a young girl with no direction but whatever her stuffy mother and snobby friends point her in. She used to have a vivid imagination, but that was suppressed by her mother after Alice's father passed away (oh Burton, you and your daddy issues!) Alice is proposed to by the son of a local Lord, and at her engagement party she runs away from the proposal distracted by a curiously dressed white rabbit, which she follows down a hole and into Underland, where she gets caught up in a war between the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) and her sister the White Queen (Anne Hathaway). Hijinks with talking animals ensue.

The most grating thing about the film is that for being such a wonderland, Underland is almost offensively ugly and drab. The traditional Burton stylings are applied to the set design and art direction of Underland (gnarled, reaching trees, drained color, lots of grays blacks) and I can finally admit that I'm tired of the look of his films. I understand there are certain people that are devoted to the Burton aesthetic - he does, after all, have his own exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City - and a decade and a half ago (heck, even a decade ago) I would have counted myself among those devotees. But the director's style has become so predictable, so banal, so outright boring that I cringe whenever I come across a new piece of art design from his movies. Alice in Wonderland represents the final nail in the coffin of any excitement I had left in me when it comes to Tim Burton's name.

As much as Burton is to blame for the film's utterly unoriginal and depressing look, Johnny Depp doesn't do much to save the film's face. His Mad Hatter has factored heavily into the marketing for Alice in Wonderland and with good reason. Everyone loves Johnny Depp doing his weird, quirky, Johnny Depp thing. He puts on a crazy wig, some white face paint (or orange fake-tan, in the case of Pirates of the Caribbean), talks all funny with a crazy accent, and the people just laugh and suck it up like Daniel Planview gulping down Eli Sunday's mikshake. Everyone except me. Ever since donning a pirate costume and acting like Keith Richards brought Depp his first Oscar nomination he's had a penchant for dressing up and acting bonkers. Johnny Depp is a gifted and immensely talented actor - one of the best we have working right now. But every time he plays dress up and prances around the screen (he's got a particularly embarrassing scene towards the end of Alice in Wonderland that had me shaking my head) a part of me dies.

The rest of the cast doesn't fare much better. Mia Wasikowska has Gwenyth Paltrow's face and Sophia Coppola's acting ability. Helena Bonham Carter screams at the top of her lungs and over-acts throughout the film's running time, and usually solid character actors like Crispin Glover (the Knave of Hearts) and Alan Rickman (Blue Caterpillar) are completely and utterly wasted. It's as if they know the screenplay goes nowhere and the show is really a vehicle for Depp to act like a buffoon and score more points with the Hot Topic crowd, so they phoned it in.

I wish I could say Alice in Wonderland was merely disappointing. That the Burton and Depp magic just didn't make it to the screen this time around. Unfortunately, the magic the duo could once conjure up at the drop of a hat (pun most definitely intended) fizzled quite some time ago. I have no desire to see if they can ever spell-bind me again.

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