March 15, 2010

Burton's "Alice in Wonderland" - now with less flying poop

Now that I've had a chance to think about it (and see it again - yes, I'm a sucker. I wanna make sure I didn't like it), I can kinda sorta pinpoint why Burton's Alice in Wonderland left me cold.

As in a lot of films (as Joshua James would tell you), the weakness was story.

Burton's Alice in Wonderland is one of those rare film failures that combines two contradictory mistakes: too much story and not enough story.

Carroll's books don't make sense. Why does this happen? What does that mean? Who the fuck knows - that's the point! You're supposed to be swept up in this crazy world where you never know what will happen next or who will cross your path. That's why it's called, you know, Wonderland. Talking caterpillars smoking hooka on a mushroom. Queens and cards and flamingo croquet. Mad Hatters at tea parties with March Hares. And so on and so forth. Alice in Wonderland is supposed to make about as much sense as this . . .

Ladies and Gentleman, you can't have a coherent linear narrative of Alice in Wonderland because "It. Does. Not. Make. Sense!" You hear me? It. Does. Not. Make. Sense!!!

OK, OK, fine. So you want to have an actual story with characters and such. Fine. But if you're going to do that, do something we haven't seen before with it. Take an approach we don't see all the time. And here is where Burton's Alice in Wonderland pisses me off. I don't mean a little bit irritated. I mean genuinely pissed off - pissed off at George Lucas for the Star Wars prequels pissed off.

Why? Because like George Lucas, Tim Burton - a director whose work I used to look forward to because he creates such amazing worlds - doesn't know what the fuck to do with actors. And he's married to one of them! So he really has no fucking excuse.

The only things keeping this movie from being a colossal socket-fuck of a disaster are the performances by Helena Bonham Carter and Anne Hathaway. They do what they can with their limited material - it's not like they can up and say, "You know what, Tim? Fuck this. Who wrote this shit? Was it you? C'mere you little maggot! MOTHERFUCKER, DO YOU KNOW WHO I AM?!?!?!?!?! Look at this. I said look at it! Is this the best you can do? Is this the most interesting story you can tell with these characters? Stop looking at Johnny Depp - he won't save you! Is this the best you can do? Now you listen to me, you fucking hack. Every page that sucks is going right down your goddamn throat. Do you hear me? Hm? Good. Don't. Fuck. With. Me."

Remember when I said that Burton's Alice in Wonderland makes too much sense? Right, now here is where it does the Chewbacca Defense all wrong by making sense in the most predictable way possible.

If you haven't seen the movie you might want to stop reading this now if you don't want it spoiled. But if you've seen a Disney movie before, there's little I can do to spoil this movie for you because you already know the formula. In other words: whatever.

Let me take off my vulgar snark hat for a minute and talk about what I gathered from the story here. Then maybe you can see why it pissed me off.

The driving element of the film's narrative is the conflict between the Red and White Queens. Fuck Alice and her name in the title. The two queens are the engines beneath the hood.

These two characters are ideals and political philosophies as much as they are individuals. And I don't mean something as pedestrian as the typical Good (White Queen) vs. Evil (Red Queen) conflict.

The film touches on the question of whether it is better for people in power to be feared (Red Queen) or loved (White Queen). There's also lots of potential for Freudian and Jungian goodness too. Alice/Mad Hatter as Anima/Animus. Red Queen/Alice/White Queen as Id/Ego/Superego. There are tons of possibilities there and the performers hint at it too.

Carter and Hathaway add a touch of something in their performances that make these characters more like a yin-yang than simple dichotomies. Carter injects a self-awareness into the Red Queen that turns her into a tragic character. She's more Richard III than Wicked Witch of the West (pre-Wicked). Hathaway peels away at the White Queen's saintly demeanor, hinting at something far more sinister at work. She's less Glinda the Good Witch and more Palpatine.

With those subtleties in their performances, there's a lot of real potential to explore some mature ideas and themes in an interesting and entertaining way.

The problem? We don't see it.

I'm not John Huston here, but there is something I tend to believe about What Makes a Good Director. This is about as close as I get to an aesthetic philosophy, at least as it applies to film.
If you're directing a film or play that re-envisions a well-known classic, if you have someone - a performer, perhaps - willing to invest that sort of energy and creativity into a role that, on the surface, is pretty fucking bland . . .
But you want to know why we don't see that? Because of Burton's perpetual hard-on for Johnny Depp. Not the Johnny Depp the versatile actor, but Johnny Depp the quirky outsider. The Mad Hatter was a periphery character in the books, and the movies would've fared better if they followed suit. A cameo would've sufficed nicely. Again, Burton's priapism with regards to Johnny Depp gets in the way.

Allow me to present for you a hypothetical situation. Let's say I was producing/directing/writing this for the stage. I'm collaborating with the same performers. Anne Hathaway comes to me and says, "Maybe there's something about her whole Nice Queen routine that's an act. Maybe she's afraid of her own capacity for violence and cruelty and is creating this saccharine world as a way of repressing that."

My response, "Cool! Now how about we take that further? What is she really like underneath? What does the strain of that performance do to her? What is she really feeling about herself, about the people around her, about the world she lives in? To what extent is her act a part of her nature and to what extent is it a tool to manipulate people? Is her becoming queen really a good thing?"

If you think about it, there are hints of Luke and Vader in the relationship between the White and Red Queens. "I am your father" means that the bad guy isn't some monster you can kill because whatever is inside them is also inside you. In the White Queen's case, things could actually get worse than when the Red Queen is in charge because people want to do her bidding. Let's see, an entire country driven to commit horrible acts based on the persuasiveness of a charismatic leader without a conscience (or worse - one who sincerely believes in some seriously stinky bullshit). Where have we seen that before?

I would fucking rewrite the script if someone brought something so potentially mind-shatteringly awesome to my work. Think about what's more interesting to explore:

  • Alice caught in a conflict between two women of power, each representing different approaches to using that power = the shit.
  • Alice forming her own identity and encountering two monarchs who represent opposing yet linked impulses = the shit.
  • Alice coming into her own power based on what she learned from her journey to Wonderland = the shit.
  • Alice driven by childish sentimentality for a side character in her first journey = the suck.

So we could've had something on par with the Star Wars or Lord of the Rings trilogies.

But what do we get? Flatterwackin'.


  1. Pretty much everyone has said the same thing about this film. I still plan to see it tomorrow after work (yes I know I'm asking for it) just to see the train wreck first hand.

    And I already know I'm gonna be disappointed because the movie won't have the awesome ideas you just listed here.

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  3. Y'see, this is why being a fangirl is a net positive -- you see how a Precious National Resource is being wasted. (One day I'll share about my detox from Shatner... it took *decades* to stop believing he'd act in a good film one more time.)

    I think Burton holds on to what worked in his past: Depp, whimsy, over-reliance on SFX and set design. Would a decent scriptwriter with pride ever trust him with a script after MARS ATTACKS showed his contempt for quality ingredients? I still get enraged at how he wasted Nicholson and Close on a nihilist joke. You can Hate America, bukko (which, in fact, he said he feared the US, which is why he moved abroad), but don't hate the tools you must use to create those big canvases you like.

    And don't get me started on his Lisa Marie-reliance on the new Mrs. Burton. Anthony Head and Mr. Christopher Lee himself couldn't work on SWEENEY TODD, which meant altering the book to have no chorus whatsoever, because they'd show up the Depp, who was undersinging so as to not show up the Mrs? That's not Majel Barrett-lame, that's *Cleo Moore-lame*. Also, Burton's fascinated with monstrous women, but he doesn't have the balls to fully flesh out those characters, because he's stuck in that Wounded Boy paradigm which means you don't reveal how you hate Mommy too much. Why can't we fear and love female characters who are as complex as Edward S.? Beetle J? Jeezum crow, Burton, grow up. You're a big director with big budgets -- take the responsibility of telling grown-up stories.

    I have wanted movies to wow me as hard as Pee wee and Beetlejuice, but I guess I should stop waiting. He ain't gonna do it -- better switch my bets to Del Toro.

  4. cgeye,

    I have wanted movies to wow me as hard as Pee wee and Beetlejuice, but I guess I should stop waiting. He ain't gonna do it -- better switch my bets to Del Toro.


    I know.

  5. HELLBOY movies have been Worth It, so go know.

    I think it's due to the same syndrome that playwrights face -- praise from highbrow sources that disconnect from the lowbrow. Not that I want Burton to go all Apatow-womit-n-poop jokes, but at least stop letting his inner child get all precious and tubercular.

    I think having to follow up ED WOOD with something grander broke him, and POTA was his admission of this, with the Big Action Scenes with No Heart required (Markie Mark, as a Burtonian hero? Really?), and that's a damn shame.

  6. cgeye,

    Yeah. When was the last time he directed his own story?


  8. Saw ALICE yesterday. At least your girl tried.


    I've never seen a frustration of energy in a performance, coated in sickening white meringue design. Hathaway so desperately wanted to give context to a woman who works her darkness through other people, but her bits were softened. It was like watching TIN MAN, in the fear the writers had for female power... when its main antagonists were powerful females.

    Oh, yeah -- Miss RVC, Miss Genevieve; Miss Genevieve, Miss RVC:

    Miss Genevieve's as incisive about the potency of cheap fantasy/SF as you are... and she loves the costumes....