Monday, March 8, 2010

Alice in Wonderland

My earliest memories of Alice in Wonderland are not of the Disney movie, as most people's probably are, and not of the books either. Instead I most remember the 1985 TV mini series which followed the books a lot closer than the Disney version did. It was absolutely chock full of guest stars, had lots of musical performances and one incredibly scary Jabberwocky. I remember reading the Jabberwocky poem somewhere in my school years and loving it, with its nonsense words and the idea that it was this young boy who was actually the one to defeat the beast. In college we read the first book as part of one of my lit courses. My professor took the approach that since Lewis Carroll said it was nothing more than a children's book, that's all it was.. no allegory or commentary being made within it. However, it kind of makes you wonder why he wanted it to be college reading material then... though I can say that reading it as an adult made me appreciate the writing style that much more.

If there is a writer I wish I could be, it's probably Lewis Carroll. How could one not be jealous of the way he plays with words? Just read the first chapter of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland if you don't know what I mean. It's just gorgeous.

Not long after being assigned to read the book in college, Disney released their Alice movie onto DVD for the first time. I know I had seen the movie at some point in my childhood, but it had been so long at that point that it was almost like seeing it with new eyes. I remember being incredibly disappointed by the mish-mash that Disney created. Granted, it took the aforementioned TV special 3 hours to tell most of the story, so I know he had to make some sacrifices. Also, if you know your Disney history you know that Walt really loved the Alice story, so I'm sure he was probably just picking some of his favorite scenes here and there to make the best movie he could.

I re-watched the TV special sometime last year as they finally gave it a DVD release. I rented it from Netflix and I have to say with the nostalgia glasses off there are definitely some weaknesses there. Natalie Gregory, who plays Alice, can get rather whiny at times. The costumes are a little silly, even by 80s technology standards. But overall I think it’s definitely worth a one-time viewing just to see a who's who of anybody who had a career in the mid-80s. If you can’t be bothered to sit through it, at least view this: He brings up two of the most memorable scenes, Carol Channing’s crazy performance and that ultra scary Jabberwocky. (The video is marked mature content, but there's really only some mild cursing. The first 4:19 minutes are about the Disney version.)

While it’s not your average interpretation, another connection to the Alice series I've always loved was the Batman villain the Mad Hatter, specifically the animated series version. His origin episode (“Mad as a Hatter”) has so many Alice references cluttered throughout and is probably worth a rent even if you're not a Batman/superhero fan at all.

Another piece I really think is worth mentioning in Alice interpretations is American McGee's Alice. It's a video game, not a movie like the others, but the art is absolutely gorgeous and the story is an interesting dark take on the whole thing. Sadly, I haven't played very much of this game so I can't really give you a review per se.. but I will say that the concept art, with the skinny Cheshire Cat and the downright creepy Mad Hatter is definitely worth a look.

There are so many versions of this story made over the years that I can't possibly include them all. I'd like to get to as many of them as I can eventually.

When it was first announced that Tim Burton was making his own version of Alice in Wonderland, I was incredibly apprehensive. Not only was it yet another Tim Burton/Johnny Depp/Helena Bonham Carter movie, but the last two remakes he'd come out with had left bad tastes in my mouth. Truer to the book or not, his Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was colorful and pretty to look at but just not anywhere near as enjoyable as the original movie. The origin story and Johnny Depp's choice in characterization just didn't do it for me at all. Watching Sweeney Todd, all I could think was "man, this would be great if they had actually chosen leads who knew how to sing!" So with all that in mind, I just didn't know whether he was going to treat my beloved Alice properly or not.

From the moment the movie started, I was enchanted. The set designs, the costumes, the CGI were all very beautiful. The 3D effects are fairly limited (they were tacked on after the fact) so if you wanted to save a few dollars I wouldn't fault you, but I didn't feel cheated for paying for them either. While I haven't been crazy about the look of the Mad Hatter from the first time I saw the photos, I enjoy the look of nearly all the other characters presented here. Casting choices on nearly all hands were also brilliant. Both Depp and Carter handled their roles wonderfully.. this wasn't like Sweeney Todd where I felt both of them only got the job because of director bias. Allow me to gush on a couple:

Stephen Fry as the Cheshire Cat - I absolutely loved this version of the character! I'm a cat person in general and I've always loved the Cheshire Cat.. he has the whimsy and flightiness of a cat without the tacked on "evil" qualities that so many foolish writers (probably biased dog lovers :P) like to give them. Stephen Fry has one of those voices you could just listen to for hours anyway, but he really lended "Chesh" just the right amount of playfulness here.

Crispin Glover as The Knave of Hearts - For being a character who is extremely different from what he was in the books, he fits perfectly in place in the movie. And did someone actually manage to make Crispin Glover look kind of attractive? Give them an Oscar! Ok, maybe I'm just weird, or maybe he was just so perfectly suited for this slightly creepy, scarred character. I loved the stretched out look they gave him, as well as that of all the other cards.

Mia Wasikowska as Alice - This movie could have easily been terrible if the girl chosen as Alice had been picked for her looks while disregarding her acting, or by choosing a big name to help push people into the seats. While I can think of a few "big" names who probably could have inhabited the role, I'm glad they went with an unknown. The wonder of these stories is that Alice is an ordinary girl, even if she's one who thinks a little different than most, and allows ourselves to wish we could maybe find ourselves in Wonderland one day too. I hope Mia gets more roles following this movie.. I thought she did great.

I loved the changes to this story, and how it was a sort of sequel while also retaining a lot of the books' moments. One thing I wasn't too pleased about was the suggestion of a romance between Alice and the Mad Hatter. I know enough about the internet to know that the slash fiction is out there, even before this movie and even about the Disney animated versions (eep!), but I really could have done without it. Nineteen years old now or not, that was just a bit ick. Luckily it's not huge and you could even pretend that it isn't that at all if you really wanted to.

What I really absolutely loved was that she got to be the one to use the vorpal blade and slay the Jabberwocky. I also thought it was a nice touch to make the Dormouse female, and have her wield a sword, even if it did make her an awful lot like a female version of Reepicheep from the Narnia series. It's just nice to see women holding their own in these types of movies without everyone making a huge deal over the fact that they're female.

Oh and yes, the dance is stupid. No, it doesn't ruin the whole movie. It's there and done and you could easily close your eyes for a moment and miss it. Besides, I knew it meant I was going to hear "Oh frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!" and really that made all the difference for me.

EDIT: I was reminded after I wrote this that there are two more Alice interpretations I am familiar with.

Jan Svankmeyer's Alice - I watched this a few years ago and the details I remember are few. I believe there is very little dialogue and it relies mostly on the stop motion animation (combined with a real life Alice) to tell the story. The creatures are quite creepy and interesting to look at.

Alice by Tom Waits - An album which is essentially the soundtrack to a play about Carroll being in love with the real life Alice Lidell. I haven't listened to this one in ages either, but Tom Waits' voice and love of strange percussion fit very well with the various Alice imagery he uses in the songs. "We're All Mad Here" is my favorite. Not on this album but also worth looking for is Tom Waits reciting The Jabberwocky poem.

Thursday, March 4, 2010


Last night I watched Ponyo. I've been looking forward to seeing it for quite some time. In fact this was the first movie that I made a point to get from Netflix exactly on its release date. As an animation fan, Hiyao Miyazaki films are required viewing for me, as they should be for any other animation fans out there. When the Sci-Fi channel was still new, they would have Anime Week, where every night they would play a new film, dubbed of course. This was my first real exposure to anime, and I remember being particularly hooked by Project A-ko and a compilation film called Robot Carnival. My brother and I took this interest with us to the video store, and one of the first we rented was Castle of Cagliostro. I fell in love with that movie. I loved the characters and the story, but I also loved watching Lupin III fall from a great height, with another person landing on top of him, yet still walking away unharmed, and I loved watching him leap from one building to another in a manner no one should be able to do. And its not like he has super powers.. it's just a fantastical part of the film, in the same way that the Looney Tunes can walk off a cliff and yet not fall until they look down.

As I've followed Miyazaki and most of his films, its this love of the fantastical mixed with the ordinary that makes him so wonderful. There are only two films of his I truly love: CoC and Spirited Away. The rest are good, they're just not the type of movie I would sit down to for repeated viewings. Ponyo now sits on a scale just below those two movies, but a cut above the rest. Visually, this movie is absolutely breathtaking. The sea creatures are so large, robust, and beautiful. When the waters swell and begin to take over everything, it is literally a feast for the eyes. In the opening scene when Ponyo's father is creating? feeding? creatures in the sea all you can do is just ogle at it. I'm not a fan of Wall-E because most of the dialogue-less beginning was simply unable to hold my attention. The exact opposite is true for this film. There are many scenes in which there are no dialogue.. but you're not lacking because there's simply so much to look at, so much going on. Even the everyday normal scenes, like Sosuke and his mother going to the grocery store and then bringing the groceries home, are a delight. The way his mother struggles with holding the groceries as she opens their front door... it's just so true to life! Part of what makes Miyazaki so great is that he puts just as much focus on realism as he does on fantastical. This helps to make the fantastical moments feel more real, more likely to happen in the world you are seeing.

The story here is basically that of The Little Mermaid, a story I have a great affection for thanks to the Disney film. I remember being so surprised to find out the original story had such a tragic ending.. her love is not returned and she ends up turning into sea foam. The story in Ponyo once again takes it in a slightly different direction. The threat of her turning to sea foam is there, but in this case she is really more of a goldfish (be it a rather odd one with a face) and her affections are toward a five year old boy. This lends the story a great deal of innocence and keeps it at a very sweet level. The story feels like its made much more for young children than for adults. When Ponyo's mother and father are saying that if the boy can't love her she will turn to sea foam, I foresaw a much more mature and different ending. As an adult, I could not help but think that surely a young boy of five would not continue to love this same girl for the rest of his life. The ending of the movie however, doesn't go anywhere near that far, and ends "happily ever after", in a rather abrupt fashion (or at least that's how it felt for me).

However, unless I'm going crazy, I'm pretty sure the title in the beginning of the movie said "Part 1." At first I thought the story might jump around a bit, and there would be other parts in the movie itself.. but it never did. This leads me to believe that maybe their story isn't a happily ever after at all.. that perhaps in the end, Ponyo will turn into sea foam, just as the little mermaid did in the original story. Or maybe, if you're an optimist, you can choose to believe that their love was young and pure enough that they will grow up together forever. I couldn't find any mentions of a possible sequel being planned, and I've never seen any other Miyazaki film with a sequel really.. so even if I'm totally wrong, I kind of really like this idea of mine.. it helps save the movie from the ending which just left a sour taste in my mouth. Of course, that sour taste may be completely my own fault, and definitely isn't something that would make me tell anyone not to watch it. Just remember that you're watching a children's fairy tale, and you probably won't be as disappointed as I was.

I should point out that I only watched the subtitled version of this film. Disney has been making the dubbed versions of Miyazaki films for quite some time now (7 years, according to the bonus feature on the disc), and they often pick out a very stellar cast, a mix of well known actors and their stock children stars. I can't fault this as it probably gets a lot of people to watch these films that wouldn't otherwise. For me, I just love the sound of the Japanese language in general, and I find the tone of voice they normally use fits these movies a lot better than the dubs do. Anime is known for its extremely expressive faces, and I think a lot of actors/voice directors seem to think that just because a character's mouth is opening a little wider than they do in American animation, said character needs to whine or shout all the time. Meanwhile, if you slip over to the Japanese voice actors.. well, they're not doing that as far as my foreign ears can tell. Another problem is that English dub translations try to fit the mouth movements, so the translation is generally not as literal as the subtitles. A fun way to see the difference in this is to select the English voice track on your DVD along with the English subtitles. Sometimes they're saying the same things in a re-worded manner, and sometimes you get quite different things being said. Obviously, don't do that on a first time run through unless you're really good at multi-tasking.

One thing that left me a little puzzled in the "lost in translation" department was why Sosuke refers to his mother and father by their first names. At first I thought maybe Lisa was his stepmother, but later he also refers to his father by name, and many people refer to Lisa as his mother. Ponyo talks about her mother and father only by those handles so I'm just not sure what that's all about.

Definitely worth the rent, unless you just can't stand fairy tales for some reason.
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