Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Wrong "Alice in Wonderland", Part II: Thematic Unity and Logic? Who Needs 'Em?

My opinions are like fine wine: they only get more pronouncedly poignant with age.

(I was going to say "They only improve with age" but that was a tad braggadocic, even for me.)

(Braggadocic. Google it. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle used it once. So...I'm in good company.)

(Aaaaaand...I just compared myself to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Looks like I can't escape braggadocio after all. Also, it looks like I can't escape parentheses.)

So this-here is the second part of my four-part diatribe against the travesty that was Alice in Wonderland, and seriously. Why the HECK did I go see it? Of course, hindsight is 20-20, but even re-viewing the trailers...they are not in the least promising. I think it boils down to a sentimental attachment I had to the source material that allowed me to overlook the absolute shortcomings in Burton's interpretation.

Now, I believe that before I continue here I must offer an apology for my bitterness against Alice, apology here being used in its original sense, meaning a defense of one's position. I often judge adaptations against their source material; I most certainly judged Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings against J. R. R. Tolkien's books. But when necessary, I can switch that habit off, and that's exactly what I did for Burton's Alice. I do not dislike Burton's interpretation because of its ravaging of Carroll's original; I dislike Burton's interpretation because of its poor quality. In other words, I'm not judging Burton's Alice relatively, in comparison to its source material; I'm judging it absolutely, in comparison to generally-accepted standards of excellence.

So anyway.

The first unit of this series covered the severe narrative shortcomings of Alice in Wonderland; that was relatively easy, because we can all tell when a story works and when it doesn't work, when it makes sense and when it makes us scratch our heads.

This time, I'll be discussing the thematic problems and disjointednesses of Alice, a subject which will of necessity be more subjective, less absolute. But I'll give it my best shot, and I expect some disagreement, especially on something as subjective as this.

The narrative flaws of Alice actually contributed to the film's thematic flaws. For instance, I felt the film's greatest thematic problem was the conflict between themes, the struggle for precedence between the themes presented in the film. It almost seemed like Linda Woolverton, the scriptwriter, couldn't make up her mind which theme she wanted to emphasize.

Thematic harmony is important in scriptwriting--or at least that's my opinion as a viewer. Themes need to intermesh with narrative and with each other in order to make sense AND to have power.

The five main themes that I counted were as follows: self-awareness, destiny, loyalty, unreality, and compassion.

Self-awareness, also known in Hollywood as "the follow your heart" motif, is primarily Alice-centered, though it affects the Hatter and the Cheshire Cat as well. The whole "wrong Alice" plotline, as well as the search for the champion, tries vainly and not-too-valiantly to freshen this soul-crushingly worn-out, overused, tired cliche of a theme. Then, too, you have the Hatter's melting-pot of characters, eventually resolving to his transformation into Braveheart on the battlefield--er, chessboard. Or how about the Cheshire Cat? Is his character arc another iteration of this theme? After all, he seems a bit non-committal early on in the film ("I don't pay attention to politics") and then later ends up helping the Hatter and Bayard and that ineffably STUPID mouse...

N.B. If I had to choose, I'd probably say that the predominant theme of Alice in Wonderland is self-awareness. Which is a real shame.

Another important theme in Alice is the idea of Destiny. Unlike most of the other main themes of the film, this one's pretty straightforward, or as straightforward as a discussion of destiny can be. The problem with destiny is that it's a dangerous, dangerous theme for filmmakers to dabble with. As a general rule, you devote a whole film to the theme, or you allude, or you leave well enough alone. You don't try to make destiny a part of an ensemble cast of themes.

Examples: the previously-mentioned Lord of the Rings alludes to destiny but doesn't really flesh it out. Because PJ was smart. He knew how film-consuming a theme destiny can be. On the other hand, just about every time-travel movie ever focuses on freewill/destiny.

It can be done right, but destiny should be either a controversy point (LotR: was Gollum "fated" to die?) or a starting point for philosophical discussion (Terminator 2 and "no fate but what we make for ourselves").

Loyalty. There we go, say the Alice apologistsThere's one you can't discredit. There's one Burton and Linda Woolverton got right.


See, again. This would be a GREAT theme to have at the center of the film. I mean, seriously, think about it. You have the sharply defined factions in Underland, Red and White. (Wars of the Roses, anyone?) Then all of a sudden between these warring factions comes the exceedingly normal (for Underland) Alice Kingsley. Who will she join? To whom does she owe her loyalty? Is Helena Bonham Carter's unquestioned authority, willingness and ability to lead, organizationally-oriented mindset, and badass army worthy of Alice's fealty? Or does she bow to Anne Hathaway, who is sure beautiful and has a pretty house and takes vows and can mix up an AMAZING size-potion? Or does Alice perhaps set up shop as the Blue Queen and use her awesome size to decimate everyone?

You'd want to see THAT movie, wouldn't you? You know why? It's because THAT movie has logical conflict, and in THAT movie theme and narrative support each other.

Unreality is pretty much at the heart of Lewis Carroll's Alice, so it's not surprising it makes a showing in Burton's Alice. Perhaps the small part it plays thematically (I'm not talking visually yet...that's for Thursday) is good, given the other liberties Burton takes with the source material.

See, the question of "what is real" has been a favorite with creators of narrative for hundreds of years. The iconic Bill Shakespeare loved this idea of reality vs. unreality, and he used it in a lot of his great works (Hamlet, Macbeth, Timon of Athens, Romeo and Juliet). So Carroll was hardly treading new ground when at the end of his book he decided to deliver a massive middle finger to his readers in the form of an "it was all a dream".

So it makes sense that, given the direction of the Burton Alice, unreality gets some play, but not an overwhelming amount. What doesn't make sense is the fizzling-out it succumbs to. At the beginning of the film, "is it all a dream?" is an important conflict. By the end of the film, you're not even sure if it was a dream...or if the dream itself even occurred.

And finally, the idea of compassion, which is another theme around which this film could VERY WELL have been structured. (Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: "It might have been.") Anne Hathaway keeps talking about her vow not to hurt anyone--Alice wins over the Bandersnatch by compassionately returning its eye--poor ol' Bayard's family is in danger, dang it! But there's no depth to this compassion; lacking a richer cultural backdrop and any form of poignancy, it becomes a mere exercise in character differentiation.

Notice how I called it character differentiation. Differentiation is different from development. Differentiation is helping the audience tell characters apart, and a lot of times it's technical--vocal or visual or occasionally narrative or something along those lines. There's a lot of character differentiation in Alice in Wonderland. What the film lacks is character development--the imbuing of differentiated bodies with differentiated personalities, characteristics, souls--lives. And I will discuss this issue of character at length tomorrow, as I delve into the hodgepodge of characters that makes up Depp's Hatter, how Mia Wasikowska's performance as Alice is more two-dimensional than those playing-card soldiers of Helena Bonham Carter's, and whose acting performances deserve praise out of the entire cast (hints: there are only three and I'm counting voice-actors too).

Long live whorish segues...

I mean, long live cliffhangers!

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