An action hero in Wonderland ~ That Movie Blogger Fella

Friday, March 19, 2010

An action hero in Wonderland

Alice in Wonderland
My rating:

TMBF was recently subjected to a conversation between some colleagues about this movie. I say "subjected", because I couldn't participate, because I hadn't watched it yet, and because that bothered me. I'm a movie critic yo, which means I ought to be able to provide my highly-valued opinions on current films at any time. But the 3D version was released a full week before the normal 2D version, and I didn't want to watch it in 3D - I'm just not keen on it, unless it's James Cameron telling me I should be. On top of that, our local cinema release schedule has been hectic since CNY, with so many movies I want to watch that I can barely catch them before they're gone.

So here it is, my belated but eagerly-anticipated-I'm-sure review of Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland: It's good.

Alice Kingsleigh (Mia Wasikowska) is about to be married off to some upper-class twit whom she barely knows. Balking at having her life planned out for her, she runs off in pursuit of what looks like a white rabbit in a waistcoat - and ends up falling through a rabbit hole into Underland, a fantastic world filled with bizarre creatures. Amongst them are the rabbit McTwisp (voice of Michael Sheen), the twins Tweedledum and Tweedledee (Matt Lucas), the blue caterpillar Absolem (voice of Alan Rickman), the grinning, ethereal cat Chessur (voice of Stephen Fry), and the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp). It turns out that they are all rebels against the tyrannical rule of the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) and her Knave of Hearts (Crispin Glover), and that Alice is the prophesied champion of the White Queen (Anne Hathaway) who will wield the Vorpal Sword and slay the Red Queen's monstrous Jabberwocky. But although she believes all this to be a dream at first, she will soon realize that she has been here before...

I wondered at first why none of the reviews I read mentioned that this film is in fact a sequel to Lewis Carroll's original novels. It's there in the synopsis and trailers, isn't it; Alice returns to Wonderland, this time as a 19-year-old, thirteen years after her first visit? Well, that's not exactly true. The film takes the events of the novels (there were two of them, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass) as backstory, but also retells certain key scenes, such as the room with the "Drink Me" potion and "Eat Me" cake and the tea party. And none of the other characters really remember her from before - they're just trying to figure out if she's the Alice, their foretold saviour.

So I guess what we have here is a reimagining. It jettisons Carroll's storyline - or lack thereof, since the books are really just one bizarre child's-dream-logic sequence after another (just read the plot summaries from Wikipedia) - in favour of a fantasy action-adventure plot crafted out of Carroll's characters and concepts. Some may cry "sacrilege!", but not me. I like fantasy action-adventures, and I like a proper story with a goal and a climax and a character arc. There's even a theme of Alice facing up to responsibility both in Underland and in the real world, which you could further project into a message that to fully become an adult, one must confront the artifacts of childhood. That's kinda overthinking the movie, but the fact that it raises such thoughts in the first place is more than you'd expect already.

And it's pretty decent, as fantasy adventures go. Tim Burton would seem like the perfect guy to direct an Alice in Wonderland movie, and indeed it's his interpretations of the wild and weird inhabitants of Underland that make it so much fun. There's a sense during the early proceedings that he's just showing you one bizarre and funny thing after another, keeping you surprised and off-balance; but just when you've gotten the hang of the world you're in, that's when the plot kicks in. Which is absolutely the way a fantasy adventure should be structured and paced. Granted, the film is kinda Burton-lite - there's always been a macabre darkness to his work (albeit more of a childish fascination with it), but it's pretty much absent here. Probably owing to the fact that it's also a Disney production. I bet that, what with the Red Queen's frequent proclamation of "Off with his head!", he'd wanted to show some actual severed heads.

Which brings us to the actors. Helena Bonham Carter is the show-stealer here; she's totally getting typecast as over-the-top psycho villain chicks, and that's because she's so good at it. The supporting cast are so veddy British, which means they are as good as you'd expect. Johnny Depp gets star billing (early teaser posters showed nothing but his made-up mug), but he doesn't really stand out, and that's more to do with how his character is written. The film tries to sell us on a touching friendship between the Hatter and Alice that doesn't quite succeed at tugging the heartstrings, mostly due to the lack of chemistry between the actors. Which brings us to Australian newcomer Mia Wasikowska. Why are so many reviews praising her acting? I thought she was just wooden - this makes it the second movie I've seen in a week with a weak lead performance.

Ultimately it's the bizarrerie of Burton's imagination that makes this more than just a Chronicles of Narnia clone - which is what it turns into by the third act, complete with big battle scene and the Underlandians kicking ass and Alice in a suit of armour wielding a sword fighting a dragon. As I said, I don't mind turning Alice in Wonderland into an action-adventure, but I also admit that the Narnia movies did it better. It's a shame that the movie didn't really settle into its own groove; Crispin Glover could've been creepier, Anne Hathaway could've been kookier, Depp didn't have to get all dramatic, and there could've been more of Carter. (And Wasikowska could've been replaced.) But at least we got a pretty good family-friendly fantasy movie out of it, one that kiddies and grownups alike can enjoy.

NEXT REVIEW: Edge of Darkness
Expectations: Martin Campbell FT(hopefully)W


Alexandra Wong said...

I am so relieved you liked it! :)

chicnchomel said...

i was grumpy so i told hubby to watch solo