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Friday, March 26, 2010

Go Ask Alice

Eva and I went to see Tim Burton's "Alice in Wonderland" in 3D yesterday. We both wanted to see the movie, she'd never seen a 3D film, and I wanted to see how the technology had changed in the 20 years or so since I'd last seen one. Conclusions: a very good movie if you ignore the 3D aspect completely. The 3D effect was technically well-handled but perhaps a bit overdone for artistic purposes (I got a mild migraine from eyestrain because of titles and foreground objects placed about at the bridge of my nose).

There are three works of Lewis Carroll's that I think are among the jewels of English literature¹: "Alice in Wonderland", "Through the Looking-Glass", and "The Hunting of the Snark".² So I tend to get somewhat critical of adaptations of Alice, to film especially. I've resigned myself to the inability of most screen writers to distinguish between "Wonderland" and "Looking-Glass"³, but I really do insist that the adapters have some clue about what Carroll was doing with his original versions. Hence my distaste for the recent abomination on SyFy.

Burton, as you might expect, has respect for both Carroll's stories and the original Tenniel illustrations. The intersection of those two is Johnny Depp's portrayal of the Mad Hatter, which I enjoyed immensely, both to look at and to hear. But the Jabberwock ("The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!") should also be admired; it is the very finest homage to Tenniel. And Burton has the sense not to try to retell the same stories as Carroll as many have tried before and failed at. Instead he gives us an older Alice, returning to Wonderland with imperfect memories of what she experienced there in her childhood.

Between Burton, Depp, the voice of the Caterpillar (Alan Rickman!), and the Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry!!) the level of insanity is quite as high as necessary, and definitely as dark and edgy as it needs to be (this is where Disney blew it big time in 1951, of course). Special insane honors should be given to Helena Bonham Carter, who plays the Queen of Hearts with a strident psychopathy that really endeared her to me (in a dark and edgy, I'd-never-want-to-meet-her-in-a-dark-alley sort of way).

I can't really say enough good things about the visual design. The playing cards were done in a rusty-red armor that clearly did not contain human beings and managed to be both menacing and somewhat clumsy-looking at the same time, though their movements were swift and deadly; the chess pieces in the White Queen's army were from a relatively cheap, abstract-shape set (and looked as if they were made from a slightly off-white plastic). And the architecture of the castle of the Queen of Hearts was pure Eldritch Gothic.

In fact, there was only one thing I would have liked to have seen done differently. As Eva pointed out as we drove away from the theater, Carroll's "Alice in Wonderland" gets its power from the fact that the actions, dialog, and motivations of the creatures of Wonderland are chaotic and often random and lacking obvious cause and effect relations. No film or TV adaptation has ever been able to unhook itself sufficiently from the orthodox notions of narrative storytelling to follow that example as far out as Carroll went. Moreover, "Through the Looking-Glass" is just the opposite, with the characters and their interactions often following spurious and nonsensical, but logical, patterns. That's why putting the two together is so problematic. In the end, Carroll had no other way to end "Wonderland" than to say that it was all a dream (or was it?); Burton felt it necessary to wrap the story in a narrative of Alice's acceptance of the adult responsibility for her own decisions. I wish he had been brave enough to stick with nonsense.

As for the 3D technology, it was reasonably good, modulo the overuse of parallax I mentioned above. I noticed a couple of odd effects, possibly artifacts of the technology: occasionally soft images such as (computer-generated, I think) lens flare or smoke effects seemed to be at the wrong depth, and some images that intended to appear very close to the viewer seemed to have inverted parallax as if they were actually behind my head. I have no idea if that's what was actually happening, but these effects were a bit disconcerting. My take on current use of 3D (not having seen "Avatar"4 which I have been told uses it very well) is that it's still somewhat of a gimmick.

I'm encouraged in my wishes for the success of this movie by the fact that three weeks after the opening it is still running in 3 theaters (2 in 2d and 1 in 3D) of the multiplex where we saw it. Please, all of you, go out and see it (again if appropriate) to make it as financially successful as it is artistically successful.

¹ And several that in a just universe would be totally forgotten: "Sylvie and Bruno" and "Sylvia and Bruno Revisited" especially.
² If you ever get a chance, listen to a audio recording of Jean Shepherd reading "The Hunting of the Snark" on his radio show (he did it once a year, with great glee and gusto).
³ I don't know if Disney was the first to do this, but I believe he influenced everyone afterwards to do it.
4For reasons of political taste, the same reasons which have so far prevented me from watching "Dances with Wolves".

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