Maybe Tim Burton and I just don’t get along.
I have a deep, deep love of the darkly comic, which might explain why my favorite childhood books included Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (and its Great Glass Elevator sequel), Sideways Stories from Wayside School, the Mary Poppins series, and, yes, Alice In Wonderland (along with Through the Looking Glass).
Tim Burton likes to take my favorite tales and turn them into movies. Every time I’m hopeful; every time I come away feeling underwhelmed. I had the highest of hopes for Sweeney Todd – I even braved the hordes of NYU musical theater undergrads and went to a midnight screening. But after having seen the stage production, the film was decidedly . . . lackluster.
Still, I hope, and so I recently found myself sitting on the edge of my theater seat, wearing goofy glasses, ready for Alice in Wonderland. I devoured Carroll’s weird classic over and over as a child. (I have a distinct and bizarre memory of reading about the Jabberwocky while walking through the local warehouse club’s frozen-foods section with my mom. I don’t know why.) And the posters and trailer looked awesome. This, I thought, is the ideal Burton tale – full of color, full of wonder, full of weird. I haven’t seen all the cinematic adaptations of the book, but I remember two: a very old one, and then, of course, the cheery Disney-fied version. This looked better. This looked weirder. This looked fantastical.
108 minutes later, I left the theater scratching my head. What just happened? Why was I . . . bored?
The film’s concept is wonderfully innovative: Alice, now a young lady, inadvertently returns to Wonder/Underland after a long absence. She’s expected, though, because she’s been slated to destroy the Jabberwock. The Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) in the meantime has been ruling the land, having ousted her sister, the White Queen (Anne Hathaway) from the throne.
Alice runs into the usual suspects, including the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp), and the story continues on from there. It’s visually quite stunning, and quite imaginative in its character realization.
And yet, halfway through, I felt bored. I knew what was going to happen before it happened. The whole thing seemed mapped out ahead of time – which felt, oddly, not in keeping with the actual spirit of the film. I felt cheated, as if the visuals were supposed to wow me so that I wouldn’t notice that the story was a bit anemic. I don’t want to be checking my watch in the middle of a movie to see how much is left.
I don’t really have an explanation. I don’t insist on grand, sweeping stories in my films (after all, one of my favorite films is Into Great Silence). But I was sorely disappointed, and I suspect I can’t be the only one. And in fact, this is the same beef I had with Avatar: I felt as if the visual was overemphasized to the severe detriment of the story. Many of my friends were fine with it; perhaps I just have more problems with it.
This is taking on a greater concern to me as I see the myriad of films being released in 3-D or being converted to 3-D this year. What’s going on? Can we have good stories in 3-D films that aren’t made by Pixar? And where are those filmmakers?