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Alice in Wonderland

dir: Tim Burton
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It’s not as shit as I thought it would be.

Wouldn’t it be grand if, by some cosmic fuckup that altered the nature of reality, that I somehow became a respected and admired film critic, even in this day and age where the most effective reviews are written by impassioned cretins in textspeak, and that, as a powerful reviewer whose opinion mattered to the world, marketers used my important words to promote their movies?

Imagine posters for big budget movies, with the so-called pull quote being mine, and plainly stating “It’s not as shit as you’d think.”

That’d pack in the multiplexes, no doubt, upon the strength of my judgement alone. And so people could give up the terrible burden of having to judge for themselves whether they should squander the little time they have left on this planet watching or not watching a flick I recommended or eviscerated.

Such a circumstance, however desirable and generally awesome for humanity, is not likely to ever happen, though you can keep your fingers crossed if you’d like. Pray to Buddha, Spongebob, Jeebus or L. Ron Hubbard if you like: whoever floats your spiritual and aesthetic boat. Whatever form of spiritual release you choose, it’s going to feel a tiny bit more meaningful, and derive for you a tiny amount more catharsis than sending me an email telling me how little I know about anything, and how terrible my reviews are, being ultimately worse than ten Hitlers, give or take a Hitler here or there.

That’s an argument for another day, since the number of deranged nationalistic Russian lunatics complaining in emails today about something I wrote six years ago about Night Watch, or the harpies screaming about the sexism of referring to the breasts of an actress in a review, is ultimately pretty small. But they, like you, should be able to console yourself with the fact that I am under no illusions as to the quality or importance of anything I have ever written or will ever write in my life.

Of course my reviews are great, and, as such, my review informing you of what I think about a heavily CGI movie that came out several months ago is of immense importance. Work, families and friends should be neglected, and fields should lie fallow as a consequence of people rushing to their computers in order to read my Olympian verdicts, delivered in a voice that sounds like the Apocalypse.

Tim Burton seems to be on a crusade, an unholy one at that, to take almost everything we might have liked from our childhoods, whether it be the works of Lewis Carroll, Roald Dahl, Bob Kane (Batman) or Planet of the Apes, with the intention of shitting all over them. Unable or unwilling, generally, to come up with anything original, for the last however long he’s been resorting to simply acquiring other people’s properties and making them darker, ever darker, mostly in aesthetics though occasionally in subject.

It’s this pseudo-gothic aesthetic that serves as his most recognisable calling card, to the extent where his flicks are recognisable as his not due to subject matter, but for the unholy darkness and general mistiness on display regardless of whether there’s any valid story-based requirement for it.

If Tim Burton directed a tampon commercial, it would be filmed in almost pitch black darkness, there’d be a more dry ice ‘smoke’ than at an Alice Cooper concert, and you’d barely be able to figure anything out because even the sunniest day and brightest conversation between mother and daughter discussing feminine hygiene would be obscured by haze, clouds of fog, and oceans and oceans of blood.

I did not have high hopes for this movie for three reasons that I’m sure you’re dying to know.

There’s his indelible stamp: the way he rebrands and restamps known properties with his trademark style.

Secondly, the main raison d’être for this new version was that as a 3D flick, the additional ticket price and the almost child-friendly rating virtually guaranteed hefty box office. Currently, it’s earned over a billion dollars (in unadjusted dollars), and there’s plenty of merchandising that’ll be clogging up remainder outlets and strip malls for years to come as well, in case Disney’s bank account was hurting in any way.

The last reason I thought this to be a cynical and pointless venture is that Lewis Carroll’s work is a Western pop cultural staple, and the imagery and use of made up language, and the characters and circumstances are ubiquitous, and well known, especially if you’ve got kids. With so many versions, and with everything about it being so well known, there’s nothing new to say and little to do with it but dress it up like a pricey whore to sell it again.

And if anyone knows how to be a visual and technological pimp of the highest order, it’s Tim Fucking Burton.

I love the story, the actual written story, and the imagery and such, of Alice Through the Looking Glass and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. I’ve read truncated versions to my daughter many a time, so much so that some elements are thoroughly common parlance or currency to us. I especially love the game of croquet, for some reason, where the mallets are flamingos and the balls are hedgehogs.

I don’t particularly feel any deep ownership of the characters and / or imagery. It doesn’t strike me as an outrage when ‘this’ happens. I just go along for the ride. Though you can point to all the thematic possibilities, mathematical esoterica and hidden meanings and such in the text, and the outright trippiness of it all, it’s not really a deep text. Girl falls asleep, has some trippy imaginings, wakes up. The End.

It’s like hundreds of other “It was all a dream” stuff that stinks up the bookshelves with its cowardly fantasy descendants. So when they take this story and change characters around, and turn the ending into a Narnia-style monster creature battle, it doesn’t bug me too much. Nations yearning to be free and all that: It’s a staple of screenplays aimed at making serious bank in America that the concept of fighting for one’s freedom against some foe is standard and obligatory. It’s not that surprising, somehow, that it turns up here as well.

I’m not sure why. If I’d known beforehand that in the story, Alice (Mia Wasikowska), returns to Underland (?)in order to lead the denizens of the realm in rebellion against the Red Queen (a bulbous-headed Helena Bonham Carter), who uses the Jabberwock and the Bandersnatch as enforcers of her rule, I’d have thought it was the dumbest thing I’d ever heard of.

Instead, I watched initially with relief, and then with increasing bewilderment, and finally acceptance, as the requisite recognisable fan service had to occur, with Alice meeting all the familiar faces (googly-eyed Mad Hatter played by Johnny Depp, Tweedledum & Dee, Cheshire Cat voiced by the velvet don himself Stephen Fry, White Rabbit naturally) and going through all the “drink me” “eat me” transformations.

But then? Then, a much older and marriage-age Alice, being compelled to marry an awful twit of a Lord, must step up to the plate and become a freedom fighter in order to rid the land of the capricious and lethal rule of the Red Queen, who here wants to part people’s necks from their heads because she hates people having smaller heads than her.

It’s less gruesome than, say, Sweeny Todd, but there’s still a fair bit of gruesomeness on display against the general family friendliness you would think would be Disney-mandated. My daughter found some of the bits with the Bandersnatch, who’s like a giant spotted bear/cat, and the dragon-like Jabberwock too scary, but then she’s not desensitised to cliché shocks like the rest of us must be. There’s an eyeball popped out by a needle, and a moat filled with severed heads (I didn’t accurately answer my daughter’s question as to why the rocks Alice was stepping across looked like they had faces), but generally it’s tame by Burtoneqsue standards.

It lacks the wonderment, the loopiness, the joyfulness I associate with the story, even as it tries to maintain some of the dream-like logic of the originals. Sure, it looks impressive, very impressive, but as I’ve proved time and time again, looks aren’t everything.

It doesn’t mean it’s that bad, either, but at least it’s not horrible. Burton can’t really stamp this with his clichés that much, changing them in recognisable ways, because the story and the imagery are so well-known and can’t really be manipulated that much. As such, this flick is visually entertaining, and has some amusing bits (most courtesy of Johnny Depp, the Queen or the strange sight of Crispin Glover striding around menacingly with a heart-shaped eye-patch on), but isn’t either inspiring or insulting enough to generate strong feelings either way.

As such I don’t have the ammunition or the animus required to really give it or Burton a decent evisceration this time. I wouldn’t mind watching it again, and I daresay my daughter would love to watch it again, and I am, as always, guided by her wisdom.

Although I’m definitely going to have to decide against her query as to whether we should watch The Human Centipede next or not.

6 times at least it wasn’t as creepy as Johnny Depp playing Michael Jackson playing Willy Wonka in the Chocolate Factory this time out of 10

“You used to be much more..."muchier." You've lost your muchness.” – haven’t we all? – Alice in Wonderland.