Monday, March 08, 2010

Chromatic March: Alice in Wonderland review and discussion

My review of Burton's Alice in Wonderland is up at BlogCritics.

Burton knows how to be colorful. Colorful characters, colorful landscapes, bright, clashing, quirky performances by exaggerated actors and actresses... saturation was the name of the game in this rendition of Carroll's hallucinogenic classic. And though the environment was surprisingly dark and stormy, bathed in the atmospheric ashes of the Wonderland fires, Depp and Carter and their supporting cast still managed to bring out the highlights of a strange and spectacular fantasy world.

Color choices go hand in hand with textures and atmospheric elements. Color almost never exists on its own... it's a disposition of a surface, which is characterized by its roughness and reflectivity. Burton's Alice in Wonderland is inundated in the metallic textures of decadent fabrics, marred by wear and tear and time and grime. Thus, it scans like a cross between a tailor and an armory, tarnished and sooty and shimmering just a little at the edges.

Alice enters this world in an iconic blue dress, and her baby blue, the pastel color of innocence and naivety, immediately engages her in a landscape of chromatic icons. Never mind the minor characters, the silly animal caricatures and the literature cameos... the real players here are Alice, the Hatter, the Red Queen, the White Queen, and Stayne, the knave of hearts. These characters are neatly distinguished by color, with Alice as a bit of an exception. The Hatter is a festive orange and green combination, like we all remember from the movie posters; the White Queen is pure, colorless, crystalline white, almost to the point of being sanitized; the Red Queen is a ruthless, unpredictable, bloody red bobble-head of a character. Stayne is less important than these others, but he is always in black, with that little red eye-patch. He is enforcement, wrought-iron determination, and death.

The war between Red and White is an effective way for Tim Burton to condense the vast Wonderland mythos, which included a Queen of Hearts (Alice's Adventures), a Red Queen, and a White Queen (both in Through the Looking Glass). Though Helena Bonham Carter's character is called the Red Queen, she's clearly actually the Queen of Hearts from Alice's Adventures; so whereas Carroll's two books were each based on a specific parlor-game, Burton's reimagining is actually an unlikely conflict between two different games: on one side, cards, and on the other side, chess. Both games have a "black" component, and in each case, this component is ignored... the sisters are the White and Red, skill and chance, strategy and psychology. They represent a collision of worlds, with Alice and the Hatter and a bunch of talking animals caught in the middle.

By the way, that paragraph was entirely written from Wikipedia cheat-sheets on the books. It's so easy to make yourself sound smart these days.

Anyway, there's something to be said for Burton's treatment of Alice. As she rides to her engagement party, she dons her classic blue-bonnet-style dress that we're so familiar with. This is, if anything, a symbol of her innocence, the childlike nature that she still has leftover from the classic literature (which comes to her in nightly dreams... if I were her parents, I'd be worried). However, during the course of her journey through Wonderland, she takes on a number of different outfits, and a number of different personas. Many of these are custom-made to fit her when she grows and shrinks... as tiny Alice, she wears something billowy and metallic, somehow salvaged from her original blue. However, she also infiltrates the queen's company, and becomes the Queen's "new favorite" (the writing here is strangely endearing, as we see the evil dictator act like a capricious little girl). While Alice is tenured in the Red Queen's castle, she wears a burnt orange number, which is apparently her color of deceit, and her subtle show of solidarity with the Hatter.

Of course, Alice has to undergo one more transformation before she concludes the narrative: she needs to put on a symbolic suit of armor, an inspiring assembly of luminous platinum plates, and she has to step forth with her bleached-white Queen to face her foes on the field of battle. I may be reaching a bit, but I'd like to suggest that the "colorless" nature of a mirrored suit of armor suggests that Alice has not only become a champion of Wonderland... she's actually grown up beyond its exaggerated reds and greens and oranges and whites, beyond these figments of a wild imagination, who are noble, but little more than dramatic exaggerations. They will remain as they are in this fantasy world: the monochromatic embodiments of single traits, like madness, or peace, or anger. She has become adaptable, responsive, reflective -- a polychromatic adult ready to face the world.

I admit that the above conclusion may be a bit of a stretch.

At any rate, it certainly seems like the blue of Alice's dress represents her innocence and childish refusal to accept responsibility. As she takes greater risks for those around her, showing more courage and loyalty, she has to don other shades: an orange dress provided by her adversary, a silver suit of armor to prepare her for battle. We can leave it to Burton to turn an interesting concept into a vast spectacle, and to lay bare his own irreverent, vivid, impossible imagination.

Palette: "Acrid"

Acrid_Alice

4 comments:

Karen said...

"I'd like to suggest that the "colorless" nature of a mirrored suit of armor suggests that Alice has not only become a champion of Wonderland... she's actually grown up beyond its exaggerated reds and greens and oranges and whites, beyond these figments of a wild imagination, who are noble, but little more than dramatic exaggerations. They will remain as they are in this fantasy world: the monochromatic embodiments of single traits, like madness, or peace, or anger. She has become adaptable, responsive, reflective -- a polychromatic adult ready to face the world."

Great read - not a stretch at all!

symbot said...

Thanks, Karen - glad you can see what I'm getting at. In a movie with such simple color cues, the introduction of mirrored armor is kind of strange and striking, no matter how you interpret it.

Krystal Wight Armstrong said...

As a Digital Cinema and Graphic Design student, slightly obsessed with both color and Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (and now Mr. Burton's new take at it), I just wanted to pop in and say this article was of great interest to me, and I love your "reaching" theory...I almost wish I'd come to it myself!
But I've only gotten to see it the once, so there will be plenty more time to study this beautiful film when I am able to purchase my own copy of it (hopefully complete with other collecter's discs full of extra wonders)!

Anyway, thanks for a fun, and intriguing read I just stumbled upon via google.

Happy Spring! :)

symbot said...

Krystal - thanks for the comment. I hope you get to make a whole lifetime out of looking at film and video in terms of design... cinema especially, because the film-student world could sometimes use some design-student sensibility in it.

Cheers!