Friday, August 20, 2010

Alice in Wonderland

The relationship between a film's quality and its box office revenue is a nebulous and fascinating one. It's tempting to argue that no such relationship exists at all, or, if you want to be really cynical and hone in on Independence Day and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, that's there's even a negative correlation. But that's not quite right, is it? I mean, The Dark Knight not only lit the box office on fire but was also one of the best films in years. The Lord of the Rings and Pixar movies are excellent and have no trouble making bank, and despite what some internet crybabies may claim, even current reigning champ Avatar is pretty darn good.

But for every one of these examples you'll find near the top of the all-time worldwide box office charts a handful of soulless empty spectacles, insipid star vehicles, inferior sequels that outgrossed their superior predecessors (and the exact opposite for the Harry Potter franchise, where the bland first movie remains champ while the series' best entry, Prisoner of Azkaban, ranks lowest), and a smattering of Ice Age, Shrek, and Twilight films. You'll be taunted by The Da Vinci Code and 2012 and visibly cringe as you notice that The Phantom Menace is the highest-grossing Star Wars movie.

But the single film that jumps out at me the most has to be Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland, landing in fifth place. What did so many people see in this film? Is the Alice in Wonderland franchise way, way, way more beloved than I thought it was? Are people not sick of seeing every fantasy movie, regardless of how jarring and inappropriate it is to the underlying story, end with CGI armies charging each other? Has no one gotten sick of Tim Burton's forced, manufactured quirkiness after over two goddamned decades of it? Am I the only one who found all the dialogue about Alice's "muchness" to be beyond excruciating? How did a film with so little merit become one of the biggest moneymakers in the history of cinema?

What Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland resembles more than anything is the first Chronicles of Narnia flick if Disney's Alice in Wonderland vomited on it. Sure, there's some familiar Wonderland (or Underland, as they call it in this movie, but I'm not gonna type that again because I'm just not) sights and characters to be seen, but the plot about our hero getting drawn into a fantasy land, meeting weird people and talking animals, and finally joining up with the good guys to lead a fantasy army against the evil queen's fantasy army is pretty much just Narnia, and I already saw that movie and I didn't even like it that much the first time.

Alice herself is a frightfully bland and wooden protagonist who makes Jake Sully look like Charles Foster Kane (through no particular fault of actress Mia Wasikowska, who has been fine in other roles I've seen her in). She spends over three-quarters of the movie insisting over and over and over again that Wonderland is a dream when we already know perfectly well that it's not, so when she finally figures that out herself you don't feel any satisfaction at the character's realization so much as "thank god we don't have to hear anymore dialogue about it being a dream." She begins the film not wanting to be wedded to some boring dandy her family has set her up with, and ends the film... well, not wanting to be wedded to the same boring dandy. So she has no character arc to speak of, let alone a tangible personality.

Johnny Depp has the exact opposite problem, giving his Mad Hatter so much personality that you want him dead as much as any of his enemies in the film. Mostly Willy Wonka with a bit of Jack Sparrow and a smattering of Edward Scissorhands and Sweeney Todd in there, covered in Joker makeup, this is a truly, truly obnoxious character brought to life with one of the most jarringly overacted performances in some time. It's almost like Johnny Depp is doing a parody of himself. But I gotta give it to Depp; last year he starred in one of my most disliked movies of the year, Public Enemies, but himself was too bland for me to even consider for my worst actors list. In 2010, Depp has proudly earned his spot on that list. Congrats, Johnny, you made it!

The only hints of life in the proceedings come from Helena Bonham Carter and Anne Hathaway. I normally cringe at Burton's routine nepotism, but his wife actually fits pretty well into the evil Disney queen role as the the Red Queen — don't get me wrong, she is no way an intimidating or memorable villain and you not for one fraction of one microsecond believe any of the good guys to be in danger, but Bonham Carter at least gets some playful moments that aren't overacted as hideously as the Mad Hatter's. Anne Hathaway's natural charisma shines even through gallons of white makeup and Burton's forced quirk, and she plays the good White Queen as flighty and possibly a hint crazy, making exaggerated queenly motions with her hands while talking that made me chuckle. Sadly, Mad Hatter has way more screentime than both of them put together.

As the plot tediously unfolds towards its ultra-generic fantasy battle conclusion and we're forced to endure endless dialogue about Underland (ugh) and dreams and Alice's muchness, all that's left to do is drown in Burton's CGI world. Visually it's a lot like Attack of the Clones, tons of technology and hundreds of CGI artists serving no meaningful artistic vision, but instead of at least getting to enjoy a John Williams score we have to sit through more Danny Elfman circus tunes. There's an origin story sequence that reveals how the Mad Hatter went crazy, because of course there is. Finally, they strap little old Alice up with a sword and armor and we march. Into. BATTLE!

I'll admit, the whole CGI fantasy army thing blew my mind when we first saw a tantalizing glimpse of it in the intro sequence to The Fellowship of the Ring nine years ago. I thought it was really, really cool, and 2002's The Two Towers was the ideal orgasm to follow up on Fellowship's sweet cinematic foreplay. By 2004's Troy I was over it. That's not to say that it can't be used well if we care about the characters behind the battle, but I didn't care about Alice or the Mad Hatter or the White Queen, so that's problematic, right? I mean, all three could have died and the credits rolled over images of the burning, ruined wasteland of Wonderland, and my thought process during said credits would have been "hm, I wonder if I should grab a burger on the way home."

So the armies fight, and it all comes down to the final battle between Alice and the CGI Jabberwocky, which has all the weight and drama of Harry Potter's battle with the CGI basilisk at the end of Chamber of Secrets, i.e. not much. At least Harry seemed intimidated; there's no indication that a battle to the death against a giant dragon is in any way whatsoever scary or difficult for Alice. Then Johnny Depp does a terrifyingly unfunny dance to conclude our Wonderland storyline (although you can see in that clip how Anne Hathaway is more likable in her half second of screentime than Johnny Depp is in his thirty), and Alice goes back to the real world and does the same dance in front of her family, because that's a conclusion to a character arc, right?

Granted, the movie is occasionally pretty to look at and, uh... I was gonna try to find another compliment to pay it, but nope. Flat characters, mostly lousy performances, boring and weightless CGI action scenes, self-aware Burtonesque quirk, and a score that you will actually forget as you're listening to it coalesce to make this one of the worst films of the year. If it's between watching one sequel to this movie or having to sit through all five remaining Narnia stories, then please, I'll take the Jesus lion and the White Witch and those stupid Pevensie kids over and over again, although the box office returns may mean my pleas fall on deaf ears caked in white makeup.

1 Star out of 5

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