In his adaptation of Alice in Wonderland, director Tim Burton has reimagined the fanciful tale. After umpteen variations on Lewis Carroll’s story, something new is not a bad thing (although I’m not sure that the story really needed to end in a desultory battle scene). Alice (Mia Wasikowski) is older in this version, written by Linda Woolverton and adapted from both Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Alice through the Looking Glass. She’s a rebellious 19-year-old, a young woman who has been plagued all her life by strange dreams of a land filled with eccentric weirdos. Just as she is about to become engaged – to a man who shows her as little regard as she shows him – a white rabbit in a waistcoat appears and leads her down that fateful rabbit hole.
That Alice in Wonderland is a 3D movie necessitates, I suppose, that the fall down the rabbit hole be rendered in 3D, with miscellaneous detritus flying about and occasionally flying towards the front of the screen; but it cannot be said that Burton embraces 3D with anything like artistic enthusiasm. He’s a director with a keen eye for design and a distinctive visual style, but the 3D feels like an afterthought in Alice in Wonderland – a tacked-on and unnecessary contrivance. There’s plenty enough to look at in Burton’s movies without having to see it in simulated 3D. The 3D technology tends to mute colors and darken the picture, and Alice in Wonderland, like most of Burton’s films, is plenty dark enough.
This is a particular gloomy elaboration on the Alice in Wonderland tale – one in which Alice, according to a prophecy of Underland (for that is the place’s actual name, we are told), will slay the menacing Jabberwock on the frabjous day. Alice would really rather not, but circumstances conspire to force her hand when her friends are captured by the wicked Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter), who, as she is wont to do, has decided to separate them from their heads.
Alice spends much of the movie wandering about Underland, hiding from the Red Queen’s henchman the Knave of Hearts (Crispin Glover) and his toothy, frumious Bandersnatch. Alice shrinks and grows and shrinks and grows and interacts with the various oddities who live in Underland, most notably the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp), a foppish milliner with horizontal tendrils of flaming red hair, very, very large green eyes and a tendency periodically to lose what little bits of his mind are left. In time, Alice learns that she has been in Underland before, as a small girl, and that the Underlanders have all been waiting for her to return and end the Red Queen’s reign of terror and wanton decapitation.
Now, the Red Queen is wicked indeed, with a gigantic noggin that’s oddly reminiscent of Bette Davis in Queen Elizabeth – which makes her that much more menacing. Her sister the White Queen (Anne Hathaway) waits for Alice, but Alice isn’t terribly keen on battling the Jabberwock, even though inevitability and the story apparently demand it. And there’s the chief problem with Alice in Wonderland: Alice is a bit wan and indecisive, a heroine pushed grudgingly along toward her destiny, but not really feeling it despite the best efforts of the Mad Hatter and others to inspire her. The Red Queen plays croquet with a flamingo and a hedgehog –she hits the hedgehog with the flamingo. How evil does she have to be before Alice finally gives a whit?
As Absolem, the hookah-smoking blue caterpillar, tells her, she’s lost her “muchness.” She could use some more muchness, to be sure. On the other hand, the Cheshire Cat (voiced with sly, silky slinkiness by Stephen Fry) is fantastic: He’s got some of that muchness that Alice lacks; and so do several other more tangible critters who turn up to prod, assist and generally run circles around Alice. This is a pretty grown-up Alice in Wonderland, and this Alice has some growing up to do.
Alice in Wonderland looks great, as can be expected from a Burton movie. It’s full of curiouser-and-curiouser sights and many perils, and it whipsaws between visually arresting, candy-colored castles (tinged with menace) and dreary, bizarre, ominous hinterlands. The movie is, in its doleful, baleful, peculiar way, also quite bewitching – until it falls apart in a halfhearted, perfunctory, oddly uninspired action sequence, a battle scene that really offers not much as a story climax and is every bit as uncertain and noncommittal as Alice. It’s an ordinary, predictable ending to an offbeat movie that had been bursting with the unexpected.
@ Syd M
Syd delves into
the dark Depp/Burton oeuvre for your home video-watching pleasure
Tim Burton and Johnny Depp have had a long and fruitful collaboration, beginning in 1990 when Depp, then a TV teen idol, played Edward Scissorhands, a Frankensteinian lad with scissors for hands. Six more films followed: Ed Wood (1994), Sleepy Hollow (1999), Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005), Corpse Bride (2005), Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007) and Alice in Wonderland. Burton has developed his own troupe of actors: Christopher Lee has been in four of his movies, and Helena Bonham Carter, Burton’s wife, has been in five. Like Alice in Wonderland, the Burton/Depp oeuvre is generally quirky and gloomy.
Sleepy Hollow turns Irving’s ghost story into a fairly conventional serial-killer murder mystery suited to the deductive powers of New York’s first detective, Ichabod Crane. The bones of Irving’s story give Burton and Depp plenty of room to play with whimsical gizmos, beautifully delicate and impractical little gadgets (reminiscent of Edward Scissorhands’ mechanical digits) made for poking and prodding the truth out of corpses.
Like all Burton films, Sleepy Hollow looks great; but with all the rolling heads, it has a fair amount of splattering blood and gore as well. A stylish, art-house slasher flick that pays homage to Burton’s macabre filmic forebears (Christopher Lee, star of countless Hammer horror films, makes a delightful cameo), Sleepy Hollow, typical of the Burton oeuvre, has more visual riches than narrative substance. In this, his most graphically bloody film, Burton forgets that less is usually more when it comes to gore.
There’s often a real tension in the director’s movies among his arty tendencies, his macabre sense of humor and the expectation of genuine fright that the stories suggest but rarely deliver. Sleepy Hollow is no exception; and the story’s conflict between 19th-century rationality and 18th-century irrationality and emotion is mirrored in Burton’s approach to filmmaking, which tends to favor the consciously aesthetic over the emotional. This version of the Headless Horseman’s tale is simmering with sentiments – rage, vengeance, fear, jealousy, grief – that remain strangely pent-up and repressed to such a point that not a tear is shed over the recently decapitated in the town of Sleepy Hollow, and the feelings of terror that should attend the schwing and swish of the Horseman’s unerring blade are barely noticeable.
Burton and Depp managed to uncover that sinister little something about Willy Wonka, the candy magnate invented by Roald Dahl in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Wonka’s a contradictory curmudgeon who seems particularly to dislike children, and he’s a little – shall we say – punitive, having a rather casual attitude about the harm that befalls the youngsters who visit his factory. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is, at heart, a cautionary tale about sin: a warning to naughty children that nasty fates await those who are greedy, gluttonous, unkind, unpleasant and who watch too much television.
Wonka doesn’t merely teach the children a lesson, however. He punishes them (or rather, stands idly by while they do it to themselves) with what sometimes turns out to be permanent disfigurement (if you consider being turned blue disfigurement, that is). Dahl, like the authors of classic fairytales, didn’t see fit to sugarcoat his fables; bad things happen to bad people in them, and sometimes to good people, too.
Like Dahl’s novel, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a sweet-and-sour experience. Burton brings his playfully macabre sensibility to the movie, and, along with production designer Alex McDowell creates a fabulous and imaginative movie filled with eye candy that looks good enough to eat – although, like those awful creme-filled chocolates, Wonka’s world contains nasty surprises inside. The movie is quite faithful to the beloved book.
Depp’s Wonka is both a ruthless moral enforcer and a bad example in his own right. Depp’s performance is refreshingly free of the condescending mugging that afflicts too many “wacky” characters in kid-oriented films. It’s a loopy performance in a loopy movie, but both Depp and Burton resist the temptation to wink at the camera and nudge the audience in the ribs just to let them know that they’re in on the joke. Burton seems to understand, like Dahl did, that kids are already in on the joke, and that all they really want is to see the candy.
The darkest and most murderous of all is Sweeney Todd, a gruesomely humorous musical about serial murder and cannibalism. Leave it to song-and-dance man Stephen Sondheim and director Burton to make Sweeney Todd into a bracingly original, breathtakingly bleak and grisly movie – a masterpiece of music and misanthropy, a tasty morsel of bad taste, complete with buckets of blood and mounds of crumpled corpses.
There’s prickly humor in Sondheim’s songs, but the overall mood of Sweeney Todd is dark and darker – from the grim and grimy London setting, where smokestacks continuously belch black clouds into the air, to the bug-infested hovel where Sweeney (Depp) and Mrs. Lovett (Bonham Carter) plot and scheme and dance and sing. Dante Ferretti’s production design is perfect, making excellent use of space and employing a washed-out palette of greys, browns and bluish-blacks. Everything looks half-dead, dust-covered, moldering. Even the story’s young lovers (Jayne Wisener and Jamie Campbell Bower) are pale and wan, half-defeated and mostly doomed before they even meet. Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski captures beautifully the grimness of the sets, the aggressive redness of the blood that spurts with geyserlike force and regularity from Sweeney’s many victims and the verve of the performances.
The movie’s vitality – its lifeblood, as it were – is found in the two characters who are most truly, madly, deeply alive in Sweeney Todd, their black hearts animated by vengeance and, in Mrs. Lovett’s case, a kind of twisted, Swiftian supercapitalism that cheerily embraces eating the rich and the poor alike. Burton here strikes a graceful balance between the wickedly, delightfully macabre musical aspect of Sweeney Todd and the violent, grotesque, Gothic horror-movie aspect. A director of peculiar, unique vision and style, Burton has mastered form more than function, and doesn’t always tell a story with the same confidence and art that he brings to the stylistic components of his films; but in Sweeney Todd, he conveys the story briskly and efficiently while striking all the right emotional chords.
Depp, who is Burton’s Muse if anyone is, sings with an angry growl, adding a kind of rock ‘n’ roll sensibility and savagery that really suits the songs. He also brings the perfect combination of pathos and mania, sympathy and horror to the character; it’s easy enough to empathize with the wronged barber – until he turns his furious blade to a less discriminating and more comprehensive kind of vengeance. The snappy, chatty lyrics are both whimsical and vicious – which pretty much describes Mrs. Lovett, a part requiring little singing skill (which is precisely the degree of singing skill that Bonham Carter, with her breathy, twittery voice, exhibits).
This Sweeney Todd is not a musical showcase for big, soaring singing styles, nor is it strictly an adaptation of the theatrical musical, but rather a radical restaging and redesign – one that emphasizes the darkest, most vicious and most tragic notes of the songs and the story, and of human nature. More opera than musical in its sensibility, and humorous without a hint or hope of happiness, Sweeney Todd is cohesive and beautifully harmonious – a movie composed entirely of melancholy minor chords.