Phoebe in Wonderland comes close to being an agreeable flight of fancy, with solid performances by a stellar cast, but it seems to have an agenda that rears its head in several scenes, and the parts that give in to pure imagination don't work as well as they should. The film appears to be a Lifetime Channel production that ended up with a theatrical release somewhere along the line (again, likely because of the film's strong acting), but many of the movie's problems seem like the same kind of flaws you'd find in one of the channel's TV movies.
Elle Fanning plays Phoebe, a young girl whose problems begin to develop when she turns nine. Suffocated by judgmental teachers and taunted by her classmates, she pulls herself back into an Alice in Wonderland-inspired fantasy world brought on by her mother Hillary (Felicity Huffman) and her study of Carroll's book. When Phoebe discovers that the school's new drama teacher Ms. Dodger (Patricia Clarkson) is putting on a play of Alice, she tries out and scores the part of Alice, but the play quickly becomes the only stable environment in Phoebe's life.
Drama is a tricky thing, and I have picky tastes. I'm rarely satisfied that character motivations in dramatic films, especially if the motivation comes from psychological or emotional needs, are born of the characters and not of the filmmaker's need to have conflict in the story. Yet Phoebe in Wonderland has deeper issues. Here, those dreaded psychological and emotional needs are like a big red flag all over this script: it feels personal in an uncomfortable way, as if Barnz is inadvertently suggesting that the audience should care because he's pouring his heart out on screen. This is just a guess, because obviously I don't know Barnz, but something about the way certain elements were presented gave me an unusual, put-upon feeling.
That's where those agendas come in. The movie's worst offender is the scenes where Phoebe visits a psychiatrist (Peter Gerety), culminating in an aggravating scene where Huffman disagrees with the doctor's diagnosis. In the previous scenes with Phoebe, the doc seems helpful but barely defined, asking questions but not exhibiting a personality. However, when Huffman takes issue with the prescriptions he's decided on, he doesn't even have any lines, nor is the camera ever pointed at him. It's nothing more than a monologue in which Huffman argues against psychoanalysis of her little girl's fantasies and puts down prescription medication. Now, I'm definitely not interested in politics, and I have no stance on the issue in question, but the scene is blatantly one-sided. It serves almost no dramatic purpose whatsoever, an unadulterated instance of Barnz appearing to talk through his script.
The movie also takes the unfortunate angle of making the men in this primarily women-driven film seem unsympathetic. Beyond the psychiatrist, we have a spineless, dithering principal (Campbell Scott) and Phoebe's occasionally insensitive father (Bill Pullman), while the only positive male character is Phoebe's gay friend Jamie (Ian Colletti). Pullman, with the help of Huffman, manage to rescue his role in a questionably written but well-acted scene behind their house, but again, his preceeding conflicts with Hillary and Phoebe seem causeless, and I just wondered why anyone would have hired Campbell Scott to run a school. I feel bad for pointing out these things, because it's no secret that women have been poorly marginalized in men's movies for decades, but that doesn't mean it's a good idea to short-change men in a film that appeals to women. The Jamie character also overcomes prejudice in several scenes, which I didn't have a problem with (Colletti is excellent), but it'd be nice if either Phoebe had a more active role in these bits, since this is a movie about Phoebe, or if Jamie had more than one scene where someone didn't throw slur at him.
Barnz's directorial style is similarly flawed. Phoebe's fantasy occasionally extends to visions of the cast decked out as actual Wonderland characters, but Barnz insists on using boosted colors and soft focus to make these scenes stand out when it would look much better if they came out of nowhere and blended in with reality. The style makes them look both cloying and unfortunately emphasizes what I imagine was a limited budget -- the actors merely look ridiculous. Lastly, I felt the movie's ultimate decision about Phoebe's potential psychological issues was a little weak. The conclusion the film arrives at certainly makes sense, but I wonder if the rest of the movie didn't play up other angles a bit too strongly.
Still, while I've already touched on them briefly in the previous few paragraphs, once again, the performances are almost entirely excellent. Clarkson takes the cliche of the wise, rule-breaking teacher looked down upon by her peers and makes it sing, with just the right level of awareness and restraint. Elle Fanning, much like her bigger and more famous sister, ably carries the entire movie on her shoulders, painting a vivid picture of her young character. As mentioned, Huffman and Pullman are very good throughout the material's ups and downs, and Colletti does a good job. Is a set of excellent performances enough to make the movie worth a look? Ironically, I'd have to say maybe...especially if it was on TV.
Admittedly, the film's striking sunflower poster art doesn't have much relevance to the film itself, but it looks a lot better than the Photoshopped artwork they've slapped on this DVD, which makes it look like a Narnia-style fantasy of some sort. The back cover is overly texty, as Image DVDs often are, with no insert inside the case and a disc repeating the inaccurate adventure imagery. The menu is a little nicer, although it's nothing fancy.
Phoebe in Wonderland is clearly a fairly low-budget production, so some softness would be expected in the movie's 2.35:1 anamorphic presentation. In close-up, fine detail looks good, and the world, when colored normally, is vivid and full of pop. Unfortunately, when things get complicated, the lack of detail in small objects looks poor and full of compression artifacts (the worst offender being a roof covered in thousands of rocks), and when Phoebe slips into her imagination, the colors look garish and burned out. For the most part the movie looks fine, but I imagine on larger sets or projection presentations, the image will end up sorely lacking.
Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is a little better. The surrounds are reasonably active, dialogue is always clean, and the movie has a fair amount of ambience even in empty rooms or quiet scenes. Nonetheless, this isn't the kind of movie that's going to give your sound system a workout, so while I heard the effort, it didn't exactly knock my socks off. 2.0 English is also provided, as well as English captions and French and Spanish subtitles.
Aside from the movie's original theatrical trailer, nada.
While I didn't like the writing, I did like the performances, and the movie never bored me. While I might normally be inclined to tell you to skip it, I realize I'm harsh on drama and I feel like fans of the talented cast might get a little more out of it, so I'll vote in the movie's favor and say it might be worth a rent, as long as you keep your expectations in check.
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