Short Film Saturday: Alice in Wonderland

If you saw the new Alice in Wonderland and absolutely could not stand it then this may be the antidote:

The first adaptation of the story on film in the world has recently been restored by the British Film Institute, BFI. It was recently posted on their YouTube page.

This is just some of the amazing and important work that film institutes do and this short encapsulates the magic of cinema. These images shot nearly 109 years ago can still be seen today in a world, especially the film world, these makers could never have imagined.

Here is more information about this particular version of the film from the YouTube description:

“The first-ever film version of Lewis Carroll’s tale has recently been restored by the BFI National Archive from severely damaged materials. Made just 37 years after Lewis Carroll wrote his novel and eight years after the birth of cinema, the adaptation was directed by Cecil Hepworth and Percy Stow, and was based on Sir John Tenniel’s original illustrations. In an act that was to echo more than 100 years later, Hepworth cast his wife as the Red Queen, and he himself appears as the Frog Footman. Even the Cheshire cat is played by a family pet. With a running time of just 12 minutes (8 of which survive), Alice in Wonderland was the longest film produced in England at that time. Film archivists have been able to restore the film’s original colors for the first time in over 100 years.”

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Rewind Review- Alice in Wonderland (2010)

Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland is a film that dares you to stand up and walk out of the movie theatre and makes you sorely tempted to take that bet. It’s a film that galumphs along on its over-the-top intentionally goofy and self-consciously stylistic way with complete disregard for respecting its audience either intellectually or emotionally.

The cast of the film is not your typical Burton ensemble in as much as everyone is either miscast or misguided. Johnny Depp is convincing in the part of the Mad Hatter but acting does boil down to choices, as does directing, and most of the decisions made in the film with regards to character were unfortunate. Not quite as unfortunate as Mia Wasikowska as Alice – a young Australian actress with a painful British accent and little to no inflection in her voice in this part ever. Crispin Glover is his usual weird self and poor Mairi Ella Challen, as Six-Year-Old Alice, was woefully misdirected into a modern day rendition of Tami Stronach in The Neverending Story. Depp’s character wasn’t the only one who was steered towards the annoying end of the spectrum Tweedledee and Tweedledum were further there than ever before and the March Hare was so insufferable you hope for a cameo by a steady-handed, sharp-witted, eagle-eyed Elmer Fudd.

Unfortunately, the bright spots in the cast were in the smallest parts like Helena Bonham Carter as the Red Queen and Anne Hathaway as the White Queen and finally Alan Rickman as the Blue Caterpillar. This film goes so far as to waste great talent in small parts like Christopher Lee as the Jabberwocky.

Tim Burton’s talents are still readily apparent in this film as are his flaws amongst them are the fact that more often than not he tends to struggle with non-original material, meaning that which he did not write himself. Since Burton has become a Hollywood player his films based on pre-existing concepts like Planet of the Apes and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory have been some of his weaker and least inspired efforts in which he seemed to be wandering into the world of self-parody.

The film’s disrespect for the audience’s intellect is most clearly demonstrated by how repetitive the screenplay is. It is impossible to count how many times Alice insists that all the events in the story are part of a dream and that others in Wonderland claim she is not the “real Alice.” Surely there are other things that can be conveyed to reach an adequate running time and certainly kids have seen enough films follow the Rule of Three that you shouldn’t feel the need to follow the Rule of Three tenfold throughout the course of this film.

Another issue with the film was that the 3D was unessential to the film and it didn’t add anything at all to the movie-going experience. With the proliferation of 3D films there is more and more of an onus on these films to make it count and not just make it an excuse to charge an extra $2.50 or whatever the case may be. It’s a similar axiom to when black and white was frequently an option for films, filmmakers were told to “have a reason to shoot in color.” Think about it and have one strong, irrefutable reason you need all the colors of the spectrum. Same thing with 3D – think of one strong reason you need the depth, dimension and jumping out at the audience because I didn’t see it.

The CG and animation was consistently inconsistent. There were some things like the aforementioned Jabberwocky which are quite great and then things like most if not all the landscapes are not great. Some of the digital manipulation was good but some was a little off like when The Red Queen stuck something in her mouth her fingers popped out in a noticeably bad way and Tweedledee and Tweedledum weren’t bad.

Despite any technical accomplishment or other cases of slight brilliance it is all washed away by the absolutely underwhelming and unsatisfying emotional experience that this film is. It is a homogenized sequelbot, patent pending, which smashes two books together and focuses on minimalist story and nonexistent character development. It plods along so superficially that you actually become bored which is something that was once seemingly impossible with this tale.

If you want a truly different and unique take on the tale of Alice in Wonderland visit Amazon and Netflix and give Jan Svankmajer’s Alice a chance rather than this. You won’t regret it, “Said the White Rabbit.”

2/10

Two for Tuesday #1

OK, first of all I realize it’s Wednesday. I may find a way to write and post in anticipation of the day but in order to truly get started I want to watch films on the day of and identify my theme properly and then post. Yesterday it was just too late by the time I would’ve gotten around to it.

Anyway, the idea for Two for Tuesday is just to watch two films, no matter how different they may be. Yesterday’s choices were disparate indeed: they were Mrs. Miniver and the aforementioned feature film cut of Blake of Scotland Yard.

Mrs. Miniver

Mrs. Miniver (MGM)

This is another film I watched for 31 Days of Oscar. What was frustrating to learn was that this was during a Greer Garson block on TCM wherein her five consecutive best Actress nominations were shown. This is a feat that was only matched once, by Bette Davis. It makes sense to feature Garson, however, because I, like most, am underexposed to her. With Robert Osborne doing the introduction there was much to be learned. First being that the role of Mrs. Miniver was originally offered to Norma Shearer. Shearer didn’t want to play the mother of a fully grown son, as there’s a stigma of being an aged actress attached and thus it was offered to Greer Garson who at the time didn’t want to do it either but didn’t have the clout to turn it down. The age concern was such that Garson according to the studio was 34 but in actuality was 37 at the time. Thankfully she did it and it worked out wonderfully.

This film swept away quite a few Oscars and it’s not a wonder. Suffice it to say I just thought myself brash in guessing it was nominated for 10 Oscars, I underestimated it. It was up for 12 and won six. This film also bears a stamp this time is that of William Wyler. Wyler, who despite winning three Oscars and the Irving G. Thalberg Award doesn’t seem to get as much recognition as a man who has a similar name to him, Billy Wilder. Wyler’s film’s are always well-shot and moreover beautifully framed. This film also has a quiet realistic tension to when Mrs. Miniver (Garson) is held captive in her own house by a wounded German soldier there is no scoring it’s all quite realistically handled. Then there is shockingly good sound design that also makes you flinch as you see the quiet, simple village life disturbed by air raids.

It’s also not a wonder that there was pressure on MGM to get this film released to show the American public what life in Europe was like during the war. It’s also no surprise that this film was added to the National Film Registry in 2009.

There was also the wonderfully woven in subplot of the flower show. This not only demonstrated class differences and stasis in society but as things developed came to symbolize the solidarity of a nation. As Mr. Ballard says “There’ll always be roses.” A beautifully deft and understated way of saying the world will go on and life will persist despite what may try to ravage it. I could go on elaborating the naturalistic-humanistic symbolism of the film ad nauseum but you get the idea.

However, the poetics of the film do not halt there. During one of the first air raids the Mr. (Walter Pidgeon) stay awake as their young children do manage to fall asleep and they discuss their love for, and recite the ending of, Alice in Wonderland. The words made far more haunting and beautiful due to the backdrop and wonderful example of artistic re-appropriation of material.

Christopher Severn, Walter Pidgeon and Calre Sandars in Mrs. Miniver (MGM)


There were also some notable long take and it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that Wyler allowed the camera to roll a bit to see what his actors did. One example of this, and the genesis of this idea for me, is when Mr. Miniver and his young son Toby (Christopher Severn) and young daughter (Clare Sandars) are looking into one of the rooms of their house after an air raid taking in the damage. they look for quite a bit of time such that it feels like the scene should end but then Toby kicks a piece of rubble over the step and laughs, forcing a smile from his father. Whether improvised or whether this long pause was dictated kudos are still in store for Wyler.

Mrs. Miniver (MGM)

The very ending is also remarkable without giving too much away. There is a great reveal of the roof of the church most of which is missing. Through the hole in the roof can be seen bombers off to another battle as the congregation sings “Onward Christian Soldiers.” You can protest as much as you like about the propagandist nature of this ending or of mixing religion and war but without even involving politics it’s a great piece of cinema that ending.

In the interest of not spoiling too much I avoided the plotline of Vin (Richard Ney) and Carol (Teresa Wright, who also won an Oscar for her role) it is a major component of the story as it is a love affair that springs from a subplot and becomes quite an important and poignant part of the film. One interesting note was that the part was originally offered to Montgomery Clift who turned it down because it came with the stipulation that he sign with MGM for seven years. Clift, and the industry apparently, felt his time would come and he stayed on Broadway in the meantime.

This movie slowly and steadily rolls itself along picking up meaning and creating a tense environment in the characters. There is no real resolution within the narrative, as they are still in the midst of war but life goes on and “There will always be roses.”

Blake of Scotland Yard (1937; theatrical cut)

One thing that could’ve been added to my manifesto is that I want to try not to be redundant. I realize that I just posted about this here but yesterday I saw this version mostly for lack of something better to do and time. I will try not to over-elaborate but merely convey how utterly gutted I found this film.

The main thing that’s off when you lop 75% off a story is pace. There are moments that are far too slow or protracted and then some that whiz by in a blur, the film ends up being shorter than it feels because of that. There are far too many characters involved in this tale for it to only run 71 minutes and taking out so much you lose clues, speculation and discovery of facts and are left with basically an inciting incident, a long chase which becomes tiresome and a final reveal that is still a surprise because you had little time to wonder who the scorpion could be and were busy trying to figure out what’s up. I had issues following it and I’ve seen the longer version twice I can’t imagine the uninitiated confusion upon viewing this mess.

The intent of this piece is to honor the original film as it was made. There were some notable players involved in this such as Ralph Byrd who played Dick Tracy in more than one incarnation, Joan Barclay who starred alongside Douglas Fairbanks in The Gaucho and Dickie Jones who later went on to voice Pinocchio. There’s also a lot of good story cut out: There is a big arc with the false beggar that here seems pointless, there is Baron Polinka who is oft suspected and one of his catchphrases that cracked me up (“But I’m Baron Polinka”) is missing from this, even the tertiary involvement of Scotland Yard, which is in the title here seems unnecessary.

The only thing I liked is that it made me nostalgic for the original version. This one also gave you a virtually muted soundtrack as the theme rarely played within scenes but was always played in titles which, of course, you only see once here. Due to the desire there are some weird and bad cuts including a very awkward “If you can’t solve it, dissolve it.”

As a DVD presentation it is also a failure: it looks like there are VHS tracking lines at the bottom as if this was a dub and there’s no resume play option so when I stopped I had to find a spot within the chapter.

Ultimately, this proved it’s a failed concept as you see a long but simply-told tale diluted into a short confused mess. I hope other distributors stick to full-length serials.