Skip to main content

What a regrettably large head you have.


Alice in Wonderland
(2010)

I suspect I was more charitable to Tim Burton’s kind-of “sequel” to, I guess, Alice Through the Looking Glass on first viewing, as it had already been weighed down by critical brickbats (ineffective at denting its $1bn+ worldwide box office, surfing the nascent 3D wave as it was). A revisit confirms many of the complaints nursed by its maligners.

That said, I take a rather different position to those that claim Burton has lost all his gothic weirdness in the last decade or so; that he is now just a commercialised parody of his early, offbeat sensibilities. Burton was always an incredibly hit-and-miss, ungainly filmmaker and I’m not sure that his clout these days has had any great impact on that. Probably he does play it too safe, both in choices of projects (remakes and known properties) and actors (the ever-present Helena and Johnny). But I remember finding Beetlejuice a disappointment on first viewing (a heinous admission I know; I should qualify this by advising that I now consider it possibly his best film), and failed to comprehend why everyone was going so crazy for his sluggish, poorly-choreographed Batman (I still find that one entirely mediocre).

And, to go against the grain further, I don’t think his Planet of the Apes remake is all that bad. It looks great, the ape design is terrific, and it was willing to go in a different direction to a straight reboot. The problem there is that it has nothing of Burton’s sensibility about it, and the least-Burton leading man ever in Mark Wahlberg at his most plankish. Since then, it’s only his big hits that have really left me non-plussed. I thought Big Fish was up there with his best work, Dark Shadows underrated and Sweeney Todd admirably grand guignol (it’s just the songs that stink, admittedly a not insignificant problem).

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was an utterly tepid remake that saw Burton fully embrace his predilection for art direction over story. It also gave us Depp indulging in a misfiring Whacko Jacko impersonation that had none of the slightly deranged charisma of Gene Wilder in the original. Crucially, it abandoned the third act twist that made the film an improvement on Roald Dahl’s book (Dahl never being much of one for morals of tales, and I might agree with him but in this case it added needed form and weight to the story).

And so, with massive success for his first out-and-out family movie, why not return to the well? And if there’s some twist in a take on classic material so you can claim it isn’t a straight remake, so much the better. Picking up on Alice thirteen years later isn’t necessarily a bad idea (it worked for Jim Hawkins in John Silver’s Return to Treasure Island!) but it needs to have something going for it beyond “Alice meets all the old crew”. And beyond her dissatisfaction with the adult world being reflected in the decaying and decidedly un-wondrous land she fetches up in. There is a germ of a good idea there, but what is done with it is so obvious and unimaginative as to make one despair (what a surprise that the message is that all the best people are mad! – ironic in a film that is creatively so unadventurous).

How about, instead of the death of childhood being made literal as the death of Wonderland (now Underland – how inspired!), Linda Woolverton came up with something fresh. Such as the world Alice happens upon this time being even stranger and more twisted (especially since the Alice we see at the outset appears to have retained her imaginative and idiosyncratic qualities in surroundings that do not welcome such traits)? Well, Woolverton may have a chance to make it all right, as she is scribbling a sequel.

Apparently Burton saw this as a “re-imagining” rather than a direct sequel. But then, he was wont to come out will all sorts of guff in interviews at the time, such as decrying the lack of “emotional connection” in the books (as if his film somehow rectifies this, rather being exactly the series of events he criticises Carroll for writing). It’s not necessarily a requirement that you love the work you reinvent (J J Abrams did a good job with Star Trek and had little time for it previously), but this impulse to decry the inspiration for your project should really be avoided by filmmakers.

So the basic set-up isn’t completely without merit; Alice, attending a garden party and having just received an unwanted marriage proposal, pursues a white rabbit and falls down a hole, from whence to Underland. She meets various old acquaintances (whom she does not recognise as she cannot recall her past visit(s)) and is told that she (or the “right Alice”) is foretold to slay the Jabberwocky, servant of the Red Queen. Once the Red Queen learns of Alice’s return, she demands for her to be found.

But the notes struck by Woolverton are strictly pedestrian, driving the tale towards a big climactic fight sequence with a monster, so as to draw closer parallels with Tolkien than Carroll’s Alice (who dons armour - really this is as much about appropriating the Jabberwocky poem as anything).

And Burton doesn’t enliven matters with his first extensive use of green screen. The joins are all too obvious and the planes he works on appear very flat; more often than not we are conscious that the physical actors are not interacting with anything tangible, be that down to eyelines, lighting or unimaginative staging. As mentioned earlier, Burton’s worlds have always been, at very least, built on their (heightened) physicality upwards. Without this crutch he seems all-at-sea. It’s not as if the computer wizardry has come up with anything arresting; the choice of a grimy, decaying landscape might be seen as a bold one for a big family film (it’s certainly a striking contrast to Sam Raimi’s Technicolor yawn of Oz The Great and Powerful) but Burton clearly doesn’t have a driving vision for his film. The designs of familiar characters lack verve, impressively animated but bereft of life.

In that sense they accurately reflect the lack of wit and playfulness inherent in the screenplay. There is no charm here. Depp doesn’t come quite as unstuck as with Willy Wonka, but that’s only because he is less central. His Hatter is even served an undercooked backstory, while his madness allows him to indulge a variety of tics and voices (“Naughty” being his catchphrase of choice). Elsewhere Burton seems to have fixed on a look as uninventive as basing characters on a hall of mirrors; so Crispin Glover’s Knave (why employ Glover and use none of his manic energy?) is all elongated limbs, while Helena Bonham Carter’s Red Queen has a big fat head.

Bonham Carter’s performance is a shameless riff on Miranda Richardson’s Queen Elizabeth in Black-Adder II, but not nearly as much fun. Anne Hathaway’s White Queen is utterly forgettable, meanwhile. Many of the individuals cast are fine (Matt Lucas, Alan Rickman, Stephen Fry) but the dialogue and designs let them down – with the exception of Paul Whitehouse’s loopy-looking March Hare. The Jabberwocky is a dull, generic monster; not a patch on Gilliam’s faithful-on-a-budget take in Jabberwocky. Mia Wasikowska makes for a lovely but unpresuming Alice; she doesn’t really get a grip on the forthrightness and obstinacy of the character, but then she has not been given much of a part on paper.

For the most part, while this is an uninspired take on Alice it isn’t actually outright bad. Until, that is, a victorious Hatter does a cringeworthy dance (soon after repeated by Alice) that would have made the 30 year-old Burton (who concluded Beetlejuice with a sublime dance number) wretch violently.

And then there’s the strange coda where Alice proposes going to work for her late father’s friend Lord Ascot, opening up trade routes with China. It feels like a “missing the wood for the trees” choice, partly because Alice is imbued with a modern take on female independence by making her an agent of British colonialism. But also because it suggests that Alice has put away her childish imagination (even given the sight of Absolom, clearly real, on her shoulder, or the scratches on her arm from the Bandersnatch) and stepped forward bravely into the sterile world of soulless capitalism. Where’s the wonder in that?

**1/2

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

I'm reliable, I'm a very good listener, and I'm extremely funny.

Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)
(SPOILERS) When I wrote my 23 to see in 2019, I speculated that James Cameron might be purposefully giving his hand-me-downs to lesser talents because he hubristically didn’t want anyone making a movie that was within a spit of the proficiency we’ve come to expect from him. Certainly, Robert Rodriguez and Tim Miller are leagues beneath Kathryn Bigelow, Jimbo’s former spouse and director of his Strange Days screenplay. Miller’s no slouch when it comes to action – which is what these movies are all about, let’s face it – but neither is he a craftsman, so all those reviews attesting that Terminator: Dark Fate is the best in the franchise since Terminator 2: Judgment Day may be right, but there’s a considerable gulf between the first sequel (which I’m not that big a fan of) and this retcon sequel to that sequel.

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

This is very cruel, Oskar. You're giving them hope. You shouldn't do that.

Schindler’s List (1993)
(SPOILERS) Such is the status of Schindler’s List, it all but defies criticism; it’s the worthiest of all the many worthy Best Picture Oscar winners, a film noble of purpose and sensitive in the treatment and depiction of the Holocaust as the backdrop to one man’s redemption. There is much to admire in Steven Spielberg’s film. But it is still a Steven Spielberg film. From a director whose driving impulse is the manufacture of popcorn entertainments, not intellectual introspection. Which means it’s a film that, for all its commendable features, is made to manipulate its audience in the manner of any of his “lesser” genre offerings. One’s mileage doubtless varies on this, but for me there are times during this, his crowning achievement, where the berg gets in the way of telling the most respectful version of this story by simple dint of being the berg. But then, to a great or lesser extent, this is true of almost all, if not all, his prestige pictures.

Exit bear, pursued by an actor.

Paddington 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) Paddington 2 is every bit as upbeat and well-meaning as its predecessor. It also has more money thrown at it, a much better villain (an infinitely better villain) and, in terms of plotting, is more developed, offering greater variety and a more satisfying structure. Additionally, crucially, it succeeds in offering continued emotional heft and heart to the Peruvian bear’s further adventures. It isn’t, however, quite as funny.

Even suggesting such a thing sounds curmudgeonly, given the universal applause greeting the movie, but I say that having revisited the original a couple of days prior and found myself enjoying it even more than on first viewing. Writer-director Paul King and co-writer Simon Farnaby introduce a highly impressive array of set-ups with huge potential to milk their absurdity to comic ends, but don’t so much squander as frequently leave them undertapped.

Paddington’s succession of odd jobs don’t quite escalate as uproariously as they migh…

The world is one big hospice with fresh air.

Doctor Sleep (2019)
(SPOILERS) Doctor Sleep is a much better movie than it probably ought to be. Which is to say, it’s an adaption of a 2013 novel that, by most accounts, was a bit of a dud. That novel was a sequel to The Shining, one of Stephen King’s most beloved works, made into a film that diverged heavily, and in King’s view detrimentally, from the source material. Accordingly, Mike Flanagan’s Doctor Sleep also operates as a follow up to the legendary Kubrick film. In which regard, it doesn’t even come close. And yet, judged as its own thing, which can at times be difficult due to the overt referencing, it’s an affecting and often effective tale of personal redemption and facing the – in this case literal – ghosts of one’s past.

You ever heard the saying, “Don’t rob the bank across from the diner that has the best donuts in three counties”?

2 Guns (2013)
(SPOILERS) Denzel Washington is such a reliable performer, that it can get a bit boring. You end up knowing every gesture or inflection in advance, whether he’s playing a good guy or a bad guy. And his films are generally at least half decent, so you end up seeing them. Even in Flight (or perhaps especially in Flight; just watch him chugging down that vodka) where he’s giving it his Oscar-nominatable best, he seems too familiar. I think it may be because he’s an actor who is more effective the less he does. In 2 Guns he’s not doing less, but sometimes it seems like it. That’s because the last person I’d ever expect blows him off the screen; Mark Wahlberg.

My dear, sweet brother Numsie!

The Golden Child (1986)
Post-Beverly Hills Cop, Eddie Murphy could have filmed himself washing the dishes and it would have been a huge hit. Which might not have been a bad idea, since he chose to make this misconceived stinker.

There’s nothing stock about a stock car.

Days of Thunder (1990)
(SPOILERS) The summer of 1990 was beset with box office underperformers. Sure-thing sequels – Another 48Hrs, Robocop 2, Gremlins 2: The New Batch, The Exorcist III, even Back to the Future Part III – either belly flopped or failed to hit the hoped for highs, while franchise hopefuls – Dick Tracy, Arachnophobia – most certainly did not ascend to the stratospheric levels of the previous year’s Batman. Even the big hitters, Total Recall and Die Hard 2: Die Harder, were somewhat offset by costing a fortune in the first place. Price-tag-wise, Days of Thunder, a thematic sequel to the phenomenon that was Top Gun, was in their category. Business-wise, it was definitely in the former. Tom Cruise didn’t quite suffer his first misfire since Legend – he’d made charmed choices ever since playing Maverick – but it was a close-run thing.