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.
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.
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.
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.