I doubt that even Jesus Christ himself knows how many film treatments there have been of Lewis Carroll’s Alice sagas. Among the damned few that have been predominantly successful is the 1951 animated feature produced under the auspices of old man Walt himself. One would think the Disney folk would be happy with that, and leave well enough alone. Instead, they foisted Tim Burton‘s 2010 version on us, which took a toilet plunger and sucked out virtually all of the novel’s inherent surrealism. It was a new nadir for both Burton and Disney. The Burton of Pee Wee’s Big Adventure (1985),Batman Returns(1992), and Ed Wood(1994) might have been an ideal match for the material. But, as a wise old owl once said, “the world may never know.” The Burton of 2010 was well past his tether and far from being the dark visionary of his past. Indeed, his Alice was a painfully sanitized caricature, and it seemed Burton could sink no lower (until Dark Shadows, that is).
The Tim Burton version of Alice in Wonderland was scripted by Disney writer Linda Woolverton, who is and always has been a hack. Her Beauty and the Beast (1991) was a saccharine parody of Jean Cocteau‘s staggeringly brilliant 1946 psychological fantasy. Astoundingly, Beast earned an Academy Award Best Picture nomination (one of the Academy’s most embarrassing moments, which is saying a lot). Even more cringe-inducing was her 1994 Lion King, with its maudlin “Circle of Life” song upchucked by Elton John (who seems hell bent on proving that Bernie Taupin deserves all the credit for their collaborations) and Tim Rice (who seems hell bent on proving that Howard Ashman deserves all the credit for their collaborations). Woolverton’s resume expanded with more Alka-Seltzer slugfests, such as Beauty and the Beast: Enchanted Christmas (1997), Belle’s Magical World (1998), Mulan (1998), Lion King 2 (1998) and Maleficent (2014). Even in her most critically successful films (i.e Mulan) her writing never rises above formula, and what some feel might have worked in the projects she was attached to should be credited more to the animation and direction. Woolverton’s Alice made her direct-to-video, second-rate sequels look less embarrassing by comparison.
PLOT: William Bloom (Crudup) returns to his Alabama hometown when he receives news that his father, Edward (Finney), is dying. William has never gotten along with his dad, a spinner of tale tales, but is it possible that any of his stories are true?
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This is Tim Burton for people who don’t like Tim Burton. It’s classic Oscar bait: a sentimental story of a dysfunctional father-son relationship with the Burtonesque elements—werewolves, witches, conjoined twins—coming in on the margins. As it is, the film is quite enjoyable, but not one of Burton’s best and definitely not one of his strangest—so it’s definitely not weird enough for the List.
COMMENTS: : Big Fish is Tim Burton lite, which doesn’t mean it’s not entertaining. On the surface this is a story of father-son reconciliation, and since Burton had lost both of his parents in the few years before Big Fish, the story must have had extra resonance for him. But this is still a Tim Burton film, with moving trees , a giant and mermaids, among other contrivances, and it definitely dips into any number of fantastical realms. Ewan McGregor and Albert Finney play Edward at 30ish and 65ish, respectively, and Alison Lohman (whatever happened to her?) and Jessica Lange are the younger and older versions of Edward’s wife, Sandra. All four are convincing, as is Crudup in the thankless role of Edward’s perpetually grouchy son, Will. However, future Oscar winner Marion Cotillard makes little impression as William’s wife. Philippe Rousellot’s cinematography is digitally manipulated, which would be a hallmark of almost every Burton film after this, and everything looks so beautiful that it’s not difficult to be sincerely moved by this film’s third act—the first time that Burton attempted to tug the heartstrings since Edward Scissorhands. He certainly hasn’t tried anything similar since. Of course, this is exactly the kind of manipulation that had naysayers complaining that Burton had sold out, and that Big Fish was too bland and impersonal. Manipulative it may be, but the film feels far more Burton-esque than the lamentable Planet of the Apes or the the dispiriting Alice in Wonderland. Big Fish may be the rare Burton film that can please both his acolytes and detractors equally.
Sharp-eyed viewers will note a very young Miley Cyrus as a little girl in a Brigadoon-like town that Edward visits, and sharp-eared listeners will notice that, except for Cyrus, there isn’t one authentic Southern accent in this Alabama-set tale. Lange still sounds like she’s doing Blanche Dubois. It all adds to the (intentional?) unreality of this charming tall tale.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“There are quirks aplenty in Big Fish, but spirited performances from a talented cast, led by a standout Finney as the slippery-fish raconteur, help domesticate the wall-to-wall weirdness.”–Megan Lehmann, The New York Post (contemporaneous)
(This movie was nominated for review by “Nick.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)
PLOT: Poor, good-natured Charlie Bucket (Freddie Highmore) wins a coveted Golden Ticket to visit the fabulous chocolate factory owned by the mysterious Willy Wonka (Johnny Depp); once there, Charlie discovers that all of his fellow school-aged winners are hateful brats, and Mr. Wonka seems to have a few screws loose himself…
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Although it’s deliciously weird in the usual Tim Burton manner, this is probably the most benign and family-friendly of all his films. Even Frankenweenie is scarier.
COMMENTS: When Tim Burton’s visually sumptuous film of Roald Dahl’s 1964 book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory opened in 2005, there was much discussion of how the late Mr. Dahl felt that the earlier, classic 1971 movie Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory had toned down his often mean-spirited material. (This opinion was a little strange, considering that Dahl had written the screenplay.) The new film, it was said, was much more faithful to the book. Truth be told, both pictures hew very closely to the novel; but, although this might sound like sacrilege, Burton’s film is more impressive in almost every way than the earlier Gene Wilder movie. (Incidentally, the 1971 film was not very popular with anyone when it originally opened; it was only later that a whole new audience embraced the movie on television.) The 2005 version is by far the better directed and designed of the two films, but, although Johnny Depp’s Wonka is utterly delightful, he doesn’t come close to projecting the genuine menace, and, ironically enough, the fatherly warmth that Wilder did. Wilder gave a full-fledged, three-dimensional performance; Depp, while he is great fun to watch, is basically playing a cartoon. Of course, for those of us who saw the earlier film as children, Wilder made a tremendous impact. Who knows what the kids of 2005 felt when they saw Depp?
Mr. Depp looks and sounds something like Michael Jackson here (although he has Anna Wintour’s hair), and all the color has been digitally drained from his face. This Willy Wonka hates kids, and with good reason. Burton’s film makes it clear that the brats all survive their punishments in Wonka’s factory (another reason why this won’t make the List), while the 1971 version left their fates up in the air. The 2005 film does include some sequences from the book not in the earlier film, like the memorable bit where the tiresome Veruca Salt (Julia Winter) is attacked by nut-cracking squirrels, and the adventures of Prince Pondicherry (Nitin Ganatra). But some of screenwriter John August’s all-new additions, such as the revelation that Wonka’s estranged father (Christopher Lee) is a dentist, feel unnecessary. (The flashback to the young, candy-loving Wonka’s bad teeth and increasingly grotesque retainers are grisly fun, though, like something out of Little Shop of Horrors). Thankfully, Depp and Highmore, who co-starred together a year earlier in Finding Neverland, have good chemistry. The fact that Highmore is now playing psychotic killer Norman Bates on TV’s Bates Motel makes it look like another collaboration with Tim Burton would be a good idea.
Humphrey Bogart once said: “The industry hurts itself by making so many lousy movies—as if General Motors deliberately put out a bad car.” Bogart did not try to defend his own contribution to slipshod productions: “I have made more lousy movies than actor in history.” That statement was a slight exaggeration, but at least Bogart did not go the route of Johnny Depp’s recent insinuation that there is a critical conspiracy to see The Lone Ranger (2013) fail. For the producers’ sake Depp should indeed promote such an expensive endeavor, even if he himself does not like the finished product. However, Depp’s aggressive defense against the overwhelming critical consensus is an incredulous and depressing parody by an artist long dead.
Depp was indeed an artist once, careful about the roles he appeared in. His body of work revealed an actor whose choices were guided by love of challenge and exploration, as opposed to box office appeal. His collaboration with the young Tim Burton seemed an ideal pairing of two pop revolutionaries. Unfortunately, that ideal climaxed with Ed Wood (1994). Since then, both Burton and Depp have come to personify the Hollywood Sell-Out. Both were ruined by their work with the imposter company now claiming to be Disney Studios. Depp, it seems, can no longer distinguish a good script from a bad script; or, most likely, he no longer cares. He has gone the opposite route of an actor like Burt Lancaster. Once Lancaster achieved a degree of mainstream success, he began to seek out roles that transformed his late body of work into something approaching incandescence. In sharp contrast, Depp has become increasingly vapid. Tellingly, Depp’s “other” big collaboration is with a Disney director (Gore Verbinski) who birthed an entire franchise from a theme park ride. For the studio, that is a steep decline from classics as innovative as Pinocchio (1940), artistically risky as Fantasia (1940), or as exquisitely organic as Dumbo (1941). For Depp, this amounts to the polyurethane varnish on the caricature he has become. In place of Edward Scissorhands, Gilbert Grape, Ed Wood, Don Juan, William Blake, Raoul Duke or Cesar, we are witness to a fossilized Depp encased in his own career avarice. While he has certainly surpassed his monetary goals, that success will prove to be the derailing of a once admirable oeuvre. Depp’s fan base, naturally, remains in denial.
The Lone Ranger (2013) is yet another example of cinematic postmodern arrogance. Of course, we need not put a B level pulp character that was probably most interesting during the days of radio on a pedestal. A few of the Clayton Moore/Jay Silverheels movies and TV shows were moderately entertaining, albeit as products of their time. Yet, Verbinski, Depp and the film’s plethora of screenwriters serve up a thoroughly unentertaining mess. Erroneously thinking themselves clever and hip deconstructionists of naïve filmmakers past, their idea of entertainment amounts to an early heart-eating scene, and the protagonist being dragged through a pile of horse excrement. Amazingly, it goes downhill from there.
True to postmodern tenets, the film borrows from virtually everything and never finds its own identity. It makes the classic “haven’t we learned yet?” mistake of casting a white man in the role of a Native American. It’s akin to Al Jolson slapping on blackface. Predictably, the filmmakers take the PC route of making the white man look dumb, while a white man is passing for an Indian. This is merely one of the movie’s numerous hypocrisies.
The movie weaves Anti-American sentiment throughout, manifested in the portrayal of silver-hoarding executives of the train company. It could have played out as a well-deserved sentiment if the film itself had not echoed the gluttonous white shareholders. Dumbed-down crude jokes and loud explosions saturate the excessive second half.
Oh, and I did forget to mention Armie Hammer as the Lone Ranger himself? That’s rather easy to do, since he has no charisma. Worse, he has no chemistry with Depp’s Tonto. Predictably, Tonto is the main character, which is problematic when he is nothing more than an eccentric buffoon. Alas, there is not a single, likable character. The Lone Ranger himself is reduced to a clueless representative of naïve patriotism, shorn of morals (he only saves Tonto’s life because he needs the Indian’s assistance). His “creed” is a law book, which he attempts to adhere to in the face of surrounding ignorant religiosity (Western Christianity and Native American spirituality are treated with equal contempt). Helena Bonham Carter (Mrs. Tim Burton) shows up for a cameo, which should have been (and is) a bad omen. She is a whore with a gun hidden in a peg leg, but still manages to make the character dull. Only the horse, Silver, has an iota of personality, but even he is not spared belching jokes.
By the time we hear Rossini’s “William Tell Overture,” we are too numb and too tired to care. The movie opens and ends (2 and a half hours later!) with a Little Big Man (1970) rip-off. It was the first and last item from the kitchen sink.
In my review of Man of Steel (2013) I referred to that movie as postmodernism at its worst. I stand corrected.
Although I watch a lot of films, for various reasons I’m not huge on reviewing them. However, seeing as I’ve been a “Dark Shadows” fan for over 40 years and a Tim Burton fan since Pee Wee’s Big Adventure (1985), I thought perhaps his new epic deserved a paragraph or two from me. I saw it this past weekend on the Hamilton IMAX screen in what seemed liked a rather depopulated theater, but I’m not sure what their usual Sunday crowd is like–perhaps everyone else was taking their mom to dinner for Mother’s Day. At any rate. . .
I had followed the dribbling out of info and photos over the past year or so and had seen the infamous trailer that makes the film look like “Vampires Suck Part Deux”. As a disciple of the original series, none of this sat any better with me than I think it did for most fans. Once more we have Tim Burton going his own way without much regard for audience’s expectations or their affection for the originals (think especially Planet of the Apes or even more so his Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the latter of which I still haven’t managed to make it all the way through.) I can understand not working toward expectations, but is it always necessary to tread on sacred ground with jackboots? This being said I will consider Dark Shadows from two different perspectives: as a remake of the original series, and as another entry in the auteur’s canon.
Many fans of the original series are going to hate this film. Hands down. Jonathan Frid’s beloved, beautiful, complex, tortured Barnabas Collins has been morphed into a typically Burtonesque, overly made-up, funny pages version of the character, ripe for rendering into dolls and action figures. Johnny Depp‘s pancake makeup is so thick and obvious he constantly makes the viewer think of someone made up as Dracula for Halloween (indeed, one wonders if this isn’t partly the idea–this is Tim and Johnny’s Continue reading GUEST REVIEW: DARK SHADOWS (2012)→
PLOT: About to be proposed to by a doltish fop, Alice excuses herself to tumble down a rabbit hole where she learns she has been chosen to slay the Jabberwock[y].
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Not weird enough. Burton, perhaps fearful of angering the gravy-train drivers at Disney, dims down the absurdity in this version of Alice, recasting the tale as an epic fantasy war fought by a cast of weirdos.
COMMENTS: Alice in Wonderland (which should have been titled Alice in Underland, if anyone had been paying attention) is a good-looking film with a few positives, but a recycled story that’s far from enchanting. The candy-colored visuals are as top-notch as expected, with plenty of little details to soak in: look for a dragonfly-sized flying rocking horse and a moat with floating stones that appear to be petrified severed heads. Helena Bonham Carter’s macrocephalic visage is almost worth the price of admission, and her performance as the Red Queen is suitably comic and imperious. But the story—ouch! Alice’s previous visit to Wonderland—oops, make that Underland, as it’s denizens insist it’s properly called—nine years ago was real, but she’s forgotten it for some reason, which is fine because her past adventures served no purpose whatsoever. In this sequel, the poem “Jabberwocky” is a prophecy that predicts Alice will find the vorpal blade and snicker-snack it into the neck of the dreaded Jabberwock(y) on Frabjous Day. The Mad Hatter reads the verse word for word to the disbelieving Alice, neither of them noticing that the lines refer to a “beamish boy;” Alice may be beamish, but she’s no boy. But who cares about such details? They can’t even get the monster’s name right after reading it off the page: everyone refers to the Jabberwock as the “Jabberwocky” (which is like calling Odysseus “Odyssey”). We may wonder about such inconsistencies, but such uffish considerations only matter in a tightly constructed nonsense world like Wonderland; we’re in Underland, and here there are quirky companions to collect before galumphing off to slay dragons with magical swords. Burton’s non-nonsense epic fantasy plays like an original concept by Lewis Carroll that’s been script doctored by J.R.R. Tolkien, then sent back by the corporate suits to add more fight scenes to appeal to boys and a feminist moral about self-actualization for the girls. Despite the occasional chase scene by a pack of guards who look as much like Terminator robots as playing cards, curiously, for the most part the early story plays out much as in Carroll’s tale. Alice retraces her steps, eating and drinking shrinking and growing potions and cakes and meets a hookah smoking Caterpillar. The Cheshire Cat directs her to a mad tea party. But things get less and less curiouser and more and more familiarer as the tale continues. It turns out that the tea party really isn’t mad, it’s just a ruse by the Resistance to avoid detection by the authorities. Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter isn’t mad either (and certainly not bonkers); perhaps he’s slightly perturbed, but his faculties are all about him as leads the fight for freedom, even taking up a sword for the final battle. I have no problem with taking liberties with Carroll’s tone and story, but if you’re going to depart from the original you should replace it with something interesting, not just a generic fantasy quest rehash. Nick Willing’s Alice, with it’s human “oysters” being drained of their emotions, tapped into a more cusiously skewed Alice scenario. It’s a shame that that premise couldn’t have been matched to this budget. Tim Burton’s Alice isn’t bad, it’s just forgettable—something that could only happen in Underland, not Wonderland.
To some extent, Burton may be the victim of high expectations. Carroll and Burton seemed the perfect match, and there were high hopes that this material might allow Tim to return to the glory days of Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands and The Nightmare Before Christmas, when his fantasies managed to tap the popular consciousness while still dripping with edgy originality. Those of us who got our hopes up should have recognized that Alice in Wonderland is a kids’ movie intended as a blockbuster; Disney isn’t about to let Burton take chances with the story. His commission directed him to deliver Tim Burton visuals inside a safe script, and that’s what he did. The movie works fine for the little ones, but offers little to adults besides eye candy and a couple of chuckles. If Burton’s going to bounce back (and I’m starting to doubt he ever will), we’ll have to wait until he feels like he’s finally garnered enough dough and Hollywood validation to start taking chances again.