Friday, March 26, 2010

Film Reviews: Alice in Wonderland (1951) & Alice in Wonderland (2010)

"Alice in Wonderland" (1951) *** (out of ****)
"Alice in Wonderland" (2010) *** (out of ****)
Having seen Tim Burton's "Alice in Wonderland" (2010) yesterday, I thought why not review both the Disney animated version as well as this new version.

Like many people who have not read Lewis Carroll's classic children stories, "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" and "Through the Looking Glass", I think most of us might be most familiar with the Disney adaptation, despite the fact that upon initial release the film was a box-office flop. And even today there are those who bash the film. Reportedly, even Walt Disney himself was not happy with this film, although he had wanted to make his own version for years.

Still, it is a safe bet most children first learn about Alice and Wonderland through this animated feature. And quite frankly I like it.

What is it about this story that seems to capture the interest of filmmakers? Countless adaptations have been made of this story. The first known adaptation dates back to 1903, a British film which ran 12 minutes long, today 8 minutes remain (you can find it on youtube). Other well known versions include another live action version from 1933, which featured an all-star cast consisting of Cary Grant, Gary Cooper, W.C. Fields and Edward Everett Horton among many, many others. And if you are in the mood for a more strange telling of this story check out the 1988 Czech version by animator Jan Svankmajer simply titled "Alice". This is of course nothing to say of all the TV movies and series which have taken us to Wonderland. One wonders, was Tim Burton's version really needed?

Regardless, the 1951 Disney telling, is said to be a pretty decent adaptation. Watching it again I was struck by a few things. First of all, it is an incredibly short movie, 75 minutes. It all seems to end so abruptly. I felt much more could have been done with the story. And secondly, I didn't feel a clear moral was presented. Disney stories usually teach us something.

There is a moment in this movie when Alice (voiced by Kathryn Beaumont, who was also heard in "Peter Pan" (1953) as Wendy) is scared and frustrated. She thinks she will never find her way out of Wonderland. She sits alone and sings a song explaining that from now on she will learn to pay more attention to adults and do what she is told. Prior to this moment Alice is presented as a carefree child who doesn't take her studies serious. She wants to play and daydream. But after falling into wonderland, a place where nothing makes any sense. Alice, at this moment, learns that eventually she will have to take on responsibility. And for a while I thought this was the moral of the story. Children learning eventually they will have to grow up and learn to leave silliness behind. This was clearly a theme in "Peter Pan". But by the end of "Alice in Wonderland" I'm not sure she has really changed. Because, and I don't think I'm spoiling anything, it was all a dream. And all she had to do was wake up and go back to being herself.

Some people say they dislike this version because none of the characters are likable. I don't know about that. I wasn't bothered by any of the characters. Of course, I'm 26 years old. How would a 5 year old for example react? Still, I don't think children would have a negative reaction. I think some of the characters like Mad Hatter (voiced by Ed Wynn, a wonderful choice) and Cheshire Cat (Sterling Holloway, who was also in the 1933 version playing a Frog and was also the voice of Winnie the Pooh) should make children laugh. I think the movie is a nice reminder of a child's imagination. Maybe they have to be a little older to digest this 1951 movie but Alice's situation should be a relatable one. Children generally rather play and daydream, not hear about history or homework. Whether or not they actually want to go to a place like "Wonderland" is a different story.

Still I'd recommend this movie. I don't know if I'd put in the same league with some of Disney's other classic animated films, but, I'm sure with the release of Burton's new movie, parents might also show their children this version as well. Heck, because of Burton's version, finally the 1993 version is now available on DVD.

Walking into Tim Burton's version (who is sort of a mad hatter himself), I wasn't quite sure what to expect. The film has been doing terrific business at the box-office, still retaining its number one spot. I knew the film would have to be visually stunning. I've come to expect that from his work but I wasn't sure about Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter. I also wasn't sure Burton was the right filmmaker for this story.

I think Burton has given us some of his best movies lately. I was a strong admirer of his "Charlie & the Chocolate Factory" (2005) even though the public turned their backs on it. I also loved "Sweeney Todd" (2007). And I'm not really a fan of Burton's. But, he won me over with those two films. The problem I tend to have with most of his work is it lacks heart. Visually they are something to witness, but, emotionally I'm left cold. With "Charlie" I didn't mind. I was too impressed with the world Burton had created for us. And I suppose I should have felt the same way with "Alice in Wonderland" but I didn't. That is not to say this is a bad movie however.

This version of "Alice in Wonderland" is kind of a sequel to the story we know. That is why I decided to review two versions together. Watch the Disney movie then this one. In Burton's version Alice (Mia Wasikowska, who was in last year's "Amelia" (2009) is about to be married. She is 19 years old, and is reminded her looks will not last forever, and since a Lord no less, is interested in her, Alice should jump at the chance. But, poor sweet Alice has been troubled by dreams. The same dreams she has had since a child, about falling through a giant hole to a land with blue caterpillars and talking rabbits. These images are starting to emerge again. What is poor Alice to do?

Here the film almost takes a "Wizard of Oz" approach as certain real life people remind Alice of characters she meets in Wonderland. Burton is throwing some hints and suggestions are way with Alice's future mother-in-law and her dislike for white roses, twin cousins who always stand side by side, completing each other's sentences.

The theme here with Burton's film seems to be the same, growing older, taking responsibility. In the real world Alice's fate has been decided for her. She must get married. But when Alice arrives in Wonderland, after chasing a white rabbit of course, she learns that her fate has been decided again. She must slay a jabberwocky (think giant dragon, voiced by Christopher Lee) and rescue her friend the Mad Hatter (Depp) and restore the White Queen (Anne Hathaway) to the throne which was taken from her by her sister, the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter). Will Alice except her fate? Not only in Wonderland (though here called "Underland") but in the real world as well?

Burton says he wanted to make this version because he always found "Alice in Wonderland" to be too much of an episodic film. There was a slim thread holding everything together. Burton does tie up some loose ends, but, it still didn't feel like a complete movie to me. There is something to be desired though as expected the visuals are wonderful. I haven't seen a world like this since "Pan's Labyrinth" (2006). And I should mention I saw the film in 2-D not 3-D. Though I could tell which parts would have gained something from the 3-D.