Saturday, August 01, 2009

Reasons to be Fearful: Alice in Wonderland

After The Fantastic Mr. Fox yesterday, which is a children's film (that might not really be for children) based on a beloved book and directed by an American auteur with a distinctive visual style, today I will be casting my eye over Alice in Wonderland, a children's film (that might not really be for children) based on a beloved children's book and directed by an American auteur with a distinctive visual style.

I've something of a love-hate relationship with Tim Burton and over the years it has tipped more into hate than love. His first six feature-films as a director, from 1985's Pee-Wee's Big Adventure to 1994's Ed Wood (not to mention his writer-producer credit on The Nightmare Before Christmas), are all good or great. Well, Pee-Wee's Big Adventure isn't all that good, but you've got to start somewhere. There's a vibrancy, energy and sense of invention to them that makes me think that Burton was expecting some executive to show up at any moment and tell him that they'd made a mistake and that they hadn't meant to give such massive budgets to someone who makes such thoroughly odd films. This is a man who was given huge amounts of money to make two Batman movies, which he then used to exercise his fascination with German expressionism (this is particularly true of Batman Returns), cast a comic actor in the lead role and had pop's favourite oddball, Prince, compose the soundtrack for one of them. These are the acts of a madman.

AND, to top it all off, he somehow made them successful; Batman was one of the highest grossing films of all time in America upon release, and it still sits at number 48 in the all-time domestic earners.

It's that madness and sense of danger, at least artistic danger, that characterises all of the films Burton made up until 1994. Even Ed Wood, a biopic which on first glance seems relatively normal compared to his previous films, is much stranger than it would first appear. A study of a director who was, by no stretch of the imagination, any good, it's a film that glorifies failure so long as it's for the sake of your passion and even if it ends up leaving you poor, forced to get by directing terrible porn and remembered as a joke. Somehow, Burton took a really quite tragic life and made it into an inspirational story; Wood's infectiousness spreads not only to his fellow characters, but out of the screen and into the audience itself. In Burton's filmography it stands out as being his most human story and remains my favourite of his.

What happened after 1994? I'm not sure. Maybe he realised that no one was going to tell him he couldn't make the films he wanted to anymore, that he was so successful that there was no danger that people would come and take his budgets away, and the best example of this would be Mars Attacks! A kitschy homage to 1950's sci-fi, it's sporadically entertaining and a clear example that Burton had reached a point in his career where he could do more or less anything he wanted. From here on in we start to see things like the disinterested gothic trappings of Sleepy Hollow (a film that I seem alone in disliking), the sickening whimsy of Big Fish and the pretty wrapping and empty calories of Charlie and The Chocolate Factory (another film which I am strangely isolated in my distaste for). I won't mention Planet of the Apes because it's really not worth the effort.

Charlie and The Chocolate Factory was probably the point at which I firmly and definitively started to approach all future Burton films with apprehension rather than anticipation. As I mentioned yesterday, I am a huge Roald Dahl fan and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was one of my favourites of his books. I was also quite partial to the Gene Wilder version, even if the alterations to the ending annoyed me no end, so going in I had high expectations. The film is not necessarily bad; it's visually beautiful, the performances from the children (particularly Freddie Highmore) are great and the film, possibly more than any other Dahl adaptation, gets across just how creepy his stories can be.

However, there was a real sense with Charlie and The Chocolate Factory that Burton had stopped doing films he wanted to do and films that he was supposed to do. You could practically hear the prattle of commentators when each new prokect was announced, ''Of course he's doing Charlie and The Chocolate Factory; his dark sensibilities perfectly suit Dahl's own predilection for the macabre'', ''Of course he's doing Sweeney Todd, the black and whites that mark out the rest of his work will compliment beautifully its blood-red tale'' (the irony of this being that I loved Sweeney Todd) and ''Of course he'll make them with Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter because they're in love, and she wouldn't get work otherwise.''

Which, in a very round about way, brings us to Alice In Wonderland.


As with his other more recent films (''more recent'' being a term that covers nearly 16 years of film-making) there is nothing inherently wrong with the trailer for Alice in Wonderland. It comes with Burton's customary visual flair, complete with black and whites everywhere and an enhanced sense of artificiality. It's got some of his key players with Johnny Depp (of course) playing The Mad Hatter (of course) and Helena Bonham Carter (of course) playing the Queen of Hearts (of course). It's even got a Danny Elfman score to boot. There really is nothing wrong with what Alice in Wonderland is.

The problem is what Alice in Wonderland isn't; it isn't surprising. It conforms to all previous film versions of Alice in Wonderland, with some admittedly beautiful effects work, and there is absolutely nothing in the trailer to suggest that Tim Burton is doing anything that you wouldn't expect Tim Burton to do when making Alice in Wonderland. Everything looks exactly how I imagined he would do it, from the vibrant colour of the Mad Hatter's outfit to the warped landscape of the world, it all fits with what I thought Burton's vision of the story would be, and whilst that may be a boon for his fans, it just leaves me feeling disappointed.

If we look back at his first six films, each one shows a sense of progression, a sense of growth, a sense that he is developing as an artist. Each new film brought a new confidence and a greater expression of his artistic vision, with each representing a further development of his worldview. This had become so fully realised that, after purging his Gothic tendencies on Batman Returns, he was then able to make Ed Wood, a film which could not be further away from the artificial fables of his other work. He had developed so unique and complete an artistic viewpoint that he was then able to set it aside to tell a story, something that he has not done since in the subsequent decade and a half.

Now look at his last six films. Apart from the improvements in technology that have allowed him to gradually eliminate stages entirely, there is no real sense of change or development shown in any of them. He has revisited the same themes over and over again, as great film-makers often do, but there is no sense that he has refined them or that he has learned something new from each film. He could very easily have made Alice in Wonderland ten years ago and, apart from the technical aspects, it would have been the same film. Burton has reached a point in his career where he has crystallised, ossified, decided to do what is easy rather than what is interesting. As if to prove my point, his next film after Alice is Frankenweenie, a remake of a short film he made 25 years ago.

I realise that this has been less about Alice in Wonderland and more a critique of what I feel to be the stagnation of Tim Burton, but to me the two are inseparable and my concerns about one are exemplified by the other. The trailer, to me, shows that Burton is continuing to coast along in neutral, and Burton's coasting in neutral worries me about the prospects for Alice.

Just as The Fantastic Mr. Fox could be terrible, I am fully prepared to be proved wrong and for Alice in Wonderland to be Tim Burton's most original and exciting film since Ed Wood. Even if it doesn't manage that, I wouldn't be surprised if it turned out to be a pretty entertaining film, since it's a story that's hard to mess up and Burton has been given an awful lot of free reign to tell it, but if it turns out to be merely entertaining and not brilliant, it'll just serve as another reminder that a man who was once one of his generation's most interesting film-makers is content to rest on his laurels and not challenge himself or his audience, and I can't help but feel sad about that.