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Feature


An angst ridden nineteen year old Alice Kingsleigh is plagued by dreams of a strange world after the untimely death of her beloved father. Betrothed to the nebbish Hamish Ascot (Leo Bill), and confused about her future, Alice runs from the famous Lord Ascot’s garden party and tumbles down a rabbit hole. Though she’s hesitant to believe it, it turns out that Alice’s dreamland—or Wonderland—is real, and she’s immediately thrust into a dystopia ruled by the impassioned Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter). Wonderland’s heroes—the Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry), the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp), the Caterpillar (Alan Rickman), the White Queen (Anne Hathaway), etc. – apparently have a plan, and it involves the returned Alice battling the Jabberwocky (Christopher Lee), a massive monster under the Red Queen’s control.

Alice in Wonderland
Having just recently reviewed the Blu-ray release of SyFy network’s Alice in Wonderland cash-in Alice, I’m going to repeat myself a bit here, because contextually speaking, both films save the same delude of adaptation history. Speaking in broad terms, Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ and ‘Through the Looking Glass’ are likely the most adapted non-religious stories in film history. Besides a massive pile of ‘official’ adaptations ( seventeen, including the Disney animated version, and the beautiful Czech-made mixed stop motion version), there is a long-standing tradition of films (and shorts) inspired by the basics of the texts, ranging from the obvious ( Labyrinth, Pan’s Labyrinth, Spirited Away, Mirror Mask), to the more abstract and conceptual (Roman Polanski’s What?, Wayne Kramer’s Running Scared, and even Clive Barker’s Hellraiser). The formula is so wide open to interpretation I could even argue Boogie Nights, Straw Dogs and Park Chan-wook’s Lady Vengeance count as loose adaptations.

To his credit (unlike the SyFy version) director Tim Burton avoids recalling The Matrix, which is probably the most prevalent unofficial Wonderland adaptation of the last two decades. Unfortunately, Burton is often stuck between the obnoxious, sickly sweet, candy-coated filmmaking that made Charlie and the Chocolate Factory such a chore, and misled bouts of melodrama. I enjoyed Sweeney Todd quite a bit, despite its director refusing to push himself at all creatively, and hoped the refocus on dark comedy would mean Burton had another Ed Wood in him. The announcement of Alice in Wonderland didn’t inspire any interest, and now that I’m actually watching the film I see my intuitions were mostly correct. This isn’t to say my intuitions are particularly incredible, rather they’re so un-incredible it’s a disappointment whenever I’m correct. Burton’s film is a semi-sequel to Carroll’s original stories, which would normally separate his version from a million other over-adapted properties, except that Steven Spielberg’s Hook, Walter Murch’s Return to Oz, and the SyFy channel Alice all already reintroduced their heroes and heroines to their respective Wonderlands after years away. Hook and Alice both erase the protagonist’s memories of Neverland and Wonderland as well. This puts Burton’s film at an off-the-bat conceptual disadvantage.

Alice in Wonderland
At its worst this Alice in Wonderland is a parody of the director’s filmography, including the emphasis on style over substance, the Hot Topic derivative visuals (which Burton seems to have defined over the years), and the out of place action sequences. Burton’s visual choices, his major advantage throughout his career lull ( Sweeney Todd notwithstanding), are hit and miss. The look is distinctive mix of cartoony computer animation, and live action costume drama (the early, real world bound scenes are probably as close as we’ll see Burton get to adapting Pride and Prejudice, and I kind of liked it), which I’m not sure has ever been achieved as effectively, or at least as smoothly. The mixed media approach reminds me of some of the anime inspired cult films out of Hong Kong and Japan ( Great Yokai War, for instance), but Burton’s budget allows him to blur the line a little more gracefully. Camera movement is a little slow and sleepy for Burton, who still screws in a few mega-cartoony zooms, but mostly apes Peter Jackson aping David Lean. At best Burton doesn’t quite match Andrew Adamson aping Peter Jackson. The last act focus on epic battle scene is disconcerting as well, inspiring basically zero zeal. The big climax feels uncommonly small, as if enacted on a Dinner Theatre stage rather than an IMAX screen, and is followed by a terribly placating dance scene.

The film’s comedic dialogue works much better than anticipated, but every clever quip is forced to fight its way through huge swaths of unnecessary exposition. The screenwriters—who must have had all of a week to prep the script—earn credit for trying to do something new with such overly familiar elements, but there’s a random quality to the storytelling, and the speedy pacing allows for little investment. I never thought to care about the Mad Hatter’s back story, and the film does little to convince me otherwise (the last thing the already over-adapted tale needed was text book selections from ‘The Hero’s Journey’). Worse is the inclusion of the director’s two favourite bits of neuroses—daddy issues and fear of marriage. One assumes he’s going to shoehorn them into every film from here on out, culminated I Can’t Marry You, Because I Have Creepy Daddy Issues. Perhaps after this masterpiece he’ll move on to making movies that feature a lasting impact. Concerning the Alice in Wonderland cast, Johnny Depp, the trailers’ main selling point, is a waste, apparently content to mix all his most United Kingdom accented back catalogue. His CG augmented eyes are consistently distracting as well. Fortunately the rest of the cast is quite charming, especially Helena Bonham Carter as the insecure and impulsive Red Queen (an amalgamation of the book’s Red Queen and Queen of Hearts), and Anne Hathaway as a deep down villainous White Queen doing her best to act proper.

Alice in Wonderland

Video


As per their other Disney Digital 3D release, Disney has chosen not to include an anaglyph 3D version of Alice in Wonderland with this collection. From what I’ve heard from people that saw the film in theatres the post-production 3D was so wonky a polarized 3D version wouldn’t have been ideal anyway. What fans do get is a very pretty 1.78:1 1080p transfer. The basic look of Wonderland is a massive mix of post-production trick. It’s as if the chroma levels have been cranked as high as they can go, then all the details were digitally sharpened, then everything was de-saturated, and then put through the bleach-bypass process. Part of the look is the softness, and the softness does not, surprisingly enough lead to a lot of particularly sharp edges, or high contrast…erm, contrasts. There are still plenty of incredible details to explore, especially in the costumes, and the hairs of the CG creatures (so many kinds of hair). The White Queen’s domain is sharper than everything else, thanks to the almost black and white look, while the Red Queen’s domain is the most visually appealing thanks to the duelling blacks and reds. The warmer colours and super-deep black levels are the transfer’s most impressive element, but the basically thin and soft nature of the film’s non-close-up visuals, though intended, keeps the disc just this side of must-see status.

Alice in Wonderland

Audio


The second Alice physically steps into Wonderland the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 erupts into the stereo and surround channels. Future sequences within the kingdom are a little more traditional in terms of quantity, but this intro features some extremely aggressive with buzzing, bustling creatures, zipping all about the channels. Other effects-heavy highlights include any scenes involving the Bandgersnatch, the crowd scene during the Hatter’s beheading, and the Jabberwocky battle. The animated vocal cast is a particular thrill, and all the male voices produce great, sharp bass, especially Sir Christopher Lee as the Jabberwocky. The thespian’s baritone certainly rattles the LFE. The majority of the uncompressed track’s efforts seem to go into Danny Elfman’s score. The music is a semi-return to Elfman’s earlier Burton scores, especially the Batman and Batman Returns scores, which are probably the most robust in the composer’s catalogue. Alice in Wonderland features a bit of the whimsy of Sleepy Hallow as well, including a nice hero’s theme that features a chorus of boys singing actual English lyrics.

Alice in Wonderland

Extras


The terse extras are divided into a few subsections. The five part ‘Wonderland Characters’ (27:50, HD) featurette starts things off. ‘Finding Alice’ starts things off with a general look behind the scenes, where all the cast and crew members give each other back-pats, and explain the obvious subtext. The focus is generally thrust upon Alice, including casting, wardrobe, and fight training. ‘The Mad Hatter’ shifts focus to Depp, who discusses his method, his and Burton’s designs, make-up, costume and digital eye augmentation. ‘The Futterwacken Dance’ discusses the worst thing in the film, and how it came together. ‘The Red Queen’ is a rather entertaining look at the villain with Helena Bonham Carter, who’s make-up took forever, and who looks more interesting without the digitally embiggened head. This is followed by a time-lapse look at the Red Queen’s make-up set to commentary by Carter, Burton, and the make-up designers. ‘The White Queen’ closes out the section with a look at Anne Hathaway’s amalgamation character, who is the most consistently funny member of the cast.

‘Making Wonderland’ (19:30, HD) begins with ‘Scoring Wonderland’, a reasonably informative look at the production of Danny Elfman’s music, especially the main hero theme. ‘Effecting Wonderland’ explores all the styles of digital effects and animation that went into the technically complex film, like motion capture, green screen composition, head replacement, character animation, etc. ‘Stunts of Wonderland’ speaks for itself, and features some amusing green screen footage. ‘Making the Proper Size’ continues the look at the special effects, specifically those that pertain to Alice’s varying sizes. ‘Cakes of Wonderland’ quickly covers the baking of the film’s various prop cakes, follow-up by a brief look at the rest of the tea party props. Trailers for other Disney Blu-ray and DVD releases close out the disc.

Alice in Wonderland

Overall


Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland isn’t the garish mess I thought it would be, but it does see the director on cruise control, and is just generally not a very good movie. The performances and humour are enough to entertain, and they almost overcome the disjointed plotting, but the emphasis on goofy special effects and tired production design kicks things back down again. This Blu-ray release looks and sounds great, though the super-stylized visuals don’t lend themselves to the sharpest details, and Danny Elfman’s bombastic score usually takes command of the DTS-HD Master Audio track. The extras are pretty brief, and smell like sales pieces, but are actually quite efficient and informative for what they are.

*Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray release.


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