Monday, July 12, 2010

A Most Unfortunate Wonderland

| by Allan Stackhouse |

There are no princesses in the 1951 Alice in Wonderland. It does not have the epic nature of Aladdin or The Lion King but it does stand out as one of Disney's most colorful films that takes place in arguably the most imaginative of places. I recall this being one of my favorite movies as a child and for Disney to take it upon themselves to remake/rehash/rerelease a classic is not above them yet nonetheless not appreciated with this year's Alice in Wonderland.

I first take issue with the film's marketing. Living in a metropolitan city with many theaters and frequenting Disneyland as often as I do, it seemed as if Johnny Depp's gap-toothed smile was following me everywhere. If you happen to have a gap-toothed smile, please take no offense unless you are following me in full-faced bluish-white makeup and an orange wig. It makes no sense to so heavily feature his face when he is not the star of the film. This is a wild, wild guess but maybe after seeing the film, the marketing team decided that this was the only feature of the film to draw in viewers. And they were right.

The missteps in Alice in Wonderland were definitely not in the casting. Hiring a pack of Hollywood's finest actors to do a Disney live-action feature was a no-brainer for those casting the film and the actors themselves. Big budget live-action Disney film about a previous classic propertycertainly has a nice ring to it. Yet, to assume the actors would provide enough substance to carry the film was unbelievably shortsighted on top of my chagrin from the name of the film.

The rest of the characters provide no redemption for the film either. The astounding Anne Hathaway, who reminded all of us what a live-action Disney film is supposed to be in 2001's The Princess Diaries, did nothing for the film except stand there and look blankly at her scene partners because she had no character. To her credit, no one else did in the film either. The queen. Don't get me started on the queen. She's mad and she's got a heart-shaped head. Is that really it, Tim Burton? Nothing else you possibly could have done with her, Linda Woolverton? Even though in the animated feature she displayed a breadth of emotions, from insistent as a stereotypical queen to stark raving mad to happy, Helena Bonham Carter's queen was constantly mad when she had nothing to be mad at.

Mia Wasikowska's Alice was also just as hollow. The story is presented as an escape for Alice from an arranged marriage. I haven't read Through the Looking-Glass but I have the hardest time believing that it would present itself as a bland chosen onestory. This is, again, attributable to the script. I will not be so bold as to suggest the script did this, this or this but I will say that the lack of content did not provide a fulfilling movie experience. In theory, a lack of character development and emotion could leave it up to the visual elements to carry the movie a la Avatar (for some) yet this does not happen in Alice.

I will pose to myself the same challenge that Mike of Red Letter Media from YouTube poses to people about the Star Wars films. His instructions: Describe the following Star Wars characters without saying what they look like, what kind of costume they wore or what their profession or role in the movie was. Describe this character to your friends like they've never seen Star Wars. For fun, I will use three examples from some of my favorite characters in films:

Niobe from The Matrix Reloaded: Bad ass Jada Pinkett Smith. Spry.
Bert from Mary Poppins: Utterly charming. Bumbling but oafish.
Rob from Cloverfield: unexpectedly dashing East coast party boy.

Now, Alice in Wonderland:

The Mad Hatter: ...
Alice: Girl.
White Queen: Hands up at all times for some reason. White.

One of the biggest missteps was the script. I was so surprised when I found out that Linda Woolverton wrote the screenplay. I've made no secret my love of her work on Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, and Mulan. For her to go from those instant classics to the abomination of Alice in Wonderland was very disappointing. I do not understand how she could have formed such fleshy and memorable characters to the mannequins in Alice. I will give her the benefit of the doubt and assume some producer or executive decided to bleach out the life of the characters. The distinction of acts is there but barely anything happens in them and the events that do happen are not captivating or interesting in the least. The dialogue left much to be desired. Had that been there, perhaps some chemistry amongst the actors could have been developed in the film.

The visual effects were so surprisingly bad in this film. The White Rabbit and the Cheshire Cat looked okay but the scenery looked terrible. Watching this film at home, on Blu-ray, on my 1080 LCD, I was appalled at how half-done some of the backgrounds looked. It is beyond my comprehension how both the characters and the backgrounds were not held to a high or at least similar standard. Perhaps in standard definition on an older TV, I would not have noticed the mountains that looked like my nieces and nephews got together and tried to use After Effects. Watching the scene where the jabberwocky flies through a barren Wonderland screamed of a rush job. The castles looked atrocious.

There are absolutely no redeeming points of the film. There is no charm, the animation was inconsistent and bad for the most part, the characters were dull and hollow, and the story went absolutely nowhere. I point my finger at everyone involved and I am sad to say that about a movie whose characters were originally so memorable. I'm still excited to see what Linda Woolverton does with Maleficent but I hope John Lasseter will be on set for it and future Disney live action/animation films to tell everyone when things look like sh*t.

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