Here it is, Lewis Carroll´s Alice in Wonderland for the Lord of the Rings/Chronicles of Narnia crowd, complete with a battlefield action climax. Sigh. But this is also a Tim Burton movie, and for a long while it gets by on his demented whimsy and always interesting (if, for lack of a better word, ugly) production design, and an enchanting lead performance by Mia Wasikowska.
Wasikowska plays Alice Kingsleigh, who has had a recurring dream of falling down a rabbit hole since she was a child. Closing in on twenty, she´s about to be to proposed to by Hamish (Leo Bill), the son of the man who purchased her deceased father´s shipping business. But she isn´t sure of what she wants, and is easily distracted by that rabbit in a topcoat dancing in the bushes
These early scenes – set at a kind of nineteenth century debutante´s ball – are some of the best in Alice, grounded in reality but peppered by unique faces and exaggerated gestures. One really pines for Burton to attempt something grounded in semi-reality (Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood) again.
And then it´s down the rabbit hole, and into a CGI wasteland. Wonderland (here referred to as “Underland”) is a murky, muddy, foggy blur of undefined landscapes. It looks so dirty you´ll want to wash your eyes after seeing the movie; this is what they´ve come up with?
Character design is an improvement, though once you´ve seen the stills of the Red Queen and Tweedledee and Tweedledum, seeing them in action doesn´t add all that much. But they´re the best: Helena Bonham Carter´s giant, globe-like head atop a tiny frame, Matt Lucas as the Humpty Dumpty-like egg-shaped duo. Crispin Glover´s Knave of Hearts – he´s just a head atop a CGI body in some shots – feels stiff and awkward, and Anne Hathaway´s White Queen is downright bland.
And then there´s the only other live action Wonderland character: Johnny Depp´s Mad Hatter, who is transformed into something of a romantic lead (!) in Burton´s vision of Alice; I´m sure they cast Depp, then wrote the character. Depp just about pulls it off, though, overcoming an unappealing character design (and a ½ inch gap between his front two teeth) to win us over with some Scottish-accented madness.
The rest of Wonderland is all computer-generated, to varying degrees of sucess. White Rabbit (Voiced by Michael Sheen), March Hare (Paul Whitehouse) and Dormouse (Barbara Windsor) have plenty of screentime, but too often blend into the background blur. Alan Rickman´s Blue Caterpillar fares better (Rickman´s voice acting might have something to do with it) as does Stephen Fry´s Cheshire Cat. They always get the Cheshire Cat right; it´s that smile.
Screenwriter Linda Woolverton takes the traditional Alice narrative into some different directions – the film could be boiled down to a tale of female empowerment, with Alice learning to choose her own path in Wonderland and in life – but more often than not those directions lead toward the generic. That Wonderland battle scene, with Alice taking on the Jabberwocky, Mad Hatter vs. Knave of Hearts, and all the other CGI characters dueling it out against the red army, is an unbearable exercise in poor taste.
People remember Alice in Wonderland for the characters and the individual vignettes, not for any all-encompassing plot, which Burton tries to force-feed us (see also: Sleepy Hollow). They´ll remember this one, too, for the bizarre design and demented characters, which are really out there, even by Tim Burton standards.
Most memorable, though, is Wasikowska in the lead; against a parade of murky CGI, she carries the film impressively. Depp is also quite good. Music by Burton-standby Danny Elfman is nothing special, and a particularly awful Avril Lavigne pop song begins the closing credits.
Recommendation: catch Jan Švankmajer´s Alice, another demented version of the tale that I´m sure Burton drew some influence from.
Note: Alice in Wonderland is playing (in 3-D and 2-D) in a Czech-dubbed version in most Prague cinemas. You can catch it in English – in 2-D only – at Palace Cinemas Slovanský dům and Nový Smíchov.
Nine, rounded up from Fellini´s 8½ for mainstream integer consumption, was originally an Italian play (Six Passionate Women by Mario Fratti) before making its way to Broadway. It must have worked in at least one of those iterations, one would assume, ‘cause here´s the Awards-season feature film from Rob Marshall (Chicago), which certainly doesn´t. At best, it´s a lavish but utterly lackluster production filled with unmemorable songs.
And at worst, Nine is a masturbatory vanity project and an insult to Fellini. 8½ was Fellini´s most personal film (and by most accounts, his best), in which he directly inserted himself into the narrative as Guido, played by Marcello Mastroianni, a film director struggling with the genesis of his next film. Nine stars a Guido, too, here played by Daniel Day-Lewis, and he´s an even clearer parable for Fellini, with dates and locations spelled out for us on the screen.
And all through the movie, there´s this uncomfortable parallel between Fellini and the director of the current film, Rob Marshall. Marshall is too impersonal a director to truly strike an emotional chord and bring on the full offensive, but here he is, inserting himself in Fellini´s shoes, a director making a film about a director and just who does he think he is? we´re thinking to ourselves.
Despite the extra .5, you might have guessed Nine isn´t quite as good as 8½. Just who was this movie made for, I´m wondering? Those familiar with Fellini are likely to dismiss it outright, as pointless an undertaking as a musical remake of The Seventh Seal or Citizen Kane. Those unfamiliar with Fellini will be bored to tears. There´s just no drive to this thing as it flops around onscreen.
Guido Contini, the poor bastard. His wife Luisa (Marion Cotillard, all dolled up as Giulietta Masina) is nearly estranged, his lover Carla (Penélope Cruz) is unhappy waiting in the shadows, his producer Dante (Ricky Tognazzi) is throwing money at him and a production crew await his instructions for his epic Italie. Throw in some Catholic guilt and mother-son issues, and Guido´s life is in crisis. It might sound a little trite, but in the movie it feels a lot trite. It´s amazing Fellini was able to pull so much out of the same material.
Ah yes, there´s song-and-dance, in the same vein as The Simpsons’ Planet of the Apes: The Musical. But a few hours after the movie you´ll forget all the song, though you might remember some of the dance. Particularly Penelope Cruz´s stunning cabaret number. I swear she´s earned an Oscar nomination for this scene, which amounts to a Frederick´s of Hollywood photo shoot; she certainly didn´t garner it from her big emotional scenes, which fall completely flat.
There are other numbers, too, you might remember them because they got big names to perform them. Nicole Kidman as Claudia, Guido´s muse; Kate Hudson as an American fashion journalist; Fergie as a dark-skinned woman who gives a young Guido his first glimpse of flesh; even Judi Dench as Guido´s costume designer and Sophia Loren as his mother. I liked what I saw of all these performers in Nine, but they´re all one-and-done set decorations.
Daniel Day-Lewis might be good in the lead, but his character is so dull and uninteresting you´re unlikely to invest anything in him. Only Cotillard hits the right emotional notes. Location Italian production – costumes, sets and all the rest – is flawless, you´ll wish it went towards a better result.