Pretty Pictures, Lots of Chases

by wjw on March 3, 2010

I got a chance to see a sneak preview of Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, and now I’m thinking about how franchises have got detached from the source of their inspiration.

It certainly happened with Sherlock Holmes. Robert Downey played a character who shared a name and an occupation with his progenitor, but little else. There were people with names like Irene and Moriarity in the film, but they could have been named Sadie and Murgatroyd for all it mattered to the story.

And now Alice. Which is a Disney franchise, re-envisioned by Tim Burton, that now has less to do with Lewis Carroll’s creation than ever.

I’m very happy that I didn’t have to pay ten bucks for it.

The film is not the original story, but a sequel. (Forgive me for thinking that it really ought to be called Alice II.) Somewhere in the long process of making this film, someone should have noted that sequels are never as good as the originals.

Among the joys of Carroll’s work are the fine logic visible behind all the nonsense, the joy in wordplay, the satire, the parodies, the puns, and the songs. Obviously not all of this would make sense to a modern audience, but Burton chose to chuck all of it and replace it with a Grade C fantasy plot, complete with plot coupons.

Alice is the Chosen One who must get ahold of the Orb of the Bandersnatch in order to find the Key of Mystery that unlocks the Chest of Hiding in order to get the Blade of Vorpal that is the Only Weapon that can behead the Jabberwock and restore the Rightful Queen of Wonderland.

I’m not joking. Not joking at all. That’s literally what happens in the movie.

Add a bunch of characters chosen randomly from the two Alice books, and a villainous one-eyed assassin brought in from some other movie, and there you go.

There are some lovely bits. The Cheshire Cat is very wonderfully done, and splendidly voiced by Stephen Fry. Alan Rickman is very good as the Caterpillar, for all that the movie isn’t up to dealing with his philosophical speculations. The Queen of Hearts is very well envisioned, though she’s played less as a playing card and more as The Remorseless Evil Poisoning the Fantasy Landscape— Sauron, or perhaps Saurette. (Gandalf, by the way, is played by a dog named Bayard.)

Mr. Depp’s fans will scream at me for saying this, but there is way too much Mad Hatter. (And the Hatter is not mad enough, at least not in an interesting way.) I understand why’s he’s horning in on so much of the movie: the studio had to fork over the big bucks for him, so they’re determined to get their money’s worth. But really, how does the heroic resistance fighter Mad Hatter swinging a claymore in deadly combat with the Assassin From Another Movie make any sense? Either in terms of his own character or the movie or anything at all?

(And really, do we need another reason for Depp to wear full makeup? Does he have complexion problems, or does Burton just enjoy smearing goop on his mug?)

I yawned through the climactic scene, which I’d seen before in other Grade C fantasy films. Perhaps I am unique in this regard, but I never can be brought to care which special effect skewers which other special effect.

It was the same as any other franchise movie sequel, which is to say that it took all the gnarly stuff that was special about the original and replaced it with lots of modern chase scenes and combats. Which can be done well— I liked Robert Downey as Holmes— but in this case the film was left detached from its moorings, scattering torn plot coupons as it floated off into that big computer-generated sky.

Dan March 3, 2010 at 11:20 am

Actually, the first objection you're going to see is in regards to the Sherlock Holmes movie. My wife is more of an expert on Holmes (and Sir Arthur's work in general), but she is saying that while the movie deviates from the traditional portrayal of Holmes, it is in fact very careful not to violate any of the established facts. The film just chooses to highlight a different set of traits, and interprets the persona as a whole rather differently.

And I, for one, appreciated Watson not being the bumbling fool I've seen him presented as in other film versions.

Brian Borchers March 3, 2010 at 2:28 pm

Thanks for the review. I've been a bit apprehensive about this movie, but also hopeful. I'm glad I didn't get my hopes up….

p-dub March 3, 2010 at 2:35 pm

I will be going for the eye candy. The costuming is amazing and well — Mr. Depp is eye candy all by himself. From the few still images and trailers I've seen, the colors are fabulous as well. Sometimes eye candy is all I need…

In this case, definitely.

Kristin March 3, 2010 at 2:55 pm

I do so enjoy your movie reviews. Downside is that now I am intrigued to see if the movie is indeed as your opinion indicated or if I'll still enjoy it. Which means a delightful afternoon off from work with a tub of popcorn to find out.

Thanks. Enjoying the blog and reviews.

dubjay March 4, 2010 at 12:27 am

Our friend Patricia is of the opinion that the movie was generated by looking at the original Tenniel illustrations, and reading the captions, but without reading the rest of the books.

I have to say that makes sense.

S.M. Stirling March 5, 2010 at 5:02 am

The Sherlock Holmes movie actually made references to over a dozen of the Doyle stories — eg., the way Holmes and Watson figured out that a watch had belonged to a drunk, for instance.

And in some respects it was -closer- to the Doyle stories than any previous film and TV treatments.

The previous films toned down Holmes' manic-depressive mood swings, his drug addiction, his occasional use of physical force (he was a champion boxer, crack shot, and student of at least one Oriental martial art) and so forth.

And yes, he -did- shoot "V.R." into the wall with his pistol.

The film also caught how -extremely annoying- his habit of telling people things about themselves from small details was.

dubjay March 5, 2010 at 5:25 am

Here's an amusing film about Burton's formula:

dubjay March 5, 2010 at 5:29 am

While I also recognized the references to specific Holmes stories, that's icing on a very different, dinosaur-shaped cake that's bulking massively in the room.

Which is to say, that even if Conan Doyle's Holmes were a championship boxer and knew Batitsu (a genuine art, apparently), HE WAS NOT AN ACTION HERO. And this new Holmes definitely is.

(The art used in the film, incidentally, was pretty much kenpo. Which warmed my cockles.)

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