Two 3D films are fighting for space onÂ your neighborhood movie screen right now. I’ve seen both, and I’ve picked myÂ clear favorite. Both films feature fantastically imagined worlds of CGI, exhilaratingÂ mixtures of live action and special effects. One is based on a classic ofÂ children’s literature, and the other is (intentionally or unintentionally)Â based on “Dances With Wolves” and/or “Pocahontas.” JimÂ Cameron is a pioneer in the dubious achievement of performance capture. AnÂ unrivaled genius at self-promotion and expanding the frontiers of movieÂ technology, he’s managed to capture the hearts, minds, and dollars ofÂ moviegoers all over our planet. Tim Burton is an artist whose unlikely mediumÂ is mainstream feature films. While an exhibit of his work is currently onÂ display in New York City’s Museum of Modern Art, this visionaryÂ animator/illustrator-turned director is a dark and twisted soul, an acquiredÂ taste. So it’s “Avatar” versus “Alice.” Let the gamesÂ begin.
Tim Burton’s distinctly modern andÂ psychologically astute twist on “Alice in Wonderland” takes theÂ classic Disney heroine on a darker-hued ride in her return down under. NineteenÂ years old and on the precipice of a stifling adulthood, Alice willfully escapesÂ once more down the rabbit hole, leaving behind all societal conventions andÂ stultifying norms. Opting instead for a mad Underland/Wonderland, thisÂ grim-faced young woman faces her fears and tests her mettle, returning home aÂ changed person with a new sense of purpose.
The Defending Champion
James Cameron’s box officeÂ behemoth continues to rake in the cash and expand its Na’vi-obsessed fanbase.Â Nominated for every possible Academy Award and breaking every conceivable boxÂ office record, “Avatar” tells the familiar story of a soldierÂ traveling to a new world and falling in love with a native girl. Pandora is theÂ new world, Jake is the soldier boy, and Neytiri is the girl. The militaryÂ officer is the bad guy, and the greedy corporate thug in charge is even worse.Â They want what the Na’vi have — the valuable, rare, and hopelessly namedÂ Unobtanium. Fireworks ensue, and the soldier takes a stand with theÂ tree-huggers. And oh yeah. Jake’s an Avatar.
I saw “Avatar” on opening day.Â While I immediately recognized its extraordinary technical achievement, itÂ failed to work for me as drama. I found a lot of the spiritual stuff convolutedÂ and borderline stupid, and the conflicts and characters oversimplified. TheÂ dialogue was clumsy and witless, and I didn’t respond positively to the entireÂ motion-capture fever.Â I preferÂ human faces to computer-generated ones; there is nothing so expressive andÂ moving as the human face. To me, the film played like a giant video game. The actingÂ too was hit-and-miss. Jake’s accent migrated from Australia to the MidAtlanticÂ and back again. Perhaps so much attention was paid to motion-capture thatÂ performances went largely unsupervised.
Production designers clearly worked overtime comingÂ up with the wonders of Pandora, but the people on the screen were more impressed with it thanÂ I. I have some trouble seeing multiples onscreen without tuning out somehow.Â This phenomenon first occurred when I saw Peter Jackson’s “KingÂ Kong.” There were so many dinosaurs and waterfalls and cliffs that I feltÂ physically dizzy beholding them all; they lost their power to amaze andÂ enchant. Too much of a muchness. “Avatar” boasted some incrediblyÂ beautiful effects, but most were diluted by multiplying them. Battle sequencesÂ sacrificed geography and character for quantity, fast-cutting and explosiveÂ action. I had no idea who or what I was looking at a good deal of the time andÂ I simply ceased caring after a while. All those countless cliffs and detailedÂ flora and ridiculous fauna. The creatures were hopelessly and extravagantly over-designed — over-the-top GayÂ Pride Parade versions of imaginary creatures, boasting so many goofy designÂ elements (Feathers! Horns! Eight Eyes! Sharp Teeth! Multiple Sets of Legs!)Â that they had no impact at all. Not to mention the vestigial breasts sported byÂ the non- ammalian Na’vi women. By the end of the movie, I felt like my head hadÂ been stuck in a blender for a relentless few hours and I needed Advil and aÂ time-out.
Mia Wasikowska makes a charming and quirky Alice, aÂ pre-Raphaelite Grumpy Gwyneth Paltrow. I loved the costumes and the characterÂ design and the casting. I’d always wondered how Alice remained clothed in allÂ her drinking and eating and shrinking and growing, and the film answers thatÂ question brilliantly and inventively. I loved looking at every frame; Wonderland’s 3DÂ effects weren’t over the top or dizzying, and the effects stayed accessible andÂ lovely without calling undue attention to themselves. (That said, theÂ falling-down-the-rabbit-hole sequence was a bit murky and overlong; I’veÂ frequently dreamed that fall myself and fear that Burton fell a bit short ofÂ fulfilling my fondest hopes.)
I have learned to lower my own expectations going intoÂ any Tim Burton film. While I consider myself a devout (even rabid) fan of hisÂ work, I could (and occasionally do) quibble endlessly with most every storylineÂ or script he’s chosen to do. For him (and oddly enough as it happens, for me)Â narrative is the excuse for the exercise rather than its point. The message isÂ in the dazzling achievement of creating an alternate universe, usually a darklyÂ skewed place of jaw-dropping loveliness and invention. I was surprised then toÂ find such a blatant girl-empowering message underlying the romp, less surprisedÂ when I noticed Linda Woolverton’s writing credit; she had previously reimaginedÂ “Beauty and the Beast” for Disney as well as the more hamhandedlyÂ feminist “Mulan.” Disney makes strange bedfellows indeed. But BurtonÂ has a daughter, and all the cross-pollination makes a certain synergisticÂ sense…and Disney dollars. The framing devices of Alice’s trip down the rabbitÂ hole work surprisingly well; her dreams and adventures saved her from theÂ pitfalls of a very limited mid nineteenth-century life. I always wanted DorothyÂ to stay in Oz and marry the Scarecrow and I admit I wanted Alice to stay inÂ Underland with the Hatter, but setting sail for the Far East will do in aÂ pinch. At least she escaped a terrible and stultifying marriage. Hooray forÂ such madness.
There are shadows of Narnia and Tolkien too; Alice, ever theÂ dour and dutiful champion, walks in some mighty frequented footprints on herÂ quest, but the scale stays intimate and lovely. Her allies and familiars remainÂ within shouting distance and in peril themselves, performing acts of heroismÂ and daring without stealing her thunder. The actual battle scenes are aÂ pleasure, confined to a fantastic but small space. No endless cliffs andÂ battalions of nameless soldiers fighting the CGI hordes reaching someÂ infinite horizon to confuse and confound. Instead, Alice’s climactic battleÂ travels up one crumbling twisty flight of stone stairs overlooking the chessÂ board where a few hundred cards and chess pieces clash and clang. BurtonÂ establishes and maintains a clear geography, and that sense of space enhancesÂ the risk and dramatic tension, creating moments of true beauty as theÂ prophecy of the scroll comes to pass.
I confess I’d happily watch Johnny Depp read a phoneÂ book, but even accounting for my extreme prejudice, his performance as the MadÂ Hatter is the linchpin of the piece. He is its heart, its Scarecrow, its TinÂ Man. Acting through crazily tinted contacts and a crowning frizz of unfortunateÂ and unearthly ginger, Depp somehow manages to play a compelling leading man, aÂ romantic lead, and an action hero.Â Â (His promised triumphant Futterwacken is a dire misfire and hugeÂ disappointment, a limp noodle of a magical victory dance.)
The rest of the cast performs admirably enough. AnneÂ Hathaway Glindas it up as the White Queen, Crispin Glover plays the Knave ofÂ Hearts as elongated creepy courtier, and Helena Bonham Carter goes ghostly paleÂ once again, this time a vain and giant-noggined Red Queen. She’s delicious andÂ mordantly funny, and her decapitated head-filled moat provides enough nightmareÂ food to keep kiddie nightlights burning for a good long time. Matt Lucas playsÂ the Tweedles with a big CGI assist, and some of my very favorite British actorsÂ lend their vocal talents and considerable fizz to various Underland creaturesÂ — Stephen Fry as a singularly suave Cheshire Cat, Alan Rickman as all-knowingÂ Absalom the caterpillar, twitchy Michael Sheen as the White Rabbit, andÂ adorable Timothy Spall as Bayard. It thrilled me to see Geraldine James and TimÂ Pigott-Smith as a long-married couple; I first saw them in television’s epicÂ “Jewel In The Crown” many moons ago, and this onscreen reunionÂ provided a lovely little frisson of recognition.
I probably stand alone on this one…orÂ virtually alone. I really loved Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland”Â and I really didn’t like “Avatar” very much at all. There comes aÂ point when making movie magic that the magic overwhelms the movie. InÂ “Alice,” the movie magic makes the movie. In it, artistry triumphsÂ over technology, and less is very decidedly more.