Saturday, April 10, 2010

Alice in Wonderland (2010)

Alice in Wonderland (Tim Burton, 2010)

True to expectations, Tim Burton's Wonderland is a sumptuous visual feast. The alternate universe that young Alice serendipitously enters into via a rabbit hole is a cornucopia of colors that would usually look appalling when thrown together but is apparently surprisingly appropriate here. Burton's choice of using colors two to three shades paler and duller than normal helped in stopping his Wonderland from devolving into just another Disney-fied kitsch-laden spectacle (despite the fact that this imaginative take on the fictional place is funded with Mickey Mouse money). This is hardly the same shiny and sunny pastel-hued Wonderland that a pleasant-looking animated Alice traversed into in the 1951 Disney version. The differences are as apparent as night and day, as Burton has concocted a nightmarish anomaly of what the cartoon perpetuated throughout the years; although Jan Svankmajer's Alice (1988), with its sock puppets and other grotesqueries, is still unmatched in its contemptuous take on the famous fairy tale land.

The denizens of Burton's gloomy Wonderland, from the vaporous Cheshire Cat (voiced by Stephen Fry) to the curiously restrained Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp), are even paler and duller than the environs they reside in, exhibiting a collective languor and aloofness that is quite disquieting for the most part. Their slightly comatose predispositions seem to betray their carnivalesque appearances. Perhaps the only denizen that stands out, mostly because of the character's entertaining megalomania which can only be matched by her grotesquely disproportionate head, is the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter), who possesses the temperament of an impossibly unsatisfiable brat.

For all the subdued wonderment derived from immersing in Burton's twisted Wonderland, it is his Victorian era reality that provides more intrigue. Absent the quasi-oppressive use of computer generated visuals, Burton creates a believable atmosphere of unease in something that is familiar, even though it is only through history. The costumed party of curtsies and choreographed dances, with its participants of snobs and nut-cases, has in its center, sticking out because her unreasonableness is most reasonable in that queer reality, Burton's Alice (Mia Wasikowska), near-anemic in her paleness and perpetually troubled by a distant dream from her unspoken childhood. Absent from Wasikowska's Alice is the wide-eyed curiosity of a child. What's left is bewilderment, of the illogic of her situation, of that sudden confrontation of a life-altering decision to marry, that ripens into a desire to escape and break free. Critics have rallied against this Alice's sudden turn, recklessly branding her as a cardboard cut-out heroine of feminism, considering that her quest in Wonderland, where she ends up donning a plated armor ala Joan of Arc to slay the Jabberwocky, and her decision to turn-down the marriage proposal of an obnoxious aristocrat, are all cliché standards of girl power.

However, Burton's Alice, curiously afflicted with a selective amnesia after several years into adulthood, is more than just a feisty young girl who is a step away from self-actualization but prevented by the patriarchal era she lives in. Burton's Alice seems afflicted, not by the restraints of her society or the premature death of her father, but by a lingering psychological and emotional stress, the causes of which can be left to any sufficiently playful imagination.

Whether or not Burton's Alice in Wonderland, especially since this grown-up Alice seems to be wrestling with a vaguely remembered yet recurring memory (a symptom of child abuse), can be aptly read in consonance with the accusations that Charles Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll) was a pedophile (Dodgson's diary had a few missing pages, supposedly removed to protect the family reputation, that is rumored to detail his marriage proposal to an 11-year old Alice Lidell, who is believed to be the inspiration for the titular character; and his several photographs and illustrations of scantily clad children suggest some truth to the accusation) may stifle the fun from what essentially is Burton's most carelessly entertaining films in years. Yet, the idea that such a sensitive issue has slipped from the ultra-sensitive filters of Disney whose notion of family entertainment is limited to doggedly naive spectacles that carelessly float in toilet humor is thrilling enough.

(Perhaps I just can't get myself to admit that Burton has made what essentially is an over-plotted video game, which is what Alice's straightforward adventures in Wonderland resembles the most. In fact, the aesthetic which I dearly admired is not vastly different from the most imaginatively conceived of those high-tech time killers. What worries me the most is that this film-video game relationship seems to be advancing at a rate that is quite discomforting; where video games are quickly becoming more cinematic and films are becoming more robotic, at the expense of the value of cinema. As commercialism, in the guise of that magical castle that preludes to everything and anything that comes out of Disney, rears its ugly head, I struggle to locate the tiniest of details that may hint or sufficiently convince me that not everything has been surrendered for profit's sake. I am honestly deeply worried for Burton, who has made fine fine films despite his affinity with Hollywood.)


Noel Vera said...

Oh, I didn't think Svankmajer's version was contemptuous; if anything it's closer to the spirit of the books than this version.

Good call on the color palette. I'm of mixed mind about this movie too--think it's too close to Disney, not enough Svankmajer.

Oggs Cruz said...

Hi Noel,

I agree. Svankmajer's is closer to the books than any version I've seen; the books aren't exactly pleasant literature; there's a lot of sensuality and/or sexuality hidden in the imagery used, and Svankmajer's unabashed use of phallic symbols and other grotesqueries is quite apt. That being said, its contemptuous to what we normally think of Alice as propagated by Disney.

Burton could have done better, the same way he turned Batman more sexy, or turned Willy Wonka more deranged, or turned Sweeney Todd even more broken. If there's anything bubbling underneath Burton's version, it is too subtle to be certain of.

H.M. Agustin said...

I haven't see this one, but I do love svankmajer's. It's, yeah, closer to the book's nonesense. I really love it. Though, I'd love to see it again in it's original language.

Nice review Oggs!

Noel Vera said...

"its contemptuous to what we normally think of Alice as propagated by Disney."

This we agree.

There's also Dreamchild; I think Burton would have done better doing something like that, or even hiring Dennis Potter (but he's dead, isn't he? Damn) to do an adaptation. Or remake Dreamchild instead...