Watched: Alice in Wonderland, Ponyo, Howl’s Moving Castle

Yes, I get it - I get all of it. I get why critics and fans howled with derision upon the release of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland; and I get why it made a billion dollars. It may be the most mediocre, the most automatically-handwritten, movie in the history of movies. There’s something to it, certainly; but every time it threatens to tip over into really having something to it, the film pulls back. It reminds me of that episode of Star Trek where Data prolonged a chess game indefinitely by taking the least risky move at every turn. At a hundred hours long, Alice in Wonderland would still be exactly this tweedle-humdrum.

Some might recall that in 2007 I made a vow to never watch another Tim Burton film. I had just seen Sweeney Todd - and before that, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Big Fish, Planet of the Apes, Sleepy Hollow, and Mars Attacks - and I decided Enough Was Enough, and it was time for all of us to grow up and accept that the Tim Burton we all fell in love with went away shortly after completing Ed Wood. This is fine. And yet, I must guiltily report that my interest in Dark Shadows is piqued, although there is zero evidence whatsoever in regard to that film which suggests that I am in for anything other than a horribly mundane post-awesome Tim Burton experience.

But I am a completist at heart. So if I am to go and see Dark Shadows, I must first see Alice; and I am an Alice fan at heart, too, and am known to truck with the stories where girls get to dress up in armour. (I am very much looking forward to Snow White and the Huntsman, which is trying for Alice 2 honours so hard it makes me feel a bit sad.) And, truth told, I enjoyed the film quite a bit more than I expected to, even if it was a terribly dull and drab affair unsuited to the electric whimsy of its source material. And no, I don’t understand why it’s called Alice in Wonderland either, being as that it should - per Hook - probably be called The Red Queen. As with Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood, it’s not the revisionism I mind; it’s the lukewarm efforts to pretend it isn’t revisionism. Own up.

But yes, let’s return to the nut of the thing: I have a hard time finding fault in a movie that dresses Mia Wasikowska - who makes a surprisingly effective grown-up Alice, in that half her line readings tilt towards the liltingly insane - in a suit of armour and makes her go fight Christopher Lee, no matter how contrived the circumstances might be. And post-Sparrow Depp is, as usual, post-Sparrow Depp. In the Burton films, he’s little more than a fashion model anyway. One could conjure a hell of a wall display made of nothing but high-end action figures of Depp’s Burton characters.

As usual, the one thing that pisses me the most wholly off in a project like this is the quantity of untapped potential. You graft a narrative onto Carroll, cast a competent pair of actors in the key roles, and let the digital paintbox explode into fully-rendered CGI 3-D holyfuck… and the best you can do, goalwise, is dressing Mia up in a suit of armour and sending her up against Christopher Lee? For shame. Alice's kind of madness is so very, very 21st century.

Backtrack a month or two. Adorable experiences abounded at the Lightbox during the Ghibli retrospective, particularly for Howl’s Moving Castle. If I ever tire of seeing flocks of kids show up at the BLB – I call them Lightbox: The Next Generation – I hope someone has the goodwill to take me out into the parking lot and shoot me in the back of the head. At Howl’s, I interceded when a little girl was afraid someone would move their coats if they left them to go to the bathroom (“I’ll watch them – unless I’m the one who will move the coats?” I intoned, to her wide-eyed horror), and sat next to a very young boy and his thirteen-year-old brother, who clutched each other every time Christian Bale’s black-feathered alter-ego was on screen. Cuteness reigns; there is little substitute for watching a film with an audience that bursts into laughter if they see a bum on screen. “When you’re old, all you want to do is stare at the scenery,” Sophie sighs in Howl’s Moving Castle. I feel that, in increasing measure, all the time.

A few weeks earlier it was Ponyo, which reads decidedly darker in the post-tsunami world, in that the second half of the film imagines a village subsumed by flood waters… where everything is just going great. Trees are submerged up to their leaves, roadways become highways of the fishes, and everyone just paddles around on boats making impromptu parades in their suddenly Venetian thoroughfares. In Ponyo, it’s a delight, but it was a chilling effect nonetheless. This doesn’t do much to reduce Ponyo’s overall sense of charm, which is abundant, and if there’s a more grin-inducing image than Ponyo sprinting across the surface of a rolling wave to catch the boy of her dreams who is driving parallel to the seashore on a rocky mountain road, I don’t know what it is.

Watched is a regular blog series catch-all of non-reviews of films I see in any given week. It posts on Mondays, though not every Monday.