Saturday, December 11, 2010

Alice in Wonderland 2D/3D Blu-ray Review

Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland is a sequel of sorts to the original animated Walt Disney classic.  It’s been thirteen years since Alice left Wonderland, and things have changed quite a bit in her life and also in Wonderland.  This updated take on the classic story by Lewis Carroll, tweaked the original story in a lot of ways to make the unreal land become more real for viewers by giving the characters some history and valid reasons for their behavior. Tim Burton thought the story needed “some framework of emotional grounding.”

Film (3 1/2 out of 5 stars) 

There are times when when some things feel so destined that when it actually happens it makes perfect sense. I’m talking about combinations like Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones, Jack Nicholson as the Joker, or the idea of having Tim Burton direct Alice in Wonderland.  I can’t think of another filmmaker that is better suited to directing a movie about an upside down world where nothing is as it seems. Burton has made a career out of tweaking the general consensus of normality and showing how the supposed normal people are usually worse than the people they’ve labeled freaks.
Whether it’s the suburban neighborhood passing judgment on Edward Scissorhands, or society mocking or shunning people that are strange or different like Pee-Wee, the Penguin, Ed Wood, or the circus folk in Big Fish, it always ends the same. In every film by Burton, those people end up proving themselves to be better people than their so-called normal abusers.  Burton gravitates to those people in all of his films so much so, that it’s one of his distinctive trademarks.
Burton agreed to direct the movie because he never really cared much for the original animated classic or the other versions.  As he said, “the goal is to try to make it an engaging movie where you get some of the psychology and kind of bring a freshness but also keep the classic nature of Alice.”  So basically all the original characters were included but changed in small and large ways, but they are still recognizable to fans of the original.
When the movie starts, a nineteen year old Alice (Mia Wasikowska) has grown up and has changed from the girl she once was.  She has, as the Mad Hatter tells her, “lost her muchness.”  Alice is now an insecure young woman who runs away from her problems including the marriage proposal that triggers her flight instinct and makes her literally run away.  During that time, she once again sees the White Rabbit and follows him, which puts her back on the path to Wonderland after she once again falls down the rabbit hole.
Wonderland has changed quite a bit since Alice was last there, as the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) has ruled with an iron fist and orders death for anyone that displeases her.  The world is now dismal and dreary and even the inhabitants of Wonderland have fallen on desperate times.  Everyone is worse for wear and her arrival sends everyone into a tizzy since some of them believe she is the Alice that came before, while others doubt it since she is so much older and also because Alice can’t remember previous trips.
They take her to the Caterpillar Absolom (Alan Rickman), to see if he can tell them if she is the Alice who it was foretold would kill the Red Queen and her fearsome dragon-like Jabberwocky.  During her journey, Alice comes across some of the the people and creatures she encountered during her first visit like Tweedledee and Tweedledum (Matt Lucas) and the Cheshire Cat (voiced by Stephen Fry).  Only the The Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) has no doubt that she is the original Alice and decides to assist her.
When the Red Queen hears that Alice has returned, she sends her number one man Stayne, the Knave of Hearts (Crispin Glover) and her playing card henchmen to find Alice.  On the other side of the battle is the Red Queen’s sister the White Queen (Anne Hathaway) who is trying to regain the crown despite her touted dislike of violence.  With Alice caught in the middle between both sides, she must choose who to support and whether or not she will accept her destiny or if she will run away from her responsibility like usual.

Video (5 out of 5 stars) 

This is another stunning 1080p transfer (aspect ratio 1.78:1) from Disney. The contrast is exquisite and the amount of detail is very impressive. This transfer really shows the amount of effort the production crew spent on creating the perfect lighting and design elements.  As Alice makes her journey the skies are ominously dark while below there are little splashes of brilliant color that remind us of the Wonderland we remember from before.  Flesh-tones are good although that’s subjective here with all of the varying face paint on the actors. Black levels are dark and inky as they should be in a Tim Burton film.
As for the 3D, I have to say that I was blown away by how good it turned out.  I saw Alice in Wonderland in 3D in the theaters when it was released, and I have to say that the 3D for this movie looks better on Blu-ray than it did in the theater! There’s hardly any ghosting at all and the gimmicky shots (like a teacup flying at the screen) look great too. I’m happy to report that the 3D picture didn’t lose any of the 2D version’s brilliant color either.  For a movie that was filmed in 2D and later converted to 3D, this is an amazing conversion and movies like the Clash of the Titans and The Last Airbender should take notice.

Audio (5 out of 5 stars) 

This really isn’t a surprise for me anymore when it comes to Disney releases, but the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 lossless mix is reference quality.  Not only is the score by Danny Elfman served extremely well, but everything is spread out to every channel for maximum effect.  I love it when the audio swirls around me and this movie does that exceptionally well.  Sound effects and subtle and some not so subtle atmospheric elements pan across the channels which puts the viewer in the center of the action.  Dialogue is crystal clear and never overshadowed by the music or other effects.  The sub-woofer gets constant attention and the roar of the Jabberwocky is something to hear! This is an amazing lossless track!

Special Features (4 out of 5 stars) 

I would have liked a commentary from Tim Burton but there’s a lot of good info here that I enjoyed.  All of the extras are in HS can can only be found on the Blu-ray and the DVD has a limited amount too.  There are no extras on the 3D disc and there is no popup menu on it either.
Bonus Features:

  • Finding Alice – It’s all things Alice.  This featurette includes Tim Burton’s vision for the characters, differences from the book and Disney’s version of Alice and how she evolves as both a character and actor as she takes an adventure through Wonderland.  Tim Burton has a larger presence in this featurette than the others so it’s good to hear what he thought about Alice and the movie.
  • The Mad Hatter – Audiences are provided with a deeper look into the world of the Mad Hatter.  Check out Johnny Depp’s early sketches, make-up, costumes and how they digitally enhanced his eyes.  Johnny Depp talks about the reasons his character has orange hair, skin, and eyes.  It seems that hat makers back in the day contracted mercury poisoning while they worked, so he felt that that gave his character a legitimate reason to have gone mad and that he was so poisoned that it affected his skin and eyes.
  • Effecting Wonderland – A behind-the-scenes piece on the different technologies used to create some of the most beloved characters in the film – Stayne, Tweedledee, Tweedledum, Bandersnatch and the Red Queen.  This is a cool look into the green screen filming and how they used CGI in creative ways to realize Burton’s vision.
Everything on the DVD plus:

  • The Futterwacken Dance – A look at the making of the timeless dance called the Futterwacken which Depp dreaded being forced to do.
  • Fortunately for him, they found a dancer to do it for him.
  • The Red Queen – The creation of the Red Queen from start to finish, including early Tim Burton sketches showcasing costume designs, make-up and digital effects.  We get to see how they enlarged the Queen’s head and tapered her neck to give it the imposing shape it has.
  • Time-Lapse: Sculpting the Red Queen – A short time-lapse piece showing Helena Bonham Carter as she gets her make-up done.  A three-hour process can be watched in just a few short minutes.  After watching this, Bonham Carter has my complete sympathy.
  • The White Queen – An interview with Anne Hathaway, who plays Wonderland’s good queen, about her character’s journey throughout the process of the film.  While the White Queen is ostensibly “good,” Hathaway points out that she comes from the same gene pool as her sister so she isn’t quite all there either.
  • Scoring Wonderland – Composer Danny Elfman and Tim Burton discuss the music for the movie and the process on how they go about it.  One of the best ongoing collaborations around!
  • Stunts of Wonderland – A featurette highlighting some of the biggest stunts in the film.  This is mostly wire work in front of a green screen.
  • Making the Proper Size – An inside look at the visual effects process of growing and shrinking Alice.  See how filmmakers used different techniques to stay true to the storyline.  An interesting look into the special effects and trick techniques that made these scenes so successful.
  • Cakes of Wonderland – Take a trip to “Cake Divas” where the creators of the EAT ME cakes provide viewers with details about how they made the smallest crumb to the largest cake in scale.  Kind of a pointless extra in my book but I’m sure my wife would be interested in how they made the small cakes that Alice ate.
  • Tea Party Props – Tea cups, saucers, cakes and more.  Prop master Doug Harlocker gives an overview of all the props used to bring the famous tea party scene together visually.  A talk about how all of the props had to be continually monitored for their position so they could be reset for each take.

Final Thoughts (4 1/2 out of 5 stars) 

While I wish this had been more of a direct sequel to the original animated film and its characters, I really thought that Burton and company did a wonderful job realizing Wonderland itself. Somehow being moody yet bright and safe and dangerous all at the same time, this movie perfectly encapsulates the contradictory nature of Wonderland itself.  The casting of this movie is fantastic too even though half of the cast has a golden ticket for any Burton movie.  
Two in particular, Depp and Bonham Carter are magnificent in their respective roles with each of them balancing their madness with enough humanity to make us see past their faults.  The movie’s plot was so thin that they even brought in another Lewis Carroll work (The Jabberwocky) into this to stretch the movie as far as they could.  If had to name a weak link for this movie it would definitely be the script although it did have some good moments.  As a side note, part of the reason that Burton agreed to this was in order to be able to bring a new version of his classic Frankenweenie back to the theaters in 3D.
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