Alice in Wonderland (2010) -vs- Avatar (2009)

Alice in Wonderland -vs- Avatar

Sherry CobenThe Smackdown

Two 3D films are fighting for space on your neighborhood movie screen right now. I’ve seen both, and I’ve picked my clear favorite. Both films feature fantastically imagined worlds of CGI, exhilarating mixtures of live action and special effects. One is based on a classic of children’s literature, and the other is (intentionally or unintentionally) based on “Dances With Wolves” and/or “Pocahontas.” Jim Cameron is a pioneer in the dubious achievement of performance capture. An unrivaled genius at self-promotion and expanding the frontiers of movie technology, he’s managed to capture the hearts, minds, and dollars of moviegoers all over our planet. Tim Burton is an artist whose unlikely medium is mainstream feature films. While an exhibit of his work is currently on display in New York City’s Museum of Modern Art, this visionary animator/illustrator-turned director is a dark and twisted soul, an acquired taste. So it’s “Avatar” versus “Alice.” Let the games begin.

The Challenger

Tim Burton’s distinctly modern and psychologically astute twist on “Alice in Wonderland” takes the classic Disney heroine on a darker-hued ride in her return down under. Nineteen years old and on the precipice of a stifling adulthood, Alice willfully escapes once more down the rabbit hole, leaving behind all societal conventions and stultifying norms. Opting instead for a mad Underland/Wonderland, this grim-faced young woman faces her fears and tests her mettle, returning home a changed person with a new sense of purpose.

The Defending Champion

James Cameron’s box office behemoth continues to rake in the cash and expand its Na’vi-obsessed fanbase. Nominated for every possible Academy Award and breaking every conceivable box office record, “Avatar” tells the familiar story of a soldier traveling to a new world and falling in love with a native girl. Pandora is the new world, Jake is the soldier boy, and Neytiri is the girl. The military officer is the bad guy, and the greedy corporate thug in charge is even worse. They want what the Na’vi have — the valuable, rare, and hopelessly named Unobtanium. Fireworks ensue, and the soldier takes a stand with the tree-huggers. And oh yeah. Jake’s an Avatar.

The Scorecard

I saw “Avatar” on opening day. While I immediately recognized its extraordinary technical achievement, it failed to work for me as drama. I found a lot of the spiritual stuff convoluted and borderline stupid, and the conflicts and characters oversimplified. The dialogue was clumsy and witless, and I didn’t respond positively to the entire motion-capture fever.  I prefer human faces to computer-generated ones; there is nothing so expressive and moving as the human face. To me, the film played like a giant video game. The acting too was hit-and-miss. Jake’s accent migrated from Australia to the MidAtlantic and back again. Perhaps so much attention was paid to motion-capture that performances went largely unsupervised.

Production designers clearly worked overtime coming up with the wonders of Pandora, but the people on the screen were more impressed with it than I. I have some trouble seeing multiples onscreen without tuning out somehow. This phenomenon first occurred when I saw Peter Jackson’s “King Kong.” There were so many dinosaurs and waterfalls and cliffs that I felt physically dizzy beholding them all; they lost their power to amaze and enchant. Too much of a muchness. “Avatar” boasted some incredibly beautiful effects, but most were diluted by multiplying them. Battle sequences sacrificed geography and character for quantity, fast-cutting and explosive action. I had no idea who or what I was looking at a good deal of the time and I simply ceased caring after a while. All those countless cliffs and detailed flora and ridiculous fauna. The creatures were hopelessly and extravagantly over-designed — over-the-top Gay Pride Parade versions of imaginary creatures, boasting so many goofy design elements (Feathers! Horns! Eight Eyes! Sharp Teeth! Multiple Sets of Legs!) that they had no impact at all. Not to mention the vestigial breasts sported by the non- ammalian Na’vi women. By the end of the movie, I felt like my head had been stuck in a blender for a relentless few hours and I needed Advil and a time-out.

Mia Wasikowska makes a charming and quirky Alice, a pre-Raphaelite Grumpy Gwyneth Paltrow. I loved the costumes and the character design and the casting. I’d always wondered how Alice remained clothed in all her drinking and eating and shrinking and growing, and the film answers that question brilliantly and inventively. I loved looking at every frame; Wonderland’s 3D effects weren’t over the top or dizzying, and the effects stayed accessible and lovely without calling undue attention to themselves. (That said, the falling-down-the-rabbit-hole sequence was a bit murky and overlong; I’ve frequently dreamed that fall myself and fear that Burton fell a bit short of fulfilling my fondest hopes.)

I have learned to lower my own expectations going into any Tim Burton film. While I consider myself a devout (even rabid) fan of his work, I could (and occasionally do) quibble endlessly with most every storyline or script he’s chosen to do. For him (and oddly enough as it happens, for me) narrative is the excuse for the exercise rather than its point. The message is in the dazzling achievement of creating an alternate universe, usually a darkly skewed place of jaw-dropping loveliness and invention. I was surprised then to find such a blatant girl-empowering message underlying the romp, less surprised when I noticed Linda Woolverton’s writing credit; she had previously reimagined “Beauty and the Beast” for Disney as well as the more hamhandedly feminist “Mulan.” Disney makes strange bedfellows indeed. But Burton has a daughter, and all the cross-pollination makes a certain synergistic sense…and Disney dollars. The framing devices of Alice’s trip down the rabbit hole work surprisingly well; her dreams and adventures saved her from the pitfalls of a very limited mid nineteenth-century life. I always wanted Dorothy to stay in Oz and marry the Scarecrow and I admit I wanted Alice to stay in Underland with the Hatter, but setting sail for the Far East will do in a pinch. At least she escaped a terrible and stultifying marriage. Hooray for such madness.

There are shadows of Narnia and Tolkien too; Alice, ever the dour and dutiful champion, walks in some mighty frequented footprints on her quest, but the scale stays intimate and lovely. Her allies and familiars remain within shouting distance and in peril themselves, performing acts of heroism and daring without stealing her thunder. The actual battle scenes are a pleasure, confined to a fantastic but small space. No endless cliffs and battalions of nameless soldiers fighting the CGI hordes reaching some infinite horizon to confuse and confound. Instead, Alice’s climactic battle travels up one crumbling twisty flight of stone stairs overlooking the chess board where a few hundred cards and chess pieces clash and clang. Burton establishes and maintains a clear geography, and that sense of space enhances the risk and dramatic tension, creating moments of true beauty as the prophecy of the scroll comes to pass.

I confess I’d happily watch Johnny Depp read a phone book, but even accounting for my extreme prejudice, his performance as the Mad Hatter is the linchpin of the piece. He is its heart, its Scarecrow, its Tin Man. Acting through crazily tinted contacts and a crowning frizz of unfortunate and unearthly ginger, Depp somehow manages to play a compelling leading man, a romantic lead, and an action hero.  (His promised triumphant Futterwacken is a dire misfire and huge disappointment, a limp noodle of a magical victory dance.)

The rest of the cast performs admirably enough. Anne Hathaway Glindas it up as the White Queen, Crispin Glover plays the Knave of Hearts as elongated creepy courtier, and Helena Bonham Carter goes ghostly pale once again, this time a vain and giant-noggined Red Queen. She’s delicious and mordantly funny, and her decapitated head-filled moat provides enough nightmare food to keep kiddie nightlights burning for a good long time. Matt Lucas plays the Tweedles with a big CGI assist, and some of my very favorite British actors lend their vocal talents and considerable fizz to various Underland creatures — Stephen Fry as a singularly suave Cheshire Cat, Alan Rickman as all-knowing Absalom the caterpillar, twitchy Michael Sheen as the White Rabbit, and adorable Timothy Spall as Bayard. It thrilled me to see Geraldine James and Tim Pigott-Smith as a long-married couple; I first saw them in television’s epic “Jewel In The Crown” many moons ago, and this onscreen reunion provided a lovely little frisson of recognition.

The Decision

I probably stand alone on this one…or virtually alone. I really loved Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland” and I really didn’t like “Avatar” very much at all. There comes a point when making movie magic that the magic overwhelms the movie. In “Alice,” the movie magic makes the movie. In it, artistry triumphs over technology, and less is very decidedly more.


About Sherry Coben

A comedy writer who created the 1980s hit show Kate & Allie, Sherry Coben — tired of malingering in development hell — has enjoyed coaching a high school ComedySportz team in SoCal, making a no-budget, high-ambition webisode series, and biting the hand that feeds her.
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26 Responses to Alice in Wonderland (2010) -vs- Avatar (2009)

  1. Sherry Coben says:

    I thought this video might clarify and amuse.
    Enjoy:
    http://vimeo.com/9389738

  2. Brian says:

    Okay.

  3. Sherry Coben says:

    Kravern and Brian.
    My goodness. Step away from the keyboards and take a deep breath, both of you. There’s no need to get so personal. It’s just a movie. You’re both entitled to your opinions.
    Apparently, my original post touched a nerve. I’m sorry if anything I said offended anyone.
    Now, play nicely or I’ll have to send you to your rooms.

  4. Kravern says:

    Oh, sidestepping and deflecting. Nice, novice at best, but nice indeed.
    You were the first to cast a stone and make this a personal vendetta, don’t forget that.
    No where did I say the movie Avatar was the best, I said it isn’t IDENTICAL to Pocahontas nor Dances with Wolves. Where you get that it means its the best movie ever is solely upon your biased opinion. At least the orginal poster admitted to been a bit biased.
    Where as your post only garnered my attention when you assumed what my age and reading abilities entailed. You made it personal. Otherwise your whole opinion would have been just that, an opinion.
    So I have to agree with your last statement, you are a “jerk”.
    And no thank you, you should keep the milk and cookies for yourself.

  5. Brian says:

    You’re right. I’m wrong. I’m a jerk. What was I thinking. Avatar is the best film ever and anyone who raises any doubts about its veracity must be a bitter loser. There. Now calm down, get yourself some cookies and milk and go watch Glen Beck. Let him do the raging for you. You’ll feel better.

  6. Kravern says:

    Lets see. In Pocahontas the “hero” goes back to England and leaves her behind, because he was wounded. And there was no real victory to be had, only that the captain was felled and the rest decided to leave on their own achord. So where is the similarity of it? Where?
    Dances with Wolves… uhm… the character played by Costner also left the tribe… and at the end of it all the natives were all relocated. Doesn’t sound like a win win there either.
    To say they are “in fact it sound exactly the same.” only proves that even though you may be older, or even read, you fail at comprehending what you see.
    There will be similarities in all stories because they basically follow this pattern: Good versus Evil. Man versus Nature. Man versu supernatural. Man versus Man. etc etc. But to say that two stories are IDENTICAL must include the same environment, the EXACT same premise, the use of the same NAMES of characters. But then that would be plagarism no?
    Its so wonderful to read people’s opposing views and how they defend it by bashing on a person’s age. What is next? Religion? Ethinicity? Gender? Pfft.

  7. Lance says:

    Cameron used the same technique on Titanic by casting Leo for the lead – cashing in on
    the pre X-Box generation

  8. Lance says:

    I’m with this one. After all the hype with Avatar, I decided to see for myself and saw nothing.
    When I saw Alice in Wonderland, I saw everything … I saw a bits and pieces of me in all the
    characters and answered a lot of questions I had asked for so many years

  9. Brian says:

    Ah… people coming to a new world with their superior technology to reap the riches of the land and ship it back to where they come from for profit. A young handsome captain of the invaders is asked to reach out to the natives and goes native himself by falling in love with the princess of the natives (granddaughter of the ruler.) He faces a conflict, but love trumps all, and together they bridge the divide. Ah.. Pocahontas.. sounds familiar.. In fact is sounds exactly the same. Or maybe you don’t know the actual story of the Jamestown settlers and only saw the Disney animation. If you think Avatar is original you must be very young or not have read much. Or both.

  10. Kravern says:

    Well it is difficult NOT to give credit to “Alice through the looking glass” and “Alice in Wonderland” when the name is almost identical in the movie by Tim Burton. Not only that, the character’s namesakes have been kept as well. So one would expect it to automatically give credit to the previous incarnations of Alice. Also I doubt it was meant that Tim Burton “stole” any ideas, it is more that he didnt bring anything really new to the plate… just a dark flair to things. A type of “what if” scenarios is what Tim really work off of.
    “Avatar” isn’t borrowing elements from “Pocahontas” nor “Dances with Wolves”… they are universal elements that are found in those movies and all like them. But to give credit to them is like asking every single movie that involves a princess being rescued by her prince to give credit to “Sleeping Beauty”. It just doesnt work that way. That falls in the damsel in distress story archs. No way you can or should give credit to every story or movie before it. Its a known motif. Nothing more. Upon watching “Avatar” there where no indications that led me to think… “wow this is just like Pocahontas”… it didnt cross my mind at all. Unless of course there was a Navi named Pocahontas that I am unaware of.

  11. Sherry Coben says:

    Feminist. Sure. (FYI: There’s no such word as feministic.)
    While it certainly operates as fantasy, I think Burton’s version of Alice presents some very “real” and relevant ideas, the empowerment of women most importantly. I don’t think it’s entirely fair or constructive to accuse an adaptation of using “stolen” ideas. Burton and his screenwriter legitimately appropriate familiar story elements and characters from both “Alice Through the Looking Glass” and “Alice in Wonderland” to tell their story.
    On the other hand, “Avatar” failed to credit “Dances With Wolves” and “Pocahontas” as source material. Adaptation indeed.

  12. Sen says:

    I don’t see what would be amusing about you liking the theater. As I myself enjoy the theater and live shows. One of my favorites is Cats.
    The difference in opinion that we seem to have here is similar to when photagraphy first came about in b&w then into color. Some feverishly believed that ONLY b&w photographs could capture the essence of whatever the photograph was of. Yet we see less and less b&w pictures, and we spend hundreds if not thousands of dollars on higher resolution with more color palettes in today’s photographs… which then go to digital pictures… and throught this trek every photographers says they can capture the essence as well… even if it no longer is in b&w.
    CGI is preety much going down that trek, that same path, and it too someday will be replaced with something else. Who knows.
    I suppose in the end it is all revelant and the old line of “beauty in the eye of the beholder” seems appropriate here.

  13. RC says:

    I think that your probably a feministic type of person. Obviously Alice in Wonderland focused on non realistic ways of life, and things that could never happen, plus focussed on the dreams of a witty girl like all fantasies do. Avatar had passion and a real idea. Not a stolen chopped up, horribly written version of a classic novel.

  14. Ami says:

    I am disapointed by every special effects blockbuster I watch so I usually avoid them. I LOVED Avatar. I usually hate CGI characters and even prefer puppets in movies to CGI. I was really impressed by the Avatar characters. Yes the story was simple and predictable but it didn’t matter to me; I thought there was enough original ideas peppered in to keep the movie interesting. I thought most of the animals were cool too although they didn’t move as nicely as the Navi. Ever see one of those nature shows on Discovery where they show some animal you’ve never seen before and you’re like- WTF? There’s some weird things on this planet too so I was able to suspend my disbelief.

  15. seo london says:

    I confess I’d happily watch Johnny Depp read a phone book, but even accounting for my extreme prejudice, his performance as the Mad Hatter is the linchpin of the piece. He is its heart, its Scarecrow, its Tin Man. Acting through crazily tinted contacts and a crowning frizz of unfortunate and unearthly ginger, Depp somehow manages to play a compelling leading man, a romantic lead, and an action hero.

  16. Brian says:

    I enjoyed Avatar. It was fun. But I understand Sherry. She is writing as a critic, and quite frankly Avatar is really dumb. I mean… UNOBTAINIUM? And the bad guys were so one dimensional. Cameron has style but he wouldn’t know subtle if it came up and hit him over the head. He tackles big human stories and issues but his characters are not real, as his issues are. He shoots like a master, but he writes like a film student.

  17. Sherry Coben says:

    I’m glad you find it “fun” to read that I prefer to watch human beings to watching computer generated images. I’m not alone in this preference surely. Perhaps you’ll be amused to discover that I happen to like theater as well and also actual conversation. I find the human face endlessly expressive and fascinating in a way that animation and video effects are not. I recognize and respect our right to differ on this crucial point and hope you’ll do likewise.
    Also, Sen, I didn’t dislike “Avatar” because it showed humanity’s dark side. I disliked it because I found the script witless, hamhanded, and derivative and the action sequences tedious. Millions of others loved it, and I’m happy for them. I really am.


  18. I tend to agree with you Sen, re your comments on how realistic/believable CGI is at displaying convincing emotion. I would disagree somewhat that people hate on Avatar (and Wall-E) because it displays us in a negatve light: I think the most positive comments have come from the fact that both films inherently DO show us in a negative light, a kind of moral compass in action, if you will, to try and ensure we as a species don’t go down that route.
    Personally, I think the emotional content of the CGI “avatars” and creatures was pretty well dones, particularly some of the work done on Zoe Saldana’s character. I can understand WHY Sherry perhaps doesn’t appreciate it like you or I do, but that doesn’t mean her opinion on it is any less valid from a characterisation point of view.
    On the subject of Tim Burton, I agree with you wholeheartedly: Burton needs to get away from simply darkening down classic stories and try something truly original again. I think his Batman Returns was the best of the four 90’s franchise films, and as close to the true nature of the character as was possible at the time. Otherwise, I’ve been consistently let-down by his films, from Sleepy Hollow, Planet of The Apes, Charlie & The Chocolate Factory and everything post-Edward Scissorhands, his last truly unique film. Since then, it’s all style over substance.
    And if the dreadful marketing campaign for Alice in Wonderland is any indication, I’m going to be let down again.

  19. Sen says:

    Its always fun to read someone complain that CGI is not as a good as the real thing. That a human can have more expression than a replica ever can. But all of that is naught in reality. Expressions are but a part of how to convey feelings. Sometimes all it takes is the eyes, be it animal, human, or CGI.
    Most people tend to hate on Avatar because frankly, like Wall-e, it shows a dark and dirty side to humanity. Though Wall-e didnt have this much drama ensued by critics. And he didnt even have lips and was able to convey feeling… if you were open to see it. Yet Wall-e did show us (humans) becoming slaves to technology and sloth. Something none of us want to admit. Same with Avatar which shows us a story that we are familiar with… greed. And perhaps thats why people dont like it, they dont like to be reminded of how much we take and how much we are self-centered. Someone said it was “dumbed down”… really? How so? How many “complex” ways can you demonstrate greed? Ah well.
    As to Alice in Wonderland… it is Tim Burton, if you know his style… he offers nothing really new. Just takes an existing story and makes it darker. Its like when he did Batman Returns and everyone was in an uproar for his protrayal of the Penguin, yet loved his portrayal of Cat Woman. Can’t please everyone, and thats the thing, Tim Burton’s movies are not really for the masses. Much like Quentin, you either like it, or hate it.
    James Cameron delivered a movie for the masses of course with a few that of course didnt care for it. Tim Burton delievered a movie for the hard core fans with a few more wanting another 3D experience thanks to the cotails of Avatar.

  20. Brian says:

    You do like to stir it up don’t you? Well, I have to agree. I think I liked Avatar more than you did but Alice is much more of a movie. Avatar more like a great theme park ride. Good stuff.


  21. I’m with you on 3D. Yawn. Over it already.


  22. I agree with your final verdict, Sherry. I STILL don’t get the hype over Avatar. I found it to have incredibly dull-witted script and visually it was more impressive as a video game than a feature film. I’m still convinced its target audience was 15 year boys–which apparently *IS* a good demographic to aim for. When looking for a worldwide audience, dumb your film down it make it visually impressive for the X-Box generation.
    Not that Alice in Wonderland was perfect. I found it uneven, with some parts being as good as Burton gets…and other parts were Burton at his most boring. Depp was OK, but I preferred the Cheshire Cat, The Red Queen, The White Queen, The Red Knight, and the Caterpillar much more (in that order.)
    As far as 3D goes, I’m already getting sick of it. I read somewhere there are some 60 movies to be released in the next several years in 3D. This seems an obvious push from Hollywood which has long cared more about visuals than solid scripts. 3D without a story is painful to watch. The new Toy Story looks to be the best of the upcoming bunch.
    xoxo
    Izabael

  23. Jacqueline says:

    So we went to see Alice in Wonderland after school yesterday, and hung out in line with several Alices and a couple of White Rabbits… Fun crowd. Since I’ve been anticipating the making of this film for my entire life and with the highest expectations from Tim Burton, et al, it had plenty to live up to! Your review was spot on! Underland was fantastical and somehow still understated in a way that lent a sort of intimacy to the places and characters… Such a wonderfully charming film. I really enjoyed your smackdown and agree in every way. Maybe I liked Avatar a little more than you did, but we loved Alice!

  24. Gary says:

    Walt Disney clearly never watched the original Disney version on acid, then.
    Well, somebody was going to have to say it.

  25. Sherry Coben says:

    Walt Disney didn’t even like the original Disney version much as a matter of fact.


  26. So, you liked it then, Sherry?
    There’s going to be backlash on the Smacking of the original Disney version of this story…. “how dare the modern update win?” et al… I can see it now.
    Great review, well considered opinions, and once again, a great way of making your point. Top stuff.

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