As I was walking through the MoMA exhibit dedicated to the works of director Tim Burton, it became abundantly clear that, as a director, there's very little to his work beyond its look. That isn't a knock. He's become a filmmaker who is now hired to graft the "Tim Burton look" (which he has carefully cultivated throughout his 30+ year career) to some pre-existing property or conceit, say, 'Planet of the Apes' or 'Sleepy Hollow.' So instead of a director defined by the typical stylistic conventions (his editorial rhythm maybe or camera angles and movements) it's more about the look and whether that look has been properly affixed to the material.
Again, this may sound like some kind of dig, but it isn't meant to be. Directing is a job, after all. And Tim Burton takes his job very seriously. It's just that watching a Tim Burton film has now become a kind of guessing game, as to whether or not his particular distinctions and proclivities mesh or clash with the material he's been hired to adapt. Sometimes these experiments in Tim Burton-izing are runaway successes, like his adaptation of stage mainstay 'Sweeney Todd,' which was a lyrical, bloodthirsty masterpiece. But sometimes you get 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,' a precious confection that was long on style and, well, just plain long.
(Gone are the days of gonzo original conceits like 'Edward Scissorhands,' 'Beetlejuice' or even his greatest filmmaking accomplishment, the humane and hilarious 'Ed Wood.' Again: I remain a dedicated Tim Burton fanatic, through thick and thin.)
All of this is an incredibly long-winded introduction to his manic take on Lewis Carroll's 'Alice in Wonderland' stories that also serves as a jazzed-up, 3-D revision of the beloved Walt Disney animated film. (This new movie is a Disney production, and they did a lot to make the connection explicitly clear.) There were rumors that, before its release, Disney was so worried about this new 'Alice' that they were going to dump it in theaters and then rush it to home video. Well, they did rush it to home video, but after it had amassed more than a billion dollars worldwide ($400 million in North America alone – yowza) and entered the record books as one of the most successful movies of all time.
So, is 'Alice in Wonderland,' spruced up with cutting edge visual effects and given the baroque Tim Burton treatment, a success creatively? I say yes. In the face of many naysayers, I might add. ("Off with his head!" they'll undoubtedly cry.)
Owing more, structurally, to Steven Spielberg's odiously autobiographical 'Hook' than anyone (myself included) would care to admit, this 'Alice' sees our young heroine (played by Mia Wasikowska) all grown up and living a chaste lifestyle in Victorian England. (There's much more to be written about Burton's recent Anglophile phase, at least partially inspired by his partnership, both creatively and romantically, with Brit Helena Bonham Carter, who here plays the wicked, balloon-headed Red Queen.)
On the day she's proposed to by a stuffy rube, the White Rabbit (voiced by Michael Sheen) visits Alice. She, predictably, follows him down the rabbit hole, both literally and metaphorically. We're then treated to classic 'Alice' scenarios (she gets too tall, she gets too tiny), all rendered charmingly bizarre by Tim Burton and an army of production designers and visual effects wizards. Soon a very loose story takes shape: the inhabitants of Wonderland (among them Anne Hathaway as the goodly White Queen and Stephen Fry as the sphinx-y Cheshire Cat) require Alice's assistance in defeating the Red Queen and her cronies, the Knave of Hearts (played by a disembodied Crispin Clover) and dragon-like monster Jabberwocky.
The story, conceived by Linda Woolverton, a veteran of Disney Feature Animation, has a lot of wandering around, which is fine (there is a videogame-ish quality to the narrative, a kind of "go get the key that goes here" style), but the world is so beautifully realized that you're okay just staring, goggle-eyed, at the screen (I love the look and animation of the Cheshire Cat in particular). Alice's main ally in the fight to regain Wonderland's inherent goodness is the Mad Hatter, played once again by Burton stalwart Johnny Depp. With his orange tsunami of hair and his eyes huge and green, he's a typical Depp-ian weirdo, but one that is never too overbearing (or taking up too much screen time). Like Burton, there seems to be a method to his madness.
Many have complained about the film's rather mundane finale, which features the kind of big-ass battle that has been pretty standard for any large scale fantasy movie in the past decade (beginning with 'Lord of the Rings'). But this didn't bug me at all. In fact, I was impressed by Burton's handling of action, which has finally reached its peak. (He was so nervous about directing action in the first 'Batman' movie that he had John Woo help out. Seriously.) Plus, there's the surreal edge that the battle gets from being staged on a giant chessboard with many of the combatants looking like anthropomorphized playing cards.
The movie was put together marrying a number of complex visual effects techniques, including motion capture, all-out animation, and a kind of manipulation of performances (like Crispin Glover's head on the elongated animated body). Supposedly Disney wanted the whole thing to be motion capture, which Depp balked at, and which sent Burton in the opposite direction, initially envisioning the project encompassing everything from CGI to stop motion. Sadly, that never came to be (alongside Burton wanting to graft Alan Rickman's face onto the hookah-smoking caterpillar's head). For such an unusual mélange, though, Burton seems to have pulled it off with a fair amount of panache. You get the sensation that, since everything's malleable, he can tweak it to his specifications, much more like animation. Everything has been sent through the Tim Burton processor and come out the other side.
But there's an unexpected emotional resonance and some nice thematic stuff, too. If the movie's about the importance of the playground of dreams, than Alice's "awakening" that her childhood dreams of Wonderland were, in fact, real visitations, carries with it an oddly heartfelt punch. (The way the sequence is edited, along with Danny Elfman's wistful choral score, certainly doesn't hurt.)
There's also a nice thread of feminism in this retelling of the fanciful fairy tale. Alice is a particularly strong-willed young woman snubbing both her assumed "place" in both proper English society and the upside-down world of Wonderland. And you can bitch and moan about the movie being overcooked Hollywood trash, but it's a movie that ends with our female protagonist, dressed in drag, standing next to a giant phallic symbol (a ship's mast). It's a ballsy, striking image and one I cannot help but applaud.
Is 'Alice' perfect? Well, no. Occasionally the pacing suffers in the transition from one adventure to the next. Also, the "darkness" associated with Tim Burton's look is diminished somewhat, beyond the gnarled, curlicue trees that dot the more ruined sections of Wonderland. (We're very much in "Tim Burton whimsy" territory.) Also, it's hard to get a handle on Johnny Depp's Hatter characterization, particularly his use of two different accents. My best guess is that Hatter is some kind of schizophrenic – maybe the same dyes that he used on his hats (and turned his hair orange and eyes green) rotted his brain? But whatever the reason, it's never explicitly clear the reason he goes from a slightly lispy Englishman to a roaring Scotsman. Also, that dance he does is an embarrassment.
Still, 'Alice in Wonderland' is a hell of a good time, unbridled storybook fun. Even without that added dimension (that gave the whole look of the movie an irrepressible popup-book feel), it's a visual feast that anybody can enjoy. In terms of his populist work, this is Burton's most complete (both visually and narrative-wise) film in ages. I would encourage a return trip to Wonderland. Soon, please.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Alice in Wonderland' arrives on 3D Blu-ray as a four disc set packaged in a standard blue case with a holographic slipcover. Disc one is the 3D Blu-ray version of the film; this version has no special features, no in movie popup menus, and only works with 3D Blu-ray players. Disc two is the previously released 2D disc including all the special features. Disc three is a DVD copy of the movie, and disc four is the digital copy disc. In addition, Disney has also included a mail in rebate voucher good for $10 for anyone upgrading from the DVD, single disc Blu-ray, or three disc combo pack.
'Alice in Wonderland' arrives on 3D Blu-ray as one of the most anticipated titles for the young format. (shy of 'Avatar') First off, a little history on the 3D that went into this movie. When this film was conceptualized it was right from the start intended to be a 3D adventure. However, decisions were made to add the 3D element in post-production, meaning shooting in 2D and converting to 3D later. This was a questionable decision to many, including James Cameron, who thought why not shoot in native 3D if you intend to make a 3D movie? Burton defends his decision by citing obstacles related to the 3D camera such as size, weight, and overall cost of filming in 3D. He felt that the end result of a conversion could be just as good as filming in 3D.
So how does the movie look on 3D Blu-ray you ask? I must say that I was extremely impressed with this 1080p/ MPEG-4 transfer. Just like the 2D version of the film, detail is the strong suit of this release. The best way to describe the skin tones in this film would be "imaginatively realistic." This is probably what milk-white skin would look like right? Colors are also vibrant at intended times (engagement party at the start of the film) and black levels appear to be bottomless. The film is also free of grain and any other digital artifacts.
Now for the actual purpose of this release, the 3D in the film. Overall, I was very impressed with how well the 3D is used. I really enjoyed the added role depth played in the enjoyment of this film. Depth felt consistent and realistic throughout, some of the best examples coming from scenes in the "real world" garden. I also found that while colors may seem slightly less vibrant at times, overall, they were on par with those featured in the 2D version. Aside from that, the only imperfections I found were a few instances of ghosting, mostly occurring in darker sequences; these were few and far between.
This being a 2D conversion I thought it would be appropriate to compare differences with other conversion efforts like 'Clash of the Titans.' First off, I feel a comparison is almost unfair between the two due to the fact that the decision to go 3D was reached very differently. Tim Burton knew from the start that 'Alice in Wonderland' was going to be 3D, so the film was shot with 3D in mind and much greater care was put into the conversion process. 'Clash of the Titans' was a last minute post-production decision, most likely a shameless money grab. Having said that, 'Alice in Wonderland' is the clear winner here due to the time and care put into the conversion. The greatest difference I noticed was the presence characters had on screen. In 'Clash' it appeared as if the characters were pop-up book characters at times while here depth was noticeable in physical characteristics. The only other marker I looked for was texture, and 'Alice in Wonderland' also wins here. The lesson I take out of this is 2D-3D conversions can work fine when the director knows from the start that 3D is desired and chooses to film in 2D, it won't work when the decision is made purely from a monetary stance and decided at the last second by the pencil pushers and executive nitwits.
This is an excellent transfer that ranks right up there with the top 3D releases to date. Having only seen the film once before in 2D, I must say this was almost like seeing the movie for the first time. Wonderland looks like a different, dare I say it, almost believable place with 3D elements added.
To say this DTS-HD MA 5.1 track is great would be doing it a disservice, this is a flawless track that is as subtle and powerful as any movie you're going to find on the Blu-ray format.
Surround effects are present throughout, even in some of the more quiet sequences. While the dialogue is crystal clear, pay close attention for subtle nighttime insect sound effects or tiny noises in the background. This track also packs a punch in some of the more action packed sequences like the battle at the end of the movie; your home theater room will really rattle from those bass effects! Simply put, this is demo worthy sound that belongs on display at home theater stores.
Here's where things come to a screeching halt. This Blu-ray release, so wonderful until now, takes a decided nosedive when it comes to digging into the special features because, well, there are none to speak of, really. We don't even get a commentary track by the big man himself. Maybe this was due to the quick turnaround from the theater to home video, but this really is inexcusable. Despite pre-release materials proclaiming otherwise, these extras should be on the legit DVD release since they are so scant, although none are present on the extra DVD copy here. As far as exclusives, that's about it – the DVD and the Digital Copy disc. Although it's not advertised, there is a BD-Live component to the disc, but there was little happening on there at press time. Look no further than the main menu, which has the current time and temperature in the upper righthand corner of the screen. Sort of weird.
Overall, I was very pleased with 'Alice in Wonderland 3D.' The 3D, matched with the excellent DTS HD audio track, combined to create a wonderful viewing experience that's hard to beat. This should serve as an example of how a 3D conversion should be done. Unfortunately, the same special features are recycled for this release, so we're still left with a subpar collection of special features. This movie comes highly recommended to anyone who doesn't own the movie already. For anyone who bought the 2D only or DVD version, I would still recommend considering this edition and taking Disney up on their rebate offer.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.