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Scott Mendelson

Scott Mendelson
Location
Woodland Hills, California, United States
Birthday
April 02
Bio
A ten-year Salon reader, Mendelson also has a film and politics blog/column at Mendelon's Memos: located at: http://scottalanmendelson.blogspot.com/. He is also a free lance voice over artist and occasionally contributes film reviews for www.ValleySceneMagazine.com.

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MARCH 4, 2010 11:51AM

Open Salon Review: Alice in Wonderland: A 3D IMAX Experience

Rate: 16 Flag

Alice in Wonderland
2010
109 minutes
Rated PG

by Scott Mendelson

Expectations are a funny thing.  Alice in Wonderland is not a good movie.  It is, quite simply, a very bad and fatally misguided picture.  But since I was not the first critic to see the film, I had the luxury of knowing that a director who I once worshiped had possibly out-and-out whiffed.  Had I entered the theater expecting a picture equal to Sweeney Todd, I would have walked out devastated.  But, expectations in check, I was able to appreciate the few things that went right with Burton's latest adventure, while being fully aware of how shallow and empty this latest exercise really is.  But make no mistake, Alice in Wonderland is easily Tim Burton's worst film since Planet of the Apes, and its failures bring into question just what kind of filmmaker he wants to be in the next phase of his career.

A token amount of plot: This quasi-sequel to the original Alice in Wonderland novel concerns a 20-year-old Alice (a terrifically low-key and deviously seductive Mia Wasikowska), on the precipice of accepting an unwanted engagement to a connected young-gentleman.  At the moment of said proposal, Alice is distracted by a strange anthropomorphic rabbit that seems to be gaming for her attention.  History repeats itself and Alice again tumbles down the rabbit hole into the magical world of 'Underland'.  But Underland is now a desolate, fire-scorched world ruled by the Red Queen.  Alice does not remember her previous trip when she was a wee child, but apparently it is her destiny to return and make things right again.  If this all sounds oddly familiar, it's probably because you've seen SyFy's recent miniseries Alice, as this plays as a faster-paced, and less intelligent variation on Nick Willing's modern-day variation.

Ironically, for all of the Burton-bashing that has greeted the arrival of said film, the real culprit is apparently screenwriter Linda Woolverton. Woolverton's screenplay is a rushed, emotionally hallow, and explicitly contradictory affair.  The core of Alice's arc in this picture is that she is unhappy about having her life mapped out for her without her consent.  Yet, the second she zooms into 'wonderland' (the nickname she gave the place as a young child), she is specifically told that she is destined to slay a giant dragon known as the Jabborwocky, which in turn will cause the Red Queen's followers to change sides and support the allegedly superior White Queen instead.  At no point in the picture does Alice really have any real choice about her actions, which negates the whole story-arc.

Turning the warped adventures of Lewis Carroll's characters into a dumbed-down 'hero's journey' is depressing enough, but the overt predestination at work removes any sense of choice from Alice's adventure, as well as any kind of suspense from the narrative.  And, since Alice believes right up to the finale that this is all just a dream, there is no real reason for her to fear for her life.  The decision to frame this as a sequel is an odd one, as the fact that Alice has been to Wonderland before is absolutely irrelevant to the story.  Even Steven Spielberg's Hook made better use of its 'classic hero returns to his childhood adventure' shtick, as uptight, grown-up Peter contrasted with everyone's memories of the merry, flying swordsman from decades earlier.

The actors are a mixed bag.  Surprisingly, Johnny Depp (as the Mad Hatter) and Helena Bonheim Carter (as the Red Queen) make an effort to give real performances.  Neither of them is allowed to dominate the film and both chew far less scenery than you'd expect under the circumstances.  Neither actors will put this on their highlight reel, but neither of them truly embarrasses themselves.  Crispin Glover is as over-the-top as you'd expect, but his work is further stymied by the inexplicable choice to put his head onto a computer-generated-image of a very tall Knave of Hearts.  As a result, all of his movements have that herky-jerky look that so often occurs with computer-animated 'live-action' characters.  Anne Hathaway does very little as the White Queen, as she plays 90% of her scenes with her hands raised in the air, as if lowering them below her chest would incur punishment.  Frankly, she seems as nutty in her own way as the Red Queen, so there's no real reason to root for her to reclaim her crown outside of a general disapproval of bloody coups.  Of the talking animals, Alan Rickman shines brightest, even if his best scene is identical to his best moment in Dogma, where he must convince the chosen heroine to keep going by empathizing with her plight (needless to say, convincing Alice to kill a monster isn't nearly as emotionally powerful as explaining how it felt to tell a young Jesus what was in store for him).

The 3D conversion actually works best in the real-world prologue and epilogue, when it creates a genuinely immersive experience.  But once the picture descends into fantasy, so much of what you see is so obviously fake, that you can't believe your eyes no matter what dimensions the image is in.  The 3D is not terribly distracting, but it adds very little to the experience and is probably a large part of why the film's colors seem so muted and pale.  Quite frankly, I sincerely wish this were available in 2D IMAX, so one could experience the best of both worlds.  As it is, the moviegoer must now choose between crisper and bolder colors versus a larger, more all-encompassing image with eyesore potential.  The visuals themselves are every bit as fantastical as $200 million can buy, but since so little of what we see ever feels real (couldn't have Burton used real dogs for the shots where the dogs don't talk?), there is no real sense of wonder at what we see.

In the end, this film is clearly a paycheck gig for Hollywood's most mainstream freak.  While the main culprit is the assembly-line screenplay, Tim Burton is the director and must shoulder the blame for this genuinely uninvolving motion picture.  This film could have been made by any number of less-talented directors, and there are few genuine Burton touches to be found (Danny Elfman's score is a lone highlight). Where Tim Burton goes from here is any one's guess.  Steven Spielberg followed up Hook with Jurassic Park, which kicked off seventeen-years of some of the very best work of his career (Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan, Catch Me If You Can, Munich, etc).  We'll know soon enough whether or not, to paraphrase Batman Returns (his second-best film, behind Ed Wood), Tim Burton can once again become a genuine freak or whether he'll have to wear a mask for the rest of his career.

Grade: D+

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Comments

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fantastic review, even if I'm very sad about this news...is the 3-D worth it?
Absolutely not. I wish the press screenings offered a choice, as I'm sure the colors were much richer in traditional 2D. This was an absolutely peak presentation. It was in the IMAX corporate offices, in a tiny room with a 50 foot screen, with promises regarding light levels and the like. It still looked washed out.
You know I like Johnny Depp but this whole computer animated green screen stuff does kind of creep me out. I like real sets, locations and then creativity and acting. Maybe I am obsolete. Thanks for you honest review. Rated.
Lalalalala. I'm not listening. I fully believe this will be the best movie of all time!! Please oh please oh please...don't tell me it's terrible. Drat.
I first heard about this film in the Fall of 2008, and got all jiggedy about how Tim Burton was going to "rescue" Alice from Disney's animated horror show. Boy, was I ever wrong. He may have been able to do it back in the early 90's, but not no more. Jan Svankmajer's Wonderland would eat Burton alive, and probably should. http://www.youtube.com/watch#!v=TI1x1OfSwSY&feature=related
What in the hell would have been wrong with sticking to Lewis Carroll's wonderful story? OK, Alice is only 10 in it, and they don't want to have to work with a child actress...but sheesh. Get a teenager and pull a Judy Garland in "Wizard of Oz." I could suspend disbelief on that one count.
Bummer. It looks amazing and I was hoping for the best with this. I'll still try to catch it in 3D though since I'm such a big Tim Burton fan and I love the Lewis Carroll tale.
Dern! I actually thought he was doing Alice in Wonderland. That would have been so rad.
I didn't figure it'd be all that good. But, I'll bite and see it anyway. Thanks for the review, Scott.
Whew. Thanks for the warning.
I agree, one should save their money and buy some good popcorn and Milk Duds and then watch the "Planet of the Apes" marathon on TV.
Another yawner, and with the way movies are being made with seemingly 90% of them now in 3-D, I just wonder if it's worth going to the movies anymore
Well as a Burton and depp fanatic, I'm disappointed but not surprised. Nothing in the trailers looked compelling and mostly I realize now that I wanted to see it because it was depp
and Burton. Then when it had endless build up and promo (like the equally disappointing Sherlock holmes), I knew something was fishy.

I'll still see it but I won't be dropping 40 bucks at 3d IMAX, nor will I be at the theater doors when it opens tomorrow.
"paycheck gig for Hollywood's most mainstream freak"
"so obviously fake","emotionally hallow","less intelligent variation","a very bad and fatally misguided picture"

yikes, I "was" looking forward to it :(
Actually, I quite enjoyed the movie, I went and seen the 3D verison and actually liked it better than Avatar, which was quite enjoyable.

If you're going to this movie with the expectation of it being in the classic sense of Wonderland, wander away to another theater, and watch something else, but the storyline actually kept me enthralled as well as the special effects, especially at the end with the butter fly, awesome 3D goodness.

The Tink has to disagree with Scott and give this movie a B- for a good time movie, screw the critics who say this is the worse movie they ever saw, cause if they say that, they haven't seen Showgirls or Waterworld, or most of the Batmans.

Thank you and good night.
Got to agree with you Scott, really disappointed with this Tim Burton's Lewis Carrol interpretation. Expected so much more, especially after his other great works.
dub turbo