By Willie Krischke — March 19, 2010
In the early 1930s, when synchronized sound was introduced to cinema and the movies were no longer silent, the general quality of films coming out of Hollywood took a dive. The problem? The “talking pictures’ talked too much. A generation of directors who had learned how to effectively tell stories without words didn’t really know what to do now that their characters could talk. So that’s all they did: talk, talk, talk. The storytelling got sloppy, shoddy, formulaic and fuzzy. Great stars and talented actors like Buster Keaton faded into the distance, because most people preferred to watch a low quality talking picture over a masterfully made silent. It took a few years for the movie industry to find the right amount of words to go with the right kinds of images and learn how to tell stories again.
After watching “Alice in Wonderland” in 3D, I’m convinced we’re heading into that same kind of creative struggle. 3D movies 3D too much. Producers and directors have become so obsessed with stunning visuals that they’re forgetting to tell compelling stories. These movies amaze us now, because we’ve never seen anything like them. But I predict that in about ten years’ time, when 3D’s the standard, and the storytelling’s recovered again, we’ll look back at films like “Avatar” and “Alice in Wonderland” and wonder how we managed to sit through them.
“Alice in Wonderland” is visually wondrous, as one would expect any film from Tim Burton to be, no matter how many Ds are involved. There is not a frame in the movie that doesn’t offer something amazing to look at. The screen is crammed with pretty stuff, crammed to overflowing. But take away the 3D visuals, and what, really, have you got? Alan Rickman calling people stupid. Johnny Depp doing a crazy little dance. Helena Bonham Carter’s enormous forehead. And a plot device straight from every Screenwriter’s Workshop correspondence course available on the Web for 10 easy payments. Nothing here–nothing but the wonderful 3D images–is the least bit new, interesting, original, creative or clever. It’s a rehash of stuff we’ve seen before, except now it’s in three dimensions. Does that make it better or more interesting? You’ll have to decide for yourself.
Johnny Depp is reliably bizarre and entertaining as the Mad Hatter. I used to think Johnny Depp was a great actor; I’ve come to realize he’s great in a funny hat. His performance–indeed, most of his career–is better described as clowning than acting, and that’s not intended as an insult. Good clowns are hard to come by (see how Buster Keaton keeps sneaking into this review.) Helena Bonham Carter is clearly having fun playing the Red Queen, chewing up scenery, spewing “off with his head!” at every possible opportunity, and resting her feet on pig bellies. I wonder how the courtiers in Underland get the pigs to cooperate? Crispin Glover (remember him as McFly in “Back to the Future”?) plays the Red Knight, the Queen’s champion and love interest, though there’s something wrong with him that I could never quite put my finger on; he seems to be walking on stilts, or with a limp, or something. His strides and the distance he covers never seem to quite match up. Maybe it’s a problem with the 3-D, or maybe it’s just Glover. He is one of the oddest ducks in the Hollywood pond. Anne Hathaway is suitably beautiful and ethereal as the White Queen, making me think she might be the next Nicole Kidman: a little too beautiful to be human. And of course there’s Alice, played by Mia Wasikowska; she goes through so many growing and/or shrinking potions that it seems her most challenging job as an actress it to keep her clothes about her. This is a PG film, after all.
I was never a huge fan of the original “Alice” stories by Lewis Carroll. They always felt to me like fantasies created by a mathematician (which is exactly what they are, by the way) but I definitely preferred them to this new twist, provided by Burton and screenwriter Linda Woolverton. This time around, Alice is going back to Wonderland, which is really Underland, where she is thrust into the middle of an epic struggle between the tyrannical Red Queen and the pacifist White Queen. The Red Queen is currently dominating because she controls the ferocious, dragon-like Jabberwocky, a power unmatched in Underland. But a prophetic scroll foretells the Second Coming of Alice, who will slay the Jabberwocky and restore the White Queen to her rightful throne. Of course, when Alice shows up, she doesn’t remember ever being there before, many residents of Underland question whether she’s really the One, and someone close to her must put themselves in danger in order to spur her into action and fulfillment of prophecy. (Wait, we’re talking about “Alice in Wonderland,” right? I have this funny feeling I’m writing a plot summary of “The Matrix” all of a sudden.)
I suppose I am revealing my preference for story over spectacle. It’s true, and I’ll own up to it. I would rather watch an ugly movie with an creative, ingenious, or emotionally powerful story instead of an beautiful, empty, predictable piece of entertainment. I know that not everyone shares this preference. I took my wife to see “Alice,” and she said it was exactly what she wants a move to be; fun to watch, and she knew from the beginning that the good guys would win and nobody important would die. “Alice in Wonderland” set a box office record for movies that open in March; plenty of you are just like my wife, and just love to see pretty, predictable pictures. That’s what “Alice” is. Don’t expect anything more, and you won’t be disappointed.