March 8, 2010

Alice In Wonderland Review

Alice in Wonderland
Disney Pictures
Starring Johnny Depp, Mia Wasikowska
Directed by Tim Burton

It's not rare for Disney to make unnecessary sequels to its most beloved properties, and while most of these sequels come to DVD, some of these sequels end up in the theater. While the ones that have seen release in home video are at best mediocre, there are a few sequels that exceed the constraints of a direct-to-DVD release, so much so that a theatrical release is just warranted. Toy Story 2 ended up being just that, so since this new Alice in Wonderland is technically a sequel, it's hard not to say that expectations are immensely through the roof, especially when you consider the quality that Toy Story 2 possessed.

But Alice in Wonderland is a peculiar specimen. Since the first concept still got out, much excitement and hype was generated because of the darkly whimsical tone and atmosphere that was present, so adding that with the fact that Tim Burton was at the helm helped for the film's PR. You could say that something as imaginative as the universe of Wonderland paired with the kooky visual sensibilities of Tim Burton is a match made in heaven, and while the movie fulfills its promise visually, the story is not as epic as one would expect.

The first trailer looked extremely promising, but as the days passed and the movie finally oversaw release, I just felt indifferent. The bulk of the hype died for me, and there was something about Alice that looked disappointing. Entering the theatre with lowered expectations definitely helped me enjoy the movie, but in the end there was simply something about it that made me feel indifferent.

Technically speaking, Alice in Wonderland is a well-made film with a beautiful aesthetic that leaves you awestruck. While there's something about the presentation that looks extremely fake, I'd like to think of it as a conscious stylistic choice. That excessive shred of blooming light, that weird polish on the Red Queen's exaggerated head, the plasticky feel of the plants; they're all fake-looking thanks to the film's fully CGI aesthetic, and the fact that they all could've looked better in a more photorealistic manner (and I know Burton knows it) makes me reaffirm my belief that the world was just meant to be like that. All things considered, the world and the characters just look stunning. In the most superlative sense of the word.

Personally, I think the story unfolds in a rather well-paced manner, that is, until that "climactic" last part; the 3rd act. There is a constant feeling of enchantment as the scenery changes, with a mix of colors and lights changing constantly and seamlessly from location to location- a testament to excellent art direction. In some scenes, almost every small detail and object represent a piece of the backstory. When the camera pans out to uncover a ruined town or zooms in on a slightly burned hat, a piece of the story is immediately told, and this is helped by the actual flashback that appears accordingly. The film certainly has its enchanting moments, and dare I say, even a few strokes of genius, but there are simply a few things that work against the movie.

The whole movie culminates into a battle that was prophesied to be epic. However, the battle just feels "eh", and that sense of mystery as to whether Alice would be able to slay the Jabberwocky is dulled because, well, you already know about it from the first few moments. It is true that Alice's struggle to find herself is actually the more pressing matter that helps her lead into the moment of heroism, but the battle could've been better choreographed. The moments before the battle don't fare as well either, because this is the part where things start to feel rushed, and the excellent pace that Burton adopts through the bulk of the movie is disposed of. The excitement is lost because moments you've already seen in other movies are very much replicated in Alice. You start to see elements of Narnia, and then you just know what comes next. The way the film starts to wrap up is just disappointing, and it's most likely the primary reason why people feel indifferent, if not hateful, for the film.

Besides that though, the film plods along in a pretty leisurely, but not too boring pace; introducing familiar faces, and some pretty refreshing takes on several characters. I only have memories of the original Disney animated film as a reference for this sequel, and I think the way this new film supplements a lot of the classic's elements is pretty nicely executed, all the while making an attempt to weave a bit of a more standalone story. The way the film juggles elements for people who have a knowledge of the source material and newcomers isn't too elegant, and it definitely leans toward the former than it does the latter. I actually like how the film has this sort of rebellious vibe, especially from Johnny Depp's character the Mad Hatter, and how he wants to rally against the Red Queen's tyrannical regime with much passion. I think it's those moments of passion that Johnny Depp's performance serves the film well, but in the end, the dance he builds up to is just inappropriately pointless, even though it is understandably supposed to be "vigorously happy". Truly one of the "WTF?" moments of 2010, but in a bad way.

Helena does well for the Red Queen, Anne Hathaway is pretty okay as the White Queen (she looks "forced and stiff" because she has to act that way in front of ministers; she loosens up somewhat when they're not on-screen), and Mia Wasikowska? Hmm...

One of the bigger problems of the movie is that while the world somewhat feels alive (and not to mention, gorgeous), the characters, at least a few of the "human" characters, feel emotionless, soulless, and just plain bored. Maybe they're not used to acting only on a green screen thus making things awkward, but the one thing I'm sure of is that the CGI characters, like the Cheshire Cat, the house mouse, and the bunny seem to evoke much more personality than the human characters. The voiceovers are obviously having fun; it's easy to tell.

Overall, I just feel indifferent about the movie because of the third act, but in segments, there are just some moments that I love so much. Evidence of constrained genius and creativity is made apparent, and I can't help but think that the movie was tied down by executives at some point. Or maybe the script was just that uninventive. Whatever the case, I want to love this film, but I can't. (In consolation, I do love Danny Elfman's excellent score, but not the Avril Lavigne song.) It feels somewhat mediocre, but the world is actually somewhat worth the price of admission. Just note that I'm talking 2D here, as I can't attest to the difference of experience between 2D and 3D, unlike Avatar. Whatever the case, the world is actually just as uniquely refreshing as that of James Cameron's, and it wouldn't shock me to see the film get Oscars for either make-up, visual effects, or art direction. But if we're talking story, I feel that it'll be better appreciated on DVD.

Rating: 6.5/10

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