Saturday, March 6, 2010

Depp + 3D visuals are 'Alice in Wonderland' draw power

By Steve Crum

With Alice in Wonderland in 3D, you get not only Johnny Depp, but Johnny In-Depth. That pun out of the way, be aware that Tim Burton’s partially live action remake of Disney’s Alice in Wonderland is an eyeful, and that is about it. Its 108 minutes seem laboriously longer, and Depp and company ham upon ham.

Without the 3D, which is frequently used cleverly, Alice would only marginally deserve a second looking glass look. Incorporating the songs from the 1951 cartoon would have helped immensely. Since Disney produced both films, why not? As it is, Burton has directed a surprisingly lifeless take on Lewis Carroll’s classic fairy tale. Even Depp’s endless mugging can’t save it from the pit wherein Alice falls.

But visually, which is where this Alice really radiates, there are many riches. Ken Ralston’s visual effects are stunning and surreal; Colleen Atwood’s costumes are dazzling; and Dariusz Wolski’s photography is spot on. However, all suffer because most scenes are so darkly shot. How can one fully appreciate their good work when even the brightest days seem like sundown or dusk? Either Burton and Wolksi purposely took the visual design from Arthur Rackham’s sepia-tone illustrations for the 1907 publishing of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (which includes dimly lit imagery) or the problem was at my screening. Perhaps the 3D projector had an under-watted bulb?

From 1903 to the present, there have been 16 film adaptations and numerous TV and video productions of Lewis Carroll’s fantasy novel. Originally published in 1865, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was followed by Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871). So what has Tim Burton brought to the Hatter’s table? For one, he and screenwriter Linda Woolverton have included doses of Carroll’s poem Jabberwocky, first featured in Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass. In fact, Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter humorously recites its nonsensical lines at one point.

Unlike Disney’s classic animated film, most of Burton’s Alice features a young adult heroine (played by Mia Wasikowska), even though the story opens 13 years earlier when the child Alice first encounters or fantasizes about “Underland.” The older Alice, living in Victorian England, is about to be engaged to a young man about whom she does not care. Distracted by a large rabbit at an outdoor surprise party, Alice runs after the critter, tracks it to a large hole in the ground, and promptly falls in. She then arrives in Wonderland, aka Underland, encountering adventures familiar to most viewers. There are the potions she drinks for both shrinking and growing tall, the Mad Hatter’s tea party, encounters with the wise caterpillar and the floating cat, and her relationships with both the good White Queen and the evil Red Queen. I do like the Red Queen's footstool. Talk about hamming it up!

For the record, Helena Bonham Carter sneers as Red Queen; Anne Hathaway is sweet goodness as White Queen; Crispin Glover’s head digitally sits atop a tall and evil knight called Stayne, Knave of Hearts; and Matt Lucas has his face morphed on the roly-poly, identical twins Tweedledee and Tweedledum. There is fine voice work by Stephen Fry (Cheshire Cat), Alan Rickman (Blue Caterpillar), Michael Sheen (White Rabbit), Paul Whitehouse (March Hare), Timothy Spall (Bayard), and Barbara Windsor’s Dormouse.

What most will come to see, outside of the 3D, is Johnny Depp’s portrayal of Mad Hatter, and they won’t be disappointed. Depp is basically doing a blend of Willy Wonka and Captain Jack, which translates to goofy, yet heroic, innocence. That, as previously said, includes his patented facial takes and mugging. Nothing wrong here since our greatest screen clowns had their shtick too. Count how many times Danny Kaye repeated his facial contortions in picture after picture throughout his screen career. Kaye fans loved him for it, and so now do Depp fans.

Mention should be made that Alice in Wonderland is pretty heavy on beheadings and like violence, certainly too intense for younger kids. In days of yon, this PG rated film would surely have garnered at least a PG-13.

Incidentally, the 3D is effectively used throughout Alice in Wonderland, but the pudding’s plum occurs in the very last second of the film. While it doesn’t qualify as a grand finale, it certainly outgrabes the mome raths. My Hatter’s tip to Lewis Carroll.
On an A to F grade scale: B-
Beware the Red Queen as you view the Alice in Wonderland trailer:

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