After 2010's CG blowout Alice in Wonderland long-time collaborators Johnny Depp and Tim Burton return to a more realistic realm with their update of the '60s gothic soap opera Dark Shadows. It just so happens that realism in the case of Depp and Burton also involves vampires.
We first meet Barnabas Collins (Depp) in 1752 enjoying the aristocratic lifestyle of his successful father and wooing the female staff employed in the Collins' mansion. The romantic lifestyle is without consequence until Barnabas picks up and drops the wrong servant: Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green) a witch with a nasty case of jealousy. When Barnabas finally discovers true love Bouchard casts a spell on his favored female causing her to jump off a cliff. In the wake of the incident and with nothing left to live for Barnabas hurls himself off the edge — but Bouchard curses him before he hits the ground. He's become a vampire an immortal and Bouchard has just the everlasting punishment in mind. She buries Barnabas in a coffin never to be seen again.
Jump ahead to 1972 where a construction crew in Collinsport resurface the confined bloodsucker. After a quick bite Barnabas heads home to his manor to discover he's a true bat out of water. His family is gone replaced by a new generation of Collinses: Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Michelle Pfeiffer) the family matriarch; Carolyn (Chloe Grace Moretz) her angsty niece; David (Gulliver McGrath) highly disturbed by memories of his dead mother; Roger (Johnny Lee Miller) the scheming deadbeat dad; and Dr. Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter) David's constantly intoxicated psychologist; and Victoria (Bella Heathcote) the new recruit hired to school David in his fragile state. Barnabas' learning curve adjusting to his new surroundings is the crux of Dark Shadows' purposefully meandering plot which strikes a few brilliant bits of comedy in between long stretches of lifeless melodrama. Turns out a soap opera adaptation ends up being pretty darn soap opera-y.
Unlike most summer blockbusters Dark Shadows sparingly uses action and large-scale set pieces to tell its story. Burton chooses a lower-key approach in the vein of his earlier films like Beetlejuice or Edward Scissorhands. But the movie differs in its lack of emotional throughline — all the colorful misadventures would be a lot more effective if there was something to care about. Barnabas strikes up a romance with Victoria but it's hamfisted. He becomes a fatherly figure to David but only late in the film. By the third montage set to a classic rock tune it's clear Burton and Depp seem far more interested in the bizarre collision of vampire tropes and '70s decor. A scene in which Barnabas converses with a group of pot-smoking hippies on the ins and outs of youth culture works as a sketch comedy vignette but in the grand scheme of the story is fluffy funny and pointless.
Depp's dedication to keeping things weird helps Dark Shadows stay alive. He loves the theatrics biting into every moment with epic speak lifted from the British thee-aaaay-ter. Green joins in on the fun full force her wicked seductress both playful and unabashedly evil. The rest of the cast makes little splash Pfeiffer playing the straight woman while the rest of the ensemble go toe to toe with the larger than life Depp. They don't seem in on the same joke as Depp and the many dialogue scenes just. Come. Off. As. Slooooow. And. Painful. Deliberate soap opera acting is a tightrope walk — only Depp and Green really make it across without faltering.
Dark Shadows is a mixed bag that feels indebted to a source material. Whether you're familiar with the style or not may will be a deciding factor. Burton's washy aesthetics and plodding pacing don't do the material any favors with Danny Elfman's standard issued score failing to elevate the atmosphere. Kitsch and horrors abound but the witch's brew of elements won't be everyone's cup of tea. Er cup of blood?
Nearly a century and a half after Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland first acquainted readers with the Mad Hatter the Cheshire Cat and the rest of the peculiar inhabitants of author Lewis Carroll’s fertile imagination filmmaking technology has finally developed the tools capable of properly rendering Carroll's exquisitely twisted world on the big screen. And who better to oversee the translation than Tim Burton Hollywood’s foremost mass-market purveyor of dark quirky fantasy? If there’s any director working today who can lay claim to Carroll’s creative inheritance surely it is him.
His creation Alice in Wonderland is fashioned not as an adaptation of Carroll’s two Alice-centered books but rather a kind of sequel to them its titular heroine (Mia Wasikowska) redrawn as the mischievous 19-year-old daughter of English aristocrats. Given more to chasing small animals than attending society functions Alice is the kind of adventurous free-thinking Victorian renegade who thinks nothing of drinking suspicious beverages found at the bottom of rabbit holes.
If only she were more interesting. Burton’s Alice isn’t so much a character as she is a tour guide leading us through the director’s $150 million museum of digital delights. Virtually everything on display in the film from the giant mushrooms of the Underland forest to the bulging eyes of Johnny Depp’s (literally) mercurial Hatter was either created or enhanced inside a computer presumably one with a direct connection to Burton’s cerebral cortex. (Interestingly the enhanced Depp bears a more than passing resemblance to Elijah Wood who the producers could have gotten for a lot less money.) Much like Alice herself it’s gorgeous to look at but never particularly engaging.
Were he alive today — and reasonably coherent — Carroll himself would no doubt marvel at the visual grandeur of Alice in Wonderland its CGI world as detailed and immersive as the most vivid of his migraine-induced hallucinations. But he might frown at the short thrift given to his characters. Esteemed cast members like Anne Hathaway (The White Queen) Crispin Glover (The Knave of Hearts) and even the mighty Depp can’t hope to compete with the beauty of their surroundings — instead of actors chewing the scenery the scenery devours the actors. (A notable exception is Helena Bonham Carter the cast’s lone standout as the screeching acerbic Red Queen.)
Alice in Wonderland is really designed to function as an inoffensive family flick and in that regard it boasts more than enough pretty fluff to keep the minds of most pre-teens occupied for the duration of a Saturday matinee. But afterward they might be hard-pressed to recount details of the story which involves Alice having to find a magic sword so she can slay a giant dragon and unlock the Legend of Zelda. Or something like that.
Filled with moments of fleeting exhilaration and empty whimsy Alice in Wonderland never really grabs the viewer in any meaningful way its overall experience more akin to that of a theme park ride than a movie. Which I half suspect was Disney’s intention all along.