When thinking about Tim Burton’s latest film, one phrase kept popping into my head: “Interesting failure.” It’s not the first time those two words have been fused together to describe a Burton feature: The gothic-minded filmmaker has a penchant for churning out films that look fantastic but never quite mesh together into a satisfying whole.
Consider his latest, a pseudo-sequel to Lewis Carroll’s classic, Alice in Wonderland. Burton’s feature is set a decade or so after the events of Carroll’s book. Alice is grown, having forgotten her first venture into the world of Wonderland and has a lord waiting to ask her hand in marriage. Feeling pressure from all sides and no control over her own destiny, Alice takes off, chasing a white rabbit down a hole and returning to Wonderland.
For a while, events track relatively closely to the original’s narrative – food and drink grow and shrink Alice, there’s a tea party and a talking caterpillar, and a smiling, evaporating cat makes an appearance – until, all of a sudden, Burton seizes the reins and sends the story in a different direction. Instead of the whimsical wordplay and nonsense imagery that dotted Carroll’s book (and the original cartoon adaptation from Disney), we veer into a puffed-up world of martial combat.
Indeed, the movie climaxes with a battle on a chessboard between the forces of the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) and the White Queen (Anne Hathaway) in a scene that looks like a scaled-down version of one of the set pieces that dot The Lord of the Rings or The Chronicles of Narnia. By the time the dust settles, it’s unclear whether Burton has anything more than a passing fancy for the original work.
This isn’t to say that there’s nothing to admire in this movie; as with most Burton features, it looks fantastic. He has a real eye for set design and a visual panache that is almost unmatched by other fantasy filmmakers. The creature design – from the Jabberwocky to the Bandersnatch to the Red Queens playing card soldiers – is all quite impressive – menacing and lifelike yet still clearly rooted in fantasy.
And Burton, working with regulars like Johnny Depp (as the Mad Hatter) and Carter, wrings excellent (if odd) performances out of his stars. Depp’s Hatter is mad, all right, veering wildly between a lisping tea partier and a raving lunatic with a deep Scottish brogue. It’s an oddly convincing turn (though one that is occasionally difficult to comprehend).
Still, the movie never quite gels into a convincing narrative. By trying to tame the underlying anarchy in Carroll’s original work and stuff it into a more conventional narrative, much of the joy is lost. It is an interesting failure.
Burton’s body of work is dotted with interesting failures. Mars Attacks, for example, had many of the same strengths and flaws of Alice in Wonderland: There were great performances from several actors (including Jack Nicholson, playing a multitude of roles) and some stunning set/creature design -- who could forget the attempted seduction of an alien dressed as a bombshell blonde by a smarmy presidential aide? – but the overall narrative, which was derived from a set of trading cards from the 1960s, never came together: It was simply too episodic to make a convincing feature with a conventional three act structure.
Then there are his remakes of Planet of the Apes and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The less said about Apes, the better – “interesting” failure, snorted sarcastically, might be a better way to describe it – but Charlie and the Chocolate Factory had some real charm: Another strong, mad performance from Depp as candy maker Willy Wonka; more brilliantly designed sets complemented by excellent use of color; a real sense of love for the source material. But it all fell apart when Burton tried to force a Freudian back story filled with repression and evil father-dentists on Depp’s Wonka.
Perhaps the cleanest, most direct, way to enjoy Mr. Burton’s work is to head up to New York City and check out the exhibit of the director’s work at the Museum of Modern Art. Running through April 26, the exhibit showcases his sketches and paintings divorced from the need to fit them into a story or narrative structure.
Failing's aside, it’s worth checking out Alice in Wonderland, so long as one is willing to submit to its peculiar failings. It certainly won’t replace the original Disney classic or the book on which it was based, but it’s pleasing to the eye and ear.
Sonny Bunch blogs about politics and culture at Conventional Folly.