Three Torches (Out of Five)
We know Alice in Wonderland is a Tim Burton movie, but exactly which kind of Tim Burton movie is it?
Is it the sublime kind that uses stunning, off-kilter visuals to tell a quirky, but fully realized story, like Edward Scissorshands, Sleepy Hollow, or Beetlejuice?
Or is it the incoherent-mess kind, where Burton’s stunning trademark visuals are wasted on an indifferent or outright sloppy script, like Planet of the Apes, James and the Giant Peach, Mars Attacks!, Big Fish, or 9?
The truth is, it’s not really either.
To be sure, it’s visually fantastic. Whether it’s the smiling, levitating Cheshire Cat, Matt Lucas as Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum, or the wonderfully oversized head on the Queen of Hearts, Wonderland — or “Underland,” as it’s called here — has never looked so good.
And just like so many recent Tim Burton movies, the story is infuriatingly weak.
But weirdly, the movie is worth seeing anyway.
Here is the story: in the 19th century, 19 year-old Alice, faced with a life of unbearable convention, follows a rabbit down a rabbit hole. There she finds a magical dreamland where someone named “Alice” once visited before. Is it her? It matters, because that Alice is prophesied to slay the evil Jabberwocky.
That’s the whole story. There’s some very vague talk about how Alice needs to learn that something can be “impossible” and “real” at the same time in order to be more like her dead father, but honestly, the movie doesn’t even bother giving us the slightest reason to care about Alice or her quest.
As is typical with Burton, it’s all about the visuals.
But as I said, the movie is worth watching anyway. I think it’s because it’s such a wonderfully weird Wonderland — er, Underland — and for such an iconic place, it’s never really been so successfully visually realized before. It’s not just that everything here looks so cool; it’s that it also has a perfect visual coherence.
In short, everything fits together perfectly.
What else works? Helena Bonham Carter, who has long seemed to have been slumming in her husband Tim Burton’s movies, absolutely shines here as the Queen of Hearts. She’s hilarious, shrieking “off with their heads” at every opportunity — and the image of her over-sized head (about which she is understandably very sensitive) is fascinating in itself.
Johnny Depp, in an expanded Mad Hatter role, basically plays Edwards Scissorshands crossed with Willy Wonky. And Anne Hathoway is all hand flutters as The White Queen.
Twenty five years ago, Disney famously fired Tim Burton, because they thought his short film Frankenweenie, was too scary for kids. It’s now a cult classic, and the studio has hired Burton back for this production, which reportedly cost an astounding $250 million dollars.
They’re sure to make their money back, as the project, which has been wildly (but cleverly) hyped, is certain to be a big, big hit.
So it seems that Tim Burton and Disney are both getting their happy endings.
Does the audience? Oh, kinda.
But in a way, it’s a shame, because with visuals as fully realized as the ones in this movie, Alice in Wonderland had the potential to become almost as much of a classic as the books upon which it is based.
It isn’t — not by a long shot.
Tomorrow, Tim Burton and Johnny Depp’s much-hyped Alice in Wonderland hits theaters (in Disney digital 3D). Lewis Carroll’s fantasy masterpiece has been remade dozens of times since the first movie dropped over 100 years ago, and thank the Mad Hatter, we’ve come a long way from the terrifying bunny suit in the 1903 silent film.
Here’s a (selected) timeline to help you remember Alice’s trips down the rabbit hole.
What’s your favorite adaptation of Alice so far?
2010 is shaping up to be an exciting year for fantasy fans. There are at least 15 films slated for release this year, and we’ve got a full preview!
Percy Jackson and the Olympians: Lightning Thief
Release date: Feb. 12
Based on the best-selling series by Rick Riordan, Lightning Thief tells the story of Percy Jackson, an American teenager afflicted with ADHD and dyslexia, who discovers on a school field trip that he is the son of Poseidon. (You know, the god of sea and earthquakes. The angriest of the Big Three.) Percy’s mission is to find Zeus’ stolen lightning bolt and prevent a civil war from breaking out among the gods — who, by the way, have moved Olympus from the mythical mountain to the mythical 600th floor of The Empire State Building. Percy also has to rescue his mother from the Underworld, and — presumably — wrestle with the tourists that swarm The Empire State building every Valentine’s Day.
Release date: Feb. 12
The Wolfman has a long, proud history of scarring the crap out of anyone willing to leave home on the night when the wolfbane blooms. The film has been remade five times since its 1924 debut, and each time it falls firmly in the “horror” category. In this incarnation, Oscar winners Benicio Del Toro and Anthony Hopkins team up as Lawrence Talbot and Sir John Talbot, a haunted father and son team searching for their missing brother/son. Lawrence finds himself falling in love with his brother’s fiance, and then falling under the spell of the full moon. We’re holding out hope for a special guest appearance by Michael J. Fox, surfing by the sleepy Victorian hamlet of Blackmoor on top of a van.
Alice in Wonderland
Release date: Mar. 5
In Tim Burton’s vividly re-imagined Alice in Wonderland, Alice falls down the rabbit hole at the age of 19. She doesn’t remember ever having been to Wonderland before, but you can bet your shrinking potion that Helena Bonham Carter’s Red Queen remembers her. Alice reunites with the White Rabbit, Tweedledee and Tweedledum, the Dormouse, the Caterpillar, the Cheshire Cat, and of course, the Mad Hatter. (Played by Michael Sheen, Matt Lucas, Barbara Windsor, Alan Rickman, Stephen Fry and Johnny Depp, respectively.) The teaser trailer promised stunning visuals and the second trailer actually hinted at an engaging plot. Disney will be offering the film in their patented Digital 3D, just in case you missed out on attending a rave when you were in college.
Season of the Witch
Release Date: Mar. 19
Nicholas Cage plays a battle-worn and weary Crusader who returns to Europe for supplies, only to find himself recruited by a dying Cardinal. His mission is to escort a young woman to a remote abbey where she will stand trial for being a witch. Only this peasant is not your run of the mill Salem sorcerer; no, this witch is responsible for The Black Plague. Can Cage decode the map on the back of the Magna Carta in time to discover the secret message on the inside of King Arthur’s chalice in time to unlock the sacred chisel with which he must carve the answers to the world’s toughest Sudoku? And can he do it in time to save the entire continent from death? Oh, these are the Dark Ages indeed!
Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang
Release date: Mar. 25
As the star, screenwriter and producer of this sequel, Emma Thompson has made Nanny McPhee her pet project. The film’s official description reads “A group of children are evacuated from the city to a farm during wartime, where they encounter Nanny McPhee, the magic-wielding governess.” So, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe meets Mary Poppins. Unfortunately, Thompson was so preoccupied with the role, that she couldn’t find time to return as Professor Trelawney in the final installment of Harry Potter. It’s a hard pill to swallow considering that Ralph Fiennes (Lord Voldemort himself) is headlining Thompson’s Big Bang.
Clash of the Titans
Release date: Mar. 26
Another remake of a beloved fantasy classic, Clash of the Titans follows Perseus (born of a god, raised by a man) as he risks his life for the right to marry Princess Andromeda. He must battle Medusa and the Kraken monster as he follows his quest to forbidden worlds to defeat Hades (Ralph Fiennes) before the King of the Underworld can unseat Zeus (Liam Neeson). We don’t mind the remakes, as long as Clash of the Titans doesn’t fall victim to Hollywood’s latest fantasy craze: refusing to properly conclude a story, just in case the studio decides to fund a sequel. The only respectable exception would be the appearance of Kinopio Toad: “We’re sorry Perseus, but your Princess is in another castle.”
The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader
Release date: May 7
Poor Peter and Susan Pevensie, kicked out of Narnia for learning to shave and discovering makeup. But Edward and Lucy, played by Skandar Keynes and Georgie Henley (arguably the more talented of the four child stars who relaunched The Chronicles of Narnia) are back, and they’re bringing Prince Caspian with them. Unfortunately, they’re also bringing Narnia’s own Cousin Oliver, Eustace Clarence Scrubb. (We’re counting on Reepicheep to drown him out. Or just drown him.) Dawn Treader will follow the plot of C.S. Lewis’ original story: The younger Pevensies join forces with Caspian as he sails to the edge of the world, battling dufflepuds, slave traders, dragons, merfolk, and plenty of Christian symbolism along the way.
Iron Man 2
Release date: May 7
Robert Downey Jr’s celebrated Tony Stark is back in the second part of the Iron Man trilogy. This time, the whole world knows that the industrialist inventor is the man in the armored suit. The military, the American government and the media are all pushing him to share his technology with the world, but Stark knows enough about humanity to realize it’s a terrible idea. Don Cheadle will be taking over for Terrance Howard as James “Rhodey” Rhodes. And Gwyneth Paltrow will return as Pepper Potts. Unfortunately Pepper drives Stark to the brink of alcoholism when she gets a new boyfriend. Apparently even bazillionaires need a reminder that you shouldn’t operate heavy machinery while under the influence.
Release date: May 14
When Russell Crowe’s Robin Hood hits theaters, it will be the tenth time the story has been adapted for the big screen. This incarnation follows the more traditional version of the story: Robin of Loxley, Earl of Huntington, returns to London after fighting in the Crusades to find that his village has been plundered at the hands of the Sheriff of Nottingham (Matthew Macfadyen). So, Robin forms a group of rough and tumble Merry Men to steal back their money and their land, and win the heart of Maid Marian (Cate Blanchett). Of course, the real question is whether or not the soundtrack can hope to compete with Bryan Adams’ “Everything I Do (I Do It For You)” from 1991’s Prince of Thieves. We’re guessing probably not.
Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time
Release date: May 28
A movie based on a video game? Why not; it worked for Angelina Jolie! In Prince of Persia, Jake Gyllenhaal plays Dastan, an Aladdin-like street-urchin in Medieval Persia. After showing unique valor in battle, the King adopts Dastan and sends him off to reclaim the Sands of Time (a gift from the gods that, um, controls the sands of time). Prince of Persia is the fourth Disney/Bruckheimer collaboration, and if the team’s other films (all three Pirates of the Caribbean) are any indication, it should enjoy plenty of mainstream success. And cross-promotion with Happy Meals. And Legos. And graphic novels. And, of course, another video game.
Release date: June 18
D.C. is auctioning off its lesser-known heroes right and left these days. Jonah Hex is a caustic, curmudgeonly, former Confederate States Army soldier whose face is scarred almost beyond recognition. He’s got all of the swagger of Clint Eastwood, without any of the charm. Josh Brolin stars as Hex in the movie adaptation, along with John Malkovich as Quentin Turnbull (the bad guy), and Megan Fox as a trigger-happy prostitute. Er, trigger-happy with the guns. Actual guns. Revolvers. Turnbull’s plan is a Civil War do-over, and Hex has been hired as the bounty hunter who must shut him down. The plot sounds almost as plausible as Malkovich with a southern accent. We totally buy Megan Fox’s role, though.
The Twilight Saga: Eclipse
Release date: June 30
We haven’t really heard much about this movie. It’s apparently some kind of adaptation of a vampire romance novel. There may have been some movies before this one, but they must have flopped at the box office. From what we’ve heard, there’s a vampire with some wicked crazy hair, and a werewolf who refuses to wear a shirt, and a helpless girl who sits in her room listening to emo music and writing fan fiction about herself. We also heard something about sparkles and middle-aged women wearing t-shirts to support either the wicked hair or the abs. If any other information becomes available, we’ll let you know. This thing will probably go straight to DVD, though.
The Last Airbender
Release date: July 2
M. Night Shyamalan directing a Nickelodeon movie? Who’d have guessed it? (Us, actually. M. Night Shyamalan sees dollar signs.) The Last Airbender is a live-action adaptation of the super popular Nick cartoon series Avatar: The Last Airbender. The premise of the cartoon is that Earth, Fire, Water and Air can be controlled by “benders.” Aang is the Avatar, and the last surviving member of Air Nomads. His purpose is to restore balance and overthrow the Fire Nation’s Admiral Zhao, but first he must learn to focus and bend all of the elements. Fortunately, the creators of the series left out the fifth element, Heart. That poor kid with the Heart ring on Captain Planet had the lamest superpower ever.
The Sorcerer’s Apprentice
Release date: July 16
Nicholas Cage is back with more fantasy, this time in a live-action adaptation of the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” scene from Disney’s Fantasia. (You remember? Mickey and those crazy mops!) Cage plays Balthazar Blake, a master sorcerer who sets out to protect his city from an evil wizard. He recruits a young apprentice, Dave Stutler (Jay Baruchel) to help him. After a crash-course in magic (and what could possibly go wrong when you put those two words together?), Stutler joins Blake’s quest in a Disney-esque battle of Good versus Evil. The film looks to be a lot less trippy than the actual “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” from Fantasia. So if you’re looking for a mind-bend, you’ll have to watch Burton’s Alice in Wonderland on DVD.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1
Release date: Nov 17
If you thought Dumbledore’s death was tragic, wait until the first five minutes of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, when Harry’s beloved and loyal companion, Hedwig, gets (spoiler alert) blasted out of the sky. As promised, Harry, Ron and Hermione don’t return for their seventh year at Hogwarts. Instead they must decode Dumbledore’s mission for them from beyond the grave while trying to find and destroy the fragments of Voldemort’s soul that he’s hidden in horcruxes around the country. The path toward victory is strewn with casualties and heartbreak. Even the unshakable trio will find themselves turning against one another. Director David Yates is sticking with the films until the final expelliarmus.
Release date: Dec. 17
Tron Legacy is the nerdgasmic sequel to Disney’s 1982 film. Jeff Bridges return as Kevin Flynn, and and Bruce Boxleitner will reprise his roles as Alan Bradley and Tron. Garrett Hedlund will take over as Kevin’s now-adult son, Sam, who gets sucked into the same world his father disappeared into 25 years earlier. (We knew he was alive!) The father/son team join forces and traverse the treacherous cyber terrain, which has become much more sophisticated since we last saw it.
Obviously, a tie-in video game will be released in time for Christmas.
What 2010 fantasy film are you most looking forward to?
Back again for another highly opinionated — some might even say downright cranky — look at the week in fantasy. You’ve been warned!
COULD THE HOBBIT SUCK?
With the news (since shot down) that Tobey Maguire is once again the front-runner to play Bilbo in The Hobbit, I’m starting to get this sinking feeling that the movie, if it ever actually happens, will end up being a massive disappointment.
It’s not just a question of sky-high expectations — my expectations for The Two Towers and The Return of the King were just as high, and both those movies actually (far) exceeded them.
Then again, those weren’t your usual sequels. The Lord of the Rings may have been released over three years, but it was, of course, conceived and mostly filmed at one time. In many ways, it was “one” movie.
And let’s face it: with all the delays and lawsuits, and now these endless, pointless casting rumors, The Hobbit movies are starting to feel like the never-ending health care debate in the U.S.: no matter what happens now, everyone is going to end up disappointed and cranky.
But in retrospect, at least when it comes to health care, that disappointment was probably inevitable. There are simply too many hopes and dreams (and masters to serve and pipers to pay) for it to have not ended up this way.
I hope I’m wrong, but I think the same could be true for The Hobbit.
Yes, I understand that most of the key players involved in The Lord of the Rings will be involved with The Hobbit. On paper, you have to admit, “There’s no way these movies can suck! They just have to do exactly what they did before! How hard is that?”
But it’s when you start to think like that, of course, the universe really sticks it to you. On “paper,” there’s no way a Peter Jackson version of King Kong could disappoint either, but we all know how that turned out.
The same goes for George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and Harrison Ford re-teaming to make a new Indiana Jones movie after all these years — and, again, we all know how Kingdom of the Crystal Skull turned out.
The older I get, the more I think that art expresses a feeling and, more importantly, a moment in time (for both the creator and the viewer).
It’s impossible to recreate a moment in time. It simply can’t be done. You might create a new, maybe better moment, but you simply can’t go back to that which is already past. The fact that each moment is totally unique and transitory is part of what makes “time” special.
I think smart artists recognize this and always try to move forward, never even trying to recreate an artistic triumph of the past. The few successful movie sequels (or prequels), like Aliens, completely rethink the premise of the franchise — but, of course, that’s hard for anyone to do successfully, much less the filmmaker who originated a franchise and had such success the first time around.
Can Peter Jackson do it again? Does it help that Guillermo Del Toro, not Peter Jackson, is directing? (Despite my initial disappointment, the further we get from that announcement, the more I think this was an excellent decision. I think this at least gives us a shot at greatness.)
Anyway, I want to believe The Hobbit movies will be great, I really do. But I confess, I’m losing faith.
HEY, HE’S A MODERN-DAY DA VINCI!
A friend sent me a link to the website of a fantasy-esque artist named John Pitre.
His art isn’t bad, but his website is so over-the-top that it kinda has to be read to be believed. It calls him a “visionary” at the top of every page and has a bio that brags that one of his inventions was featured in “one of TV’s most successful infomercial” and refers to him as a “modern-day DaVinci.”
For one thing, it’s spelled “da Vinci,” not “DaVinci,” which is a hint that he may not be replacing the original Renaissance man just yet.
Here are some of John’s works:
Now that I think about it, maybe if “DaVinci” were alive, he would be involved with infomercials! Hey, a guy’s gotta eat.
Not surprisingly, I get over-hyped press materials like this all the time. I guess a lot of publicists think journalists will read them and think, “Wow, if this press release says it, it must be true! I’ll just mindlessly repeat this in my article!” When, of course, the exact opposite is true, and we usually end up writing snarky posts like this.
THE ALICE IN WONDERLAND HYPE MACHINE KICKS INTO OVERDRIVE
Here’s a (very) short featurette about the character of The Mad Hatter in Tim Burton’s upcoming Alice in Wonderland. As always, it looks like it’ll be visually incredible:
THE IDIOT BOX
On Friday, most programming is being preempted by the Hope For Haiti telethon, but there are two premieres: the two-hour Battlestar Galactica prequel Caprica (9 PM, SyFy). I thought it started strong, but then got way too bogged down in character introduction and world set-up. I’m told things get better in eps three and four (in the next few weeks), but I don’t think I’ll be sticking around to find out. (I’m generally sort of anti-prequel to begin with, a feeling that was forever confirmed by The Phantom Menace.)
Also premiering on Friday, of course, is Spartacus: Blood and Sand (10 PM, Starz). Here’s what we thought of the series, but for the record, I thought the pilot was (by far) the weakest of the four episodes I’ve seen. It makes it seem much more conventional than it actually is.
This weekend, there’s a new episode of Legend of the Seeker (syndicated, check local listings).
On Thursday, there’s a new The Vampire Diaries (8 PM, the CW), Fringe (9 PM, Fox), and Supernatural (9 PM, The CW). In the latter, Sam switches bodies with a teenage nerd, who enjoys his handsome new body while “Sam” is stuck dealing with intrusive parents. Sounds funny, but I confess: I’m surprised by how many “funny” episodes they’ve already done this season.
Oh, and if anyone is curious to hear what I sound like, I’m a guest this week on Alpha Waves Radio’s podcast, talking about how “gay” the would-be American remake of Torchwood is (or isn’t) likely to be.
THE BOX OFFICE
Two fantasy movies open this weekend: The Tooth Fairy and Legion. I was curious as to why I hadn’t been invited to a press screening for the latter, and it turns out they didn’t do press screenings. That is a sure sign that the movie almost certainly stinks. I was going to catch a midnight showing tonight for a early-morning review, but you know what? Since I’m certain it’ll suck, I’m thinking I’ll just skip it.
The Tooth Fairy was screened, but it’s getting terrible reviews, so I’m thinking I’ll skip that one too!
Well, this week’s flame has sputtered out, but join me again next week when I promise I won’t be nearly so cranky.
Oh, who am I kidding?!
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Have a question about something fantasy-related? Ask the Oracle! (Be sure to include your first name and the city, state, and/or country you are writing from.)
Q: What the HELL is going on with all the celebrity voices in animated movies?! Talk about over-kill! – Misha, New York NY
A: The Oracle agrees with you completely. Even setting aside the fact that acting talent is totally different from voice-talent (and that many celebrities’ voices just aren’t that interesting), their voices are usually just plain distracting — you can’t ever forget that, oh, yeah, that’s Reese Witherspoon as Susan in Monsters Vs Aliens. As much as I love Jack Black, he (and a LARGE group of other celebrities) almost ruined the otherwise enjoyable Kung Fu Panda for me.
Blame Robin Williams. When Aladdin was a big success, many people chalked it up to Williams’ hammy performance — mistakenly, in the Oracle’s opinion, since Williams is the least interesting thing about that movie.
(Actually, don’t blame Robin Williams for all this, because he made it a specific requirement that Disney not publicize his involvement in Aladdin — a requirement that they ignored and which led to years of truly bad blood between the actor and the studio.)
Anyway, studios like to rip each other off. Have you noticed? And every executive in Hollywood is looking for insurance that his or her latest $80 million dollar investment won’t be a bust — or that he or she won’t be blamed if it is. Enter the big-name celebrity, which is supposedly (and probably incorrectly) as close to a “sure thing” as you can get in the movies.
At this point, all the animation studios share equal blame. After their success with Aladdin, Disney continued using celebrity voices in Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Meanwhile, then-rival Pixar had break-out success with Tom Hanks and Tim Allen in Toy Story, and Dreamworks Animation dipped deep into the celebrity well for the Shrek movies (although to Mike Meyers’ credit, he insisted on doing his Shrek character with a thick accent — to the annoyance of the studio, since it meant some expensive re-dos).
Still, there’s nothing quite as bad as when a celebrity insists on doing multiple voices in a single project — as if The Polar Express wasn’t already bad enough without Tom Hanks doing seven different characters that all sounded completely alike. And the Oracle plans to take a cyanide capsule before subjecting himself to Jim Carrey in the upcoming A Christmas Carol.
Q: This may be a dumb question, but why isn’t it Dakota Fanning (or one of the other Fanning girls) in Tim Burton’s upcoming Alice in Wonderland? That seems like the obvious casting. — Evan, Decatur, IL
A: First, Burton’s version isn’t an exact retelling of the Alice in Wonderland story. In fact, it takes place several years after the events of Lewis Carroll’s original books, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. In the movie, Alice is 19 years old, returning to a Wonderland that she’s visited before, but that she doesn’t remember.
Second, to his great credit, Burton specifically wanted a relatively unknown actress to play Alice so as to not distract the audience — which is exactly what he got in the actress he cast, Mia Wasikowska.
Still, Burton had no such reservations about casting major celebrities as other iconic characters, including Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter, Anne Hathaway as the White Queen, Alan Rickman as the Caterpillar, Stephen Fry as the Cheshire Cat, and Matt Lucas as Tweddledee and Tweddledum. That said, most of these actors are British, and as we’ve learned with the Harry Potter movies, even well-known British actors tend to do a pretty damn fine job of character acting.
Q: When exactly did Halloween go from being a “kids” holiday to an “adult” one? — Mave, Vancouver, BC
A: The Oracle can’t give you an exact moment, but he can give you the exact cause: the Baby Boom Generation. Two characteristics of that generation contributed to the change: first, less of an allegiance to tradition and organized religion, which has sometimes been unable to grasp the metaphorical meaning of Halloween, concentrating only on its literal connotations; and second, a realization that “fun” doesn’t have to stop just because you’re no longer a child (some people interpret this as an inability to “grow up,” but in the Oracle’s opinion, it’s actually expressing adulthood in a far healthier, more individually satisfying way).
There are plenty of good reasons to criticize the Baby Boom Generation, but their popularization of “geek” culture isn’t one of them. The Oracle bows down to them in grateful appreciation.
Have a question about something fantasy-related? Ask the Oracle! (Be sure to include your first name and the city, state, and/or country you are writing from.)
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