Not so wonderful Alice

By David Orlikoff

Tim Burton is not a director—he is a brand. His name defines an aesthetic built from dozens of longtime creative collaborators, from Danny Elfman and Helena Bonham Carter to the lesser known Colleen Atwood and Chris Lebenzon. I don’t mean that he is more bigheaded than anyone else in Hollywood; he might be very appreciative of their work defining his aesthetic. But our understanding of the product is not factual, it privileges his myth of authorship. So much so, in fact, that there are people walking around adorned with characters from “The Nightmare Before Christmas” that do not know the film was directed by Henry Selick.

And as a brand, our perceptions of him are more than just inaccurate; they are actively doctored as if he were a politician or clothing company. Tim Burton is a weird, dark visionary outsider who somehow keeps getting away with his crazy shenanigans—or so the myth goes. But after seeing his latest film, “Alice in Wonderland,” which Hollywood insiders like Richard D. Zanuck fronted over $200 million dollars for, I’m struck by how normal it was. Of course, he has a distinct visual style and I don’t need to mention the film stars Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, this time with Anne Hathaway and newcomer Mia Wasikowska playing Alice. But does that make him weird, or transgressive in any way? No, it makes him pretty.

Once upon a time, Burton directed a film called “Edward Scissorhands” about an outcast whose differences were dangerous and the girl who grew to see the beauty of his alternative lifestyle. Nowadays, it seems like Burton’s characters are always more tame than his biggest Hot Topic-shopping fans. It might not be fair to say he’s sold out, if only because we made him what he is. America needs an inside outsider, an acceptable weird—it’s at the core of our national identity. As we grow up, we are all told we are special, and when we go to school we learn about the rebellious founding fathers and the intrepid Lewis and Clark. We want simultaneously to be individuals and to have our individuality lead the mainstream to loving us. I can’t think of another director that embodies this more than Tim Burton.

The plot and structure of Alice are very disappointing. Coupled with the fact that this is a meaningless remake, the theme of destiny made it impossible to enjoy anything beyond the most superficial plastic elements of the film, which were of course its strong suit. Alice is supposed to be in this crazy, absurdist land, but for some reason all the rules of conventional drab storytelling still apply. This is a battle of good against evil more clear-cut than in “Star Wars” or George W. Bush’s argument in support of the “War on Terror.”

After reading this, you might be thinking I still owe you a review. And normally I agree that a person should be able to read a piece of criticism and decide if they might like the film based on its description, regardless of the conclusions the author made. But in this case, I believe my review will have little influence on the movie-going public. Those who love Burton just love Burton. I used to be one of them, and that’s why I’m so hard on him now.

Though at its core a bad film, there are many redeeming factors in “Alice.” Both queens, but particularly Bonham Carter’s, are positively splendiferous. The visuals are better than those of “Avatar” and the ensemble cast of CGI animals are very fun.

At the tea party, Depp promises that on the fraptious day, if she slays the Jabberwocky, then he will do a dance. And guess what, that was the plot of the film. Whether or not you like it depends entirely on your enjoyment of Depp’s hatter doing a goofy dance to

goofier music.

So I can’t tell you if you should see this movie or not. I don’t know how you feel about goofy dances interrupting the lack of narrative. Maybe you love them. I think they are just OK.