Sunday, March 28, 2010

Catch ups: "Alice in Wonderland" and "How to Train Your Dragon"

A few movies I've seen in the past month that I never wrote up...

Alice in Wonderland (2010, dir. Tim Burton)

Can a judge please file a restraining order between Tim Burton and Johnny Depp? The collaboration, which was once so fruitful with "Edward Scissorhands" and "Ed Wood," has grown old, with both artists--who used to be widely known for their unpredictability and edginess--becoming predictable and, in the worst cases ("Charlie and the Chocolate Factory") annoying. I'll grant that "Sweeney Todd" was a brief return to the dark, twisted brilliance both have conjured before, but with "Alice in Wonderland," they go tumbling back down the rabbit hole of trite banality.

I'll admit that there was a part of me that thought the collaboration might work when it was first announced. After all, "Alice in Wonderland" is not a typical frothy kids' tale. Although I've never read the original books, I've seen enough of the filmed projects to know that the best versions of this story are a bit unhinged, gloriously anarchic and have a knack for scaring kids. If there's anything Burton's known for, it's being unhinged and creepy. "Alice in Wonderland" is the fairy tale he was, conceivably, born to tell. And although I'm getting very tired of "quirky Johnny Depp" and would like to see him go back to portraying realistic characters (see his work in "Donnie Brasco" or last summer's "Public Enemies"), the idea of him as the Mad Hatter had a certain appeal.

And the idea is interesting. Instead of a straight retelling of "Alice," this follows the heroine (Mia Wasikowska) as a young adult, faced with a marriage proposal that she finds a bit too stifling and terrifying. Terrified of giving into convention, Alice runs off after a rabbit, falls down a hole and...well, the rest follows largely as the original story did. She meets the creepy Cheshire cat, a hookah-smoking caterpillar and joins the Mad Hatter for a very similar tea party. The twist is that Alice doesn't remember ever being in Wonderland before, which is a problem for the world's inhabitants, who are depending on her to fulfill a prophecy that will set them free. Alice, it seems, must slay the Jabberwoky on the Frabjous Day, thus freeing Wonderland of the tyranny of the Queen of Hearts (Helena Bonham Carter) and returning it to her sister, the White Queen (Helena Bonham Carter).

And it's there that the film makes a fatal flaw. As I've said, I haven't read the original books, but I've read up enough to know that the success of "Alice in Wonderland" is do to its illogical nature and words, such as "frabjous," that have absolutely no meaning. It's that illogical silliness that makes the story so crazy, so beloved and has allowed artists to use the story as satire for whatever they see fit. Trying to tie it all up with a structure robs the story of its insanity and joy. And plus, to me, it feels lazy. The prophecy of "The One" who comes to save a world from destruction is, of course, timeless. When it works, it's because the world and the characters have been well developed and the rules established--that's why we love "The Matrix," "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" and "Harry Potter." When you take a character who is as one-dimensional as Alice--and needfully so, because she's basically the conduit through which we view Wonderland--and then try to establish rules on a world that is, by definition, illogical, it tends to land with a thud. Especially when, in a Tim Burton movie, the joy comes from what twisted and bizarre sights we might experience...with Wonderland, he's given a playground to indulge his most outlandish fantasies. Forcing it to be structured and linear is like confining it to a sandbox.

Depp, as the Mad Hatter, was positioned as the film's selling point but, to be honest, he's the weak link here. His character alternates between quirky and, well, mad, to solemn and pensive about the fate of Wonderland; he also slips in and out of a Scottish accent. When Depp swished onto shore as the Jack Sparrow, it worked because it was the last thing we ever expected to see in a pirate movie. Its success has really meant that Depp is expected to be outlandish whenever he's on screen and here he's quirky for quirky sake, without it ever becoming funny or having any sort of impact. I'm not going to lay the blame all at his feet, however. I think Disney signed Tim Burton and said--"oh, you need Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter!" and a minor role got padded into something larger for the sake of a marque name. Depp isn't horrible, just unnecessary, and I do find myself longing for the days when he was an actor, not a movie star.

That's not to say that there aren't pleasures. Burton's film may be standard, but it's never less than beautiful to look at. His Wonderland is a fascinating CGI creation that I wish Burton had explored more of and while some have complained about the 3D, I thought it was effective--not "Avatar"-quality, but certainly not the pop-up-book look of "Clash of the Titans. Wasikowska takes an underwritten role and does solid work as the wide-eyed heroine and I liked a lot of the supporting characters that popped up randomly. I'm normally no fan of Helena Bonham Carter, but she's clearly having a ball playing the Red Queen in all her manic "OFF WITH HER HEAD" glory, and the film picks up whenever she's on screen. Hathaway chooses to play the White Queen with an odd touch of ditziness that made me laugh. And while I'm not sure exactly what Crispin Glover was doing as the height-fetish addled Knave of Hearts, the fact that Glover was in a Tim Burton film just feels right (although his work was much more memorable in the following week's "Hot Tub Time Machine.")

"Alice in Wonderland" isn't a horrible film by any means, and I can understand why families have made it a monster hit--kids will love the dragons and, let's face it, what adult doesn't secretly want to introduce their kids to Tim Burton's film..."Alice" could be a gateway film to"Beetlejuice" and "Edward Scissorhands." But for me, it never connected and drew me in. I found myself watching a bunch of pretty images, distracted by a few characters and then checking out as the story became more predictable. Burton's upcoming choices--a remake of his own "Frankenweenie" and an adaptation with Depp of the TV show "Dark Shadows"--feel more like the safe, family-friendly fare he's currently churning out. It's a shame...I can't wait til he is allowed to get a bit crazy again, following his own deranged rabbit-hole.

How to Train Your Dragon (2010, dir. Dean Deblois and Chris Sanders)

Ironically, just as I thought "Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland" could be a good idea at first, the idea of Dreamwork's "How to Train Your Dragon" provoked disinterest from me when I first heard of it.

Dreamworks Animation is one of the most frustrating studios out there. When they're good, they're the "Looney Tunes" to Pixar's Disney-esque films. The first two "Shrek" films are witty, gloriously irreverent fun and I've gotten a chuckle out of "Bee Movie" and "Monseters vs. Aliens." Every once in a long while they even manage to get close to Pixar-inspired joy, such as with "Kung Fu Panda," which merged their mega-star-driven comedies with a fun, heartfelt story that celebrated a genre instead of spoofing it.

But "How to Train Your Dragon," upon first look, had all the markings of a "Shark Tale" or "Madagascar." It has a hip, Judd Apatow-friendly cast, a quirky premise--a young Viking befriends a dragon--and trailers scored, of course, to hip, current pop songs. I was prepared for this to be another disposable, pop culture-riffing lazy comedy that placated kids with noise while going for cheap adult laughs via double entendres.

Instead, "How to Train Your Dragon" may be the closest Dreamworks has come to Pixar-level quality.

Hiccup (Jay Baruchel, "Knocked Up") is a young Viking whose father Stoick (Gerard Butler) is the most fearsome dragon-killer in their clan. Hiccup, who mentors with a blacksmith (Craig Ferguson), dreams of killing the dragons who plague their village, but he's a bit too scrawny and weak. His father, however, finally gives him permission to take dragon-slaying classes and, it's about that time that Hiccup finally downs a Night Slayer, the most fearsome of the dragons, and learns that the creatures are actually friendly and misunderstood.

It's a simple story, really just a riff on the boy-and-his-dog genre. But DeBlois and Sanders, who delivered the best of the recent Disney 2D films with "Lilo and Stitch," tell it with a heart and humor that doesn't resort to pop-culture commentary, silly spoofs or hipper catchphrases. The best thing they do here is acknowledge the simplicity of the story and then let it unfold without peppering in too much noise and unnecessary distractions.

I've like Baruchel since seeing him in "Undeclared" (the sadly-ignored follow up series to "Freaks and Geeks), but he's always been relegated to third-rank supporting characters. For whatever reason, he seems to be getting the star treatment this year, headlining the recent comedy "She's Out of My League" and co-starring alongside Nicolas Cage this summer in "The Sorcerer's Apprentice." He's about as perfect as the weakling, nerdy Viking as Jack Black was for, well, a panda obsessed with Kung Fu. His nasally, Urkelish voice fits perfectly with a Viking who'd rather invent things than kill dragons and Baruchel plays his character fairly straight, without any of the mugging a larger star might have been.

There's a cast of all-star voices, including Butler, Ferguson, Jonah Hill, Kristen Wiig, Christopher Mintz-Plasse and America Ferrara (I guarantee this is the only time she'll play a blonde-haired Norwegian). But unlike a film like "Monsters Vs. Aliens" or "Bee Movie," the film doesn't play to the stars. There's no McLovin' riff on Mintz-Plasse's character and each actor simply voices their character without any mugging or spotlight stealing, creating actual characters instead of cartoon movie stars. The exception is Butler, who's voice is basically a retread of his "300" role, but it fits the context instead of being a joke.

As I write this, I realize I'm probably making the film sound fairly typical, and it is. But in toning down the usual manic comedy Dreamworks is known for and actually telling a straightforward story without winking at the audience, "How to Train Your Dragon" actually succeeds because it's typical. What kid wouldn't want a dragon? Who hasn't had to question everything they've been taught? And it's refreshing to see a kids movie that says that sometimes you have to think for yourself, question what you've been taught and stand up for what's right when you've been led astray. The absence of fart jokes is also refreshing.

And I haven't mentioned the sheer beauty of this movie. It's nothing new to say that computer-generated imagery continues to get better and better. The design of the dragons is fun and colorful and the Viking village has a great, fantasy quality about it. The film was designed with 3D in mind and if you have the chance to see it that way, take it. It's a reminder that when the technology is thought of from the start, it can be a great tool. Like "Avatar," it adds a depth to the film and draws the audience deeper into the story. The flying scenes are spectacularly done, even better than what James Cameron was able to accomplish in "Avatar." The final battle--who didn't expect one?--is exciting and energetic in all the ways that "Clash of the Titans" was mediocre and predictable.

I really would like to see more of this work from Dreamworks. Alas, their next big animated feature is "Shrek Forever After," guessed it...3D. But it's nice to remember that when they want to, Dreamworks can tell a fun, heartfelt and enjoyable little story like this.

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30s, engaged and living in Motown. Wrestling with life, love, faith, art, film, culture and everything in between.