Alice in Wonderland 3D Imax

Because of my interest in 3D filmmaking practices, I was curious to see Tim Burton’s adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland (IMDB).  Because the book has such vividly imagined characters and landscapes, it seemed uniquely suited to both the surreal visual imagination of Tim Burton and the perspectival potentials of 3D filmmaking. But when I caught the film at an Imax theater in Raleigh, I was disappointed by the degree to which the diegetic world of the film seemed almost completely flat, as if it was inhabited by cardboard cutouts standing in front of a green screen rather than a genuinely three-dimensional world.

In addition, the film reimagines Alice as a slightly mopey, but independent-minded Victorian young woman, one who remembers her travels into Wonderland as a childhood dream and who was taught by her father to embrace her irrational side.  Her independence is suggested through a couple of quick conversations–she refuses to wear a corset and pushes quietly against her mother’s Victorian sensibilities.  Forced into marriage with a snot-nosed lord, Alice finds her escape when the white rabbit pops up during their engagement party.  As a result, Alice’s journey in Wonderland becomes a means for her to find her independence, primarily through a third act action sequence that offered a relatively easy narrative solution to Alice’s story.

As both J. Hoberman and Roger Ebert point out, Burton originally shot Alice in 2D, and the 3D effects were added in post-production.  As a result, many of the scenes likely were not filmed with 3D in mind.  In a couple of scenes, such as the engagement party, complete with overstuffed Victorian nobles, the flatness works well, making these characters appear to be almost devoid of depth.  Wonderland itself seemed blander than I might have expected from someone like Burton, but as Ebert points out, this could be due to the washed out palette associated with 3D filmmaking, but for the most part, the 3D felt a little more gimmicky than usual, with Kenneth Turan correctly arguing that Alice “plays like one of the last gasps of the old-fashioned ways of doing things.”

There are some fun moments in the film.  Johnny Depp is charming as the Mad Hatter, and Alan Rickman’s hookah-smoking Blue Caterpillar is amusing.  The kids I was with also enjoyed Helena Bonham Carter’s performance as the jealous, mercurial Red Queen, but even some of the fun moments (especially the Mad Hatter’s tonally bizarre dance number at the end) seemed to pander more than entertain.  It goes without saying that the film itself is just one part of a larger media franchise, one designed to sell not only DVDs but also (and maybe more importantly) toys and video games.  As I watched Alice in Wonderland, it was impossible for me not to think about another film set in a strange new world, one built around the then-new special effect of color, The Wizard of Oz.  Given reports that Warner, Universal, and Disney are all planning Oz-related projects, this probably isn’t accidental.  As 3D becomes an increasingly attractive storytelling medium, it also requires stories that are both familiar and visually compelling.

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