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"Consider how the lilies grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these." Luke 12:27 (NIV)

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Now Showing: Alice in Wonderland (2010)

There are certain books/stories, it seems to me, that don't really lend themselves to film adaptations, no matter how many attempts are made. Alice in Wonderland, as it is becoming more apparent, is probably one of them. This is why, I have come to the paradoxical conclusion that The Matrix, in the guise of cyberpunk science fiction is arguably the best Alice in Wonderland film ever made. That said, Tim Burton's latest attempt to recreate Lewis Carroll's transdimensional travel piece is a bold effort, a wonderful visual feast even in 2D, let down mainly by a rather pedestrian script.

My first taste of cinematic Wonderland was the 1951 Disney. I loved the soundtrack and could sing the songs for years before I had actually seen the film in its entirety. When I actually saw it for the first time, I thought the animation approach was probably the best thing we would get from Hollywood for a very long time. But at least the film (if you could get past the American accents) captured some of the lunacy of the original tale. I've only ever seen another adaptation -- possibly a made for tv movie and all I remember from it was that it was entirely dull and forgettable.

These days with movie magic becoming progressively more sophisticated, Disney must have felt that it was time to take another stab at it. Who better than the quirky and imaginative Tim Burton, who also directed with great flair, the 2005 adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Personally I enjoyed his version of Chocolate Factory... which was darker and much more like the book than the Gene Wilder romp. Nonetheless, it was also surprisingly sweet and moving without becoming schmaltzy.  So when I saw the trailers for Alice, I had high hopes for Burton's recreation of Wonderland and Lewis Carroll's time honoured tale.

In hindsight, the biggest problem with trying to adapt Alice into an ambitious film like this is the temptation to focus on the visuals and techinical wizardry to the detriment of the story. I suspect it's the temptation that George Lucas succumbed to when he made the Star Wars prequels. (Don't get me started on the dialogue!) My theory is that certain directors are attracted to such projects because of the visual effects  possibilities that the story brings and as a result the storytelling is subjugated to the technical wizardry. At least that's the impression one gets from many of these visually rich flicks.

The second biggest problem with trying to adapt Alice in Wonderland is the usual thing with novels that encompass a wide range of themes. Furthermore, as in this case, the book is a thinly veiled epistemological discussion,  peppered with linguistic mind games and over-the-top encounters in improbable situations. Great in print but how does one create a coherent story out of all that madness without losing control of the spirit of what Carroll was trying to convey in the original?

You could do what scriptwriter, Linda Woolverton, has done and turn it, in a clumsy fashion, into some kind of Return to Oz-Narnia story with a proto-feminist track. Alice is now grown up, disgruntled with her rigid Victorian upbringing and at the right age for a marriage that she has little enthusiasm for. In comes the White Rabbit and away she goes. Down, down, down the rabbit hole and quite literally, she lets her hair down. This time, sadly, she tumbles back into Wonderland or Underland... which is looking rather more like Bleakland. The unscrupulous Red Queen has usurped the throne from her sister, the White Queen and a champion is needed to oust her evilness from the throne. All in all, a fairly prosaic fantasy plot that has been done better elsewhere.

Generally, I felt the performances were rather uneven. Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter, I loved as well as the voice acting talents of Stephen Fry (Absalom the Caterpillar) and Alan Rickman (Cheshire Cat). However, throughout the film I could not be but struck by the stilted nature of the performances, many actors projecting a kind of awkward self-awareness that they are in an Alice in Wonderland film, engaging in absurd situations and activities. Consequently, the film is rendered powerless to deliver any genuine emotional punches.

As a whole, I found Alice watchable with nice nods to Lewis Carroll's original stories. The visual effects were captivating and used to good effect. However, in the end, the writing lacked imagination and conviction which diminished the film's wow factor considerably. Leaving the cinema I felt that I had seen a decent film but not a great one.

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