The temple of Zeus

“What do you say, boys? Three different kinds of wings, three different kinds of dudes.” Carlin Nicholson looks at the platter of chicken wings with only one of each flavor remaining for him and bandmates Rob Drake and Neil Quin. (Mike O’Brien is well into his own personal serving of fish and chips.) “See how easy we do this?” Carlin explains in a satisfied tone. “This is Zeus.”

Of course, things haven’t always been this simple for the group, including the process of naming the band. As Nicholson recounts, “It started off with Juice, then Zeus’ Juices, then Zeused … It came from a joke.” Just like everything else about Zeus, the name developed through natural evolution, without a real plan. Just look at how the members came together: O’Brien and Nicholson bonded in high school over their common interests in music and mayonnaise on fries. With Nicholson’s brother and another friend, they formed their first band together, the 6ixty 8ights. After some time apart playing with different people, the two rejoined about two and a half years ago.

In Zeus’s first incarnation, Nicholson and O’Brien opened for Peter Elkas with a couple guys from the Golden Dogs. Then local mainstay Jason Collett asked Zeus to tour with him. Nicholson and O’Brien recruited Paso Mino, Neil Quin, and Rob Drake (with whom Nicholson had always wanted to play).

“In the same conversation I asked Neil to come and live with me and join the band,” Nicholson recalls, reacting to the spicy kick of his Bollywood-flavored chicken wings. “Musically and life-wise, it was very consistent for both of us.”

Quin interjects, “And if he didn’t give me the place, I would have had to move in with my mom, which would have been cool, but not as cool.”

O’Brien tries to explain the strength of the current lineup in a different way. “It’s kind of like we were building a rocket, and then when Quin joined the band, it was like adding that final rocket booster cylinder. And then—” Quin makes a child-like exploding sound using both his mouth and his body. With a chicken wing still in his mouth, he backtracks. “I have Soviet propulsion techniques.”
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In addition to rockets, the guys of Zeus also know a thing or two about songwriting—and it shows. Their full-length debut, Say Us, released on Feb. 24, is getting deservedly solid reviews and acclaim; the 12-track album does not have a single weak spot. From first track “How Does it Feel?” to “The Renegade” (Nicholson’s favorite at the moment) through first single “Marching Through Your Head,” the album is an explosive mix of different musical styles.

The band is clearly influenced by the likes of The Kinks, The Zombies, and The Beach Boys, as well as more recent music like Beck, The Flaming Lips, and Michael Jackson—and they readily admit to loving all of these. From the classic rock and roll sounds of The Beatles to new age and alt-rock, their sound combines a wild variety of genres and comes off sounding very fresh.

O’Brien doesn’t necessarily find this diversity so surprising. “It’s rock and roll man,” he says confidently. “Rock and roll has always been about pulling from country, blues, soul, and jazz—and whatever else is around you.”

The album is full of positive energy, and not by accident. As O’Brien explains, “We’re happy about the record—we really gruelled over it. We decided there was no better time to be ruthless in what we wanted to hear, and we knew we were going to fight until we got it to sound the way we wanted it to sound.”

“It’s whatever gives you chills when you’re playing it, both musically and lyrically,” Quin says, in response to my question of what inspires the band. “It’s whatever makes you step back and go ‘whoa.’”

Nicholson opts for another explanation. “For a lot of songwriters, it is an act of necessity. It’s sort of like if you can write songs, then you have to. You need to get it out. It sounds a bit cheesy, but when you sing a song, you’re telling a secret to a room full of people that you’ve never met, and that’s a really releasing way to get stuff off your mind. It’s exhilarating to do that.”

“As far as the success of the band, who knows? You can always get bigger,” Nicholson says, and all four of them simultaneously look up to ponder. Then five seconds later he corrects himself, “Unless you’re Queen. Or, like, Josh Groban, or someone like that.”

Zeus plays Lee’s Palace as part of Canadian Music Week on March 10. Look out for more CMW 2010 coverage in upcoming issues of The Varsity.

The Pan-Am panhandle

Toronto and UTSC leaders took questions from students on the Pan American sports facility levy on Wednesday, March 3, at a town hall organized by the Scarborough Campus Students’ Union. This levy would account for students’ contribution to the athletics facility that could host the 2015 Pan Am games. The referendum runs from March 17-19 in the UTSC Student Centre.

The panel taking students’ questions consisted of Toronto mayor David Miller, UTSC principal Franco Vaccarino, Malvern community coordinator Alex Dow, 2004 Olympic medallist Liz Warden, SCSU acting president Amir Bashir, and John Kapageridis, president of UTSC’s Athletics Association.

Panellists urged students to vote yes to the proposed levy. “It [presents] a truly transformative moment for UTSC,” said Vaccarino.

“I am not against the Pan Am games in Toronto. I’m just against students paying for it. They should find another way to fund [the construction],” said a fourth-year life science student.

Vaccarino said that a reduced levy is not an option for UTSC. “We looked at various financial models [and] with the parameters we had, this is the model that we got.”

Miller agreed. “U of T’s funding is contingent on the levy,” he said. “It cannot shrink.”
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Students campaigning against the levy argue that the athletics complex will go ahead despite a No vote. Members of “Vote No to a Legacy of Debt” referred to Varsity Stadium at St. George campus, which faced a similar referendum in 2002. Students voted no to a proposed $70 fee. The stadium was still constructed and students currently pay a levy of $18.

“A No vote means that students do not want to support the complex,” said Vacarrino. Richard McKergow, a member of the “Vote No” campaign who works with the Association of Part-time Undergraduate Students, noted that the wording on the referendum does not ask students whether they want the complex but whether they’re willing to pay the levy.

Joeita Gupta, spokesperson for the group No Games Toronto, asked why the costs should be placed on the students. Gupta is also VP external of APUS and sits on U of T’s Governing Council.

Vacarrino replied that his “commitment and ability to support this [complex] comes directly from students,” and that in his view, students want the complex. He did not give any direct reply as to why students are taking on the costs.

First-year student David Khachikyan said he was glad for better facilities. “I would vote yes because there is not even a swimming pool here. It sucks. Why should I have to go downtown and not [have access] here?” His response to the levy: “It’s not a lot of money.”

Asked what he had to say to students currently struggling to pay their tuition, Miller mentioned the summer jobs he took on to get through school. “I understand the challenges. I ask you to see the opportunities,” said Miller. He referred to his own experience as a student who had to “pave roads” and “clean the rich kids’ toilets” in the summer to get through college. “I’m not going to tell you how to afford it. That’s your choice.”

Several students mentioned that the panel consisted solely of those supporting the levy. Bashir commented that he had not been approached by any member of the opposing side wanting to hold a similar forum.

No Games Toronto will be holding an open forum, said Gupta and Oriel Varga, the executive director of APUS. They declined to mention who would be speaking at the forum. Gupta said she does not think SCSU will give their group space.

The bottom line

• If passed, the levy would amount to $40 per semester for full-time students and $8 for part-timers. This fee will increase by four per cent each year until 2014, when the facilities are scheduled to open. Fees will then go up to $140 per semester for full-time students and $28 for part-time students.

• The proposal has students contributing $30 million over a 25-year period, which is 80 per cent of UTSC’s share of the bill. The Pan Am venue will be located along Military Trail and Morningside Avenue as part of an expansion project that runs to $750 million.

• The new sports complex will include fitness and training facilities, two 50-metre competition pools, and a multi-sport field house. A Scarborough-Malvern Light
Rail Transit system is also included in the package.

• UTSC’s Athletics Association website states that the money students contribute through the levy up until their graduation will be credited toward an alumni membership at the complex. Alumni memberships currently cost $365 per year.

• International students planning to leave Canada after graduation will not have access to these facilities. UTSC principal Franco Vaccarino said these students will still benefit from the complex because when asked by employers about the university, the mention of UTSC will evoke images of a prestigious institution whose world class athletics complex hosted the Pan Am games.
The referendum runs from March 17-19 in the UTSC Student Centre.

Research, youth employment get funding bump in federal budget

The 2010 federal budget, released on Thursday, includes moderate funding increases for research, youth employment, promoting college and university education to low-income students, and First Nations schools.

Overall, $108 million is to be spent over three years to help youth gain skills and work experience. This includes a $30 million increase each for programs targeting at-risk youth and funding internships for recent graduates, both part of the Youth Employment Strategy program. Another $30 million will go towards improving governance and accountability in First Nations elementary and secondary education. A $20 million boost will go to the Pathways to Education program, which works to lower the high school dropout rate and increase access to post-secondary education.

Approximately $517 million will be devoted to research over the next two years, outstripping increases to government spending in virtually all other sectors. In his speech Thursday, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty highlighted the push for research.

“We are supporting innovation in our colleges and universities, research hospitals and other research institutions,” he said. “These investments will help create clusters of great new jobs on the frontiers of knowledge.”

A total of $32 million will go to the three major granting councils, with the majority going to the Canadian Institutes of Health Research ($16 million), the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council ($13 million). The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council will pick up the remaining $3 million. A new grant gives the three councils $45 million over five years for post-doctoral fellows.

This increase comes in the wake of last year’s highly controversial budget, which stipulated cuts of $148 million to the granting councils over three years. These cuts, which far outstrip this year’s modest $32 million increase, have not been suspended.

Adam Awad, VP university affairs at the U of T Students’ Union, argued that the funding did not go far enough, especially for U of T students. “As a principle, we know that the amount of money available from the granting councils is not enough and it’s been hugely problematic,” he said, calling last year’s cuts regressive. “Particularly at U of T where the overriding goal is to increase graduate studies, but the funding has not been any more.”

Awad also pointed to a lack of increased funding for the Post-Secondary Student Support Program, which helps First Nations and Aboriginal students access post-secondary education, as a major problem for U of T students.

“Each band council is given a certain amount of money to allocate as they see fit, which has been capped at two per cent per year, whereas tuition fees have been increased across the country,” he said.

The budget got a better reaction from Lyse Huot, director of communications for the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada. Huot cited the increased funding for post-doctoral fellows as a good sign.

“At the maturity of the program, that will fund about 40 fellowships annually, valued at about $70,000 each for two years,” she said.

With files from Jane Bao

Where the money goes

$1 billion: For post-secondary educational infrastructures for the 2010-2011 year, as stipulated in 2009 Budget

$600M: Of funding for the Canada Foundation for Innovation remains to be spent; details to be released in coming months

$75M: Increase to Genome Canada’s budget

$45M: To the three granting research councils over five years, to establish a new post-doctoral fellowship program

$16M: Canadian Institutes of Health Research

$13M: Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council

$3M: Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council

$8M: Indirect costs of research

Canada redefined

We’ll never forget it. Seven minutes and 40 seconds into overtime against our American rivals, Sydney Crosby potted what’s now known as “The Golden Goal,” securing the gold medal for Canada and creating what is possibly the greatest moment in Canadian hockey history. It was the crowning win of the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Games and will be the most reminisced moment for years to come. But don’t forget, there were 16 days of Olympics that came before that and they did more to redefine this country than any hockey game.

With the opening ceremonies, we introduced ourselves to the world. This was our big chance to shout “Canada” from the grandest stage—to let everyone know who we are. That’s why it was so surprising when themes of multiculturalism and bilingualism were notably downplayed. In place of these tried and true national ideals, a new identity emerged. With a reported three billion watching, we extolled the idea that, above all else, we are an Aboriginal nation.

From the initial Olympic bid to the final medal, these Olympics were steeped in Aboriginal tradition. In vying to host the Games at the beginning of the decade, the Vancouver Organizing Committee teamed up with British Columbia’s four host First Nations— the Musqueam, Squamish, Lil’wat, and Tsleil-Waututh—a partnership that lasted all through the hosting process. The Aboriginal Pavilion was among the most popular attractions, as was Canada Northern House, which showcased Inuit culture. The medals awarded in Vancouver bore designs of an orca and raven by First Nation artist Corrine Hunt. Not to mention the official Vancouver 2010 emblem, an Inukshuk.

Of course, only time will tell if 17 days can redefine a country on a constant journey to find itself. With so many cultural, linguistic, ethnic, and geographic inheritances, who can blame us?
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Canada’s modern history began with French settlement in the 1600s, commencing a multi-century struggle between France and England for control over the resource-rich land. In the mid-18th century, Britain gained control, establishing Canada as an imperial nation imbued with British tradition for the next couple of centuries. Then, with moments such as Vimy Ridge in 1917, Canada began to break out of its dominion mould. With the Union Jack fading throughout the 20th century, we adopted ideas of multiculturalism, bilingualism, and federalism, led by possibly the greatest nation builder we’ve ever seen, Pierre Elliot Trudeau. We were Chinese-Canadians, French-Canadians, Polish-Canadians, but never Canadians. And for the last 40-odd years, this pluralism remained our creed, leaving the door wide open for divisive claims of French-Canadian nationalism that nearly tore Canada apart.

Perhaps the “mosaic” idea was all in an attempt to distinguish ourselves from our strong and united neighbours to the south. They’ve always been so comfortable and sure of themselves. We were jealous of their certainty and tried to create unity through our diversity, but it didn’t quite work. We were still left scrambling to find our core.

But we were looking in the wrong place. We needed to direct our gaze farther back: past the multicultural creed of the ’70s and ’80s, past Vimy Ridge, even past British colonial rule and French settlement. The characteristics of this country and the people in it—resourcefulness, perseverance, kinship, endurance, respect, modesty, tolerance, and loyalty—stem from a tradition of Aboriginal peoples that lived here for millennia.

Stuck in the urban bastion of Toronto, sometimes it’s easy to forget this tradition, but it’s nevertheless omnipresent from coast to coast to coast. Whether you just arrived on our shores, are a 10th-generation Canadian, or have lineage that runs past European settlement, there’s a common experience many of us share—an encounter with the unbridled, sublime land around us. Camping in Muskoka, plunging into Lake Louise, skating as fast as you can on a frozen Lake Winnipeg until your face hurts, catching dinner off the coast of Cape Breton, watching the midnight sun, or even gazing at the works of Emily Carr or the Group of Seven in the AGO are all experiences that trace back to the first peoples of Canada. As Pierre Burton said, having sex in a canoe is indeed a uniquely Canadian skill.

Now let’s be very clear about something: 17 days of patriotic fun does not erase 400 years of history. Tracing all the way back to European settlement and the Indian Act of 1867 that gave the federal government authority to legislate in regards to “Indians and Lands Reserved for Indians,” Canada has been steeped in Eurocentric policy and practice. There are even several groups, including the Olympic resistance Network and, who opposed the Olympics because they claimed they were being held on unceded Aboriginal territory.

This shameful history should certainly not be forgotten, or even forgiven. But there comes a point when we must reconcile our historic clashes, and begin to build a new history based on mutual respect and cooperation, and move forward. The Olympics marked a crucial initial step in this process.

Maybe Canada’s connection to Aboriginal culture was so obvious it was overlooked. Not anymore. The 2010 Olympics shone the light on who we really are.

Voters beware!

Campaigning for the University of Toronto Students’ Union elections is set to begin on March 8 as the candidates for executive and director positions will make their way through colleges and common rooms on the St. George and Mississauga campuses. Unfortunately, politics (student or otherwise) tends to be a dirty game with character attacks, misinformation, and flawed argumentation—all employed to distract, disturb, and disrupt voters. The purpose of this article is to make you aware of the mechanisms and techniques used for political manipulation.

Character Attacks

Instead of focusing on the issues at hand, some politicians will attack the character of individual candidates, an entire party, or in the case of these elections, a slate, to lower the reputation and character of a candidate in the eyes of voters. Character attacks are no stranger to U of T elections. Last year, the Change slate was accused of not being “diverse enough.” This is a classic example, since it’s a superficial claim intended to lower the character of the entire slate in the eyes of voters. U of T students should question such claims and criticize any candidates who attempt to besmirch the character of their opponents.

Vague Generalities

During these elections, U of T students will hear concepts such as diversity, change, solidarity, oppression, progression, equality, and freedom employed frequently. These are substantial words that require sufficient evidence. If a candidate claims: “I will work to promote diversity and equality on this campus,” students should have questions ready. What does the candidate think diversity means? How will they promote it? What concrete steps will they take to make sure these goals are met?

Post-Hoc Fallacy

This fallacy usually takes the form of “Since x became president, y effects happened,” and are mainly used by opposition candidates seeking to defeat incumbents. In a recent Varsity article, UTSU VP university affairs Adam Awad said: “As President of U of T, Naylor has overseen one of the greatest investment losses in the history of this university, the arrest of 14 students for protesting fee hikes, an incredible increase in the corporatization of the campus,” and so on. This is a classic example of the post-hoc fallacy, since it is suggested Naylor necessarily caused all of these events to happen, even though they all resulted in part from other forces. Be wary of any argument that tries to ascribe multiple effects to one subject, since they mostly never follow.


Depending on the stand a person takes on an issue, he or she will be tacked with a label. If you criticize Israel, you become anti-Israeli, whereas if you support Israel, you become anti-Palestinian. Canadians who criticized the war in Afghanistan are accused of being “anti-Canadian” and not supporting the troops. But criticizing a country or movement doesn’t necessarily make you anti-anything. Labels are designed to develop an “us versus them” mentality to bitterly divide the electorate. Students who might support a university policy may not be pro-administration, just as someone who criticizes it is not anti-administration.


Fear is one of the greatest political weapons ever devised. Rudy Giuliani suggested that voting Democrat in 2008 could lead to another terrorist attack. If a candidate suggests voting for their opponent will lead to horrible consequences such as increased tuition fees, less diversity, and more control by the administration over student political organization, students should question these claims and demand evidence. Otherwise, they are simply employing fear to manipulate the vote.

So what should you look for in a good candidate? A good candidate focuses on their own platform, concentrates on issues that directly affect students, has concrete plans, refrains from taking cheap shots at their rivals, and participates fully in the spirit of discussion and debate.

Good luck navigating this year’s political season at U of T. It promises to be interesting.

This one’s for the true Can-Con aficionados

“God, I’m going to miss this place.” Spoken by K. Reed Needles at the end of Robertson Davies: The Peeled I, these words floated away from the stage at Hart House Theatre as the legacy of the celebrated Canadian thinker came to a theatrical close. In that instant, an entire audience was filled with bittersweet joy at the recollection of a fond memory and at the communal gratification of honouring a legacy. I found myself wishing that the rest of the production was as effective as that all-too-fleeting moment.

An exercise in cut-and-paste as much as anything, Robertson Davies: The Peeled I is the work of K. Reed Needles himself, who was a student of Professor Davies’ in the 1970s. Needles and director John Krisak, both highly accomplished in the theatre world, pieced together Davies’ most profound work and thoughts by using the author’s own writings. The show is doubtless most effective in this specific theatre, as the deep reverence that both Needles and the late Davies had for the hallowed ground upon which the show was staged was palpable, and allowed for the audience to share in that patented U of T nostalgia.

“Money does not buy happiness,” Davies declared as he recalled his past of fluctuating employment and varying degrees of success in a
dizzying array of fields. “But it makes it possible to support unhappiness with exemplary fortitude.” It was times like these, when the play illuminated a particularly brilliant aspect of Davies’ genius and the audience swelled with approval, that it seemed the goal of the production had been accomplished. It was times like these that I realized the weight of the moment for the sole actor on stage, whose chance it was to honour his mentor and icon in a way so fitting and true to his legacy—and how it must be one of the defining moments of his career. It was times like these that I considered reading Fifth Business all over again.

But it was during the lengthy interludes in which Needles read aloud from one of Davies’ novels that the show turned from marginally captivating to utterly mind-numbing. The existence of a stage and an actor and an audience seemed frustratingly pointless. A certain dozy audience member and I shared a transcendent connection for an ephemeral moment when a loud, satisfied snore floated into the universe before being snuffed out by a mortified wife: my thoughts exactly, my friend.
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The only truly interesting aspect of the play was Davies’ emphasis on his hatred of critics, a despicable bunch with “empty souls” and a “physiological malady” that prevents them from using the bathroom while attending productions. It seems only right that the most engaging and comedic part of the play would come at the expense of the critic: this was infinitely fitting of Davies’ fiery persona and timeless wit. I laughed heartily and wished I could have met him, but it was pretty stressful to hide my notebook from everyone around me.

One-man shows are not for everyone, especially not for those with short attention spans and an incessant need to be visually stimulated, the kind that borders on neuroses. The minimal set, consisting of office furniture and giant books piled on top of one another, was not a point of interest in the least. I struggled for something entertaining to look at and ended up settling on the disturbingly shiny bald head of a fellow audience member, whose intermittent seat-shifting forced the reflection of the light to shift from time to time.

So, if having the thoughts of the late U of T icon Robertson Davies read aloud to you by an actor who has a deep understanding of who this storied figure was—and the influence he continues to have on the university community and beyond—Robertson Davies: The Peeled I is the play for you. But if you’re looking to be entertained in the process, just be sure to situate yourself beside a round, sleepy-looking man and perhaps also behind a bald one.

Campus Stage: Observing Emotion turns frowns upside down

U of T’s Only Human Dance Collective presented Observing Emotion: A Study of Human Behaviour to an enthusiastic audience at the Betty Oliphant Theatre this weekend. The show comprised short dances reflecting the progression of the human cycle of emotions. The audience’s enthusiasm was a reflection of the liveliness of the dancers’ performances, resulting in a fun and entertaining evening of dance.

Observing Emotion opened with the spirited number “When the Cat’s Away…” which included most of the company’s dancers. The piece was a story of maids and butlers misbehaving when their master leaves, and quite suitably, it began with classical dance and music, then transitioned into the upbeat hip-hop “Shake Your Pom Pom.” Beginning with a feeling of innocence, the pieces evolved to describe joy, love, lost innocence, obsession, and finally, struggle. Within each of these categories were a number of minute-long dance pieces that interpreted the emotion differently. The sheer energy of this part of the show set the tone for the rest of the evening.

Alluding to the title, the performances offered a varied array of music, choreography, and dance forms. Most of the pieces were done in the lyrical style, but there were a number of strong modern pieces and a lovely Middle Eastern dance. Some of the most successful pieces were the hip-hop dances—these performers had clearly perfected their craft and danced with great passion.

The choreography was consistently diverse and creative, and both dancers and choreographers made excellent use of the theatre’s space and levels to depict the erratic nature of human emotion. While the set and costumes reflected the lower budget expected of a student dance group, the designers used their resources with flair. Cardboard, garbage bags, and fishnet stockings were all put to good use, creating a feeling of scrappiness that often enhanced the authentic feel of the performances.
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The standout piece was the final performance of the evening, “Ascend/Descend.” Dragi Dodevski and Susana Chwang, who both possessed strong technique and chemistry, beautifully performed to Bellini’s “Aria Casta Diva” a modern dance duet representing distress. The set and costumes for this piece were simple and elegant, drawing the audience’s focus completely to Genady Gavleshov’s dynamic choreography.

On the whole, the dance company worked very well—the performers were all very comfortable moving together, working off each other to create the passion and power present in each piece. The Only Human Dance Collective has a mandate to welcome all dancers regardless of experience, so naturally, technical abilities varied from dancer to dancer. However, all the students involved in Observing Emotion were certainly capable, and, more importantly, seemed to really enjoy performing.

While technique and physical abilities are important features in a dance performance, a dancer’s dynamic and passion are ultimately what makes a performance succeed. By creating a sense of community, the Only Human Dance Collective’s inclusive vibe was felt both within the performance and in the audience.—Ariel Lewis

Alice meets malice

The Mad Hatter’s tea party has never been anyone’s idea of a chic happening, but never has it looked more depressing than in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. The now 19-year-old Alice (Mia Wasikowska), returning after many years to the land she thought was only a dream, again stumbles onto the Hatter’s little never-ending get-together. But the glory days have evidently passed—next to an abandoned windmill, surrounded by fog and decaying plants and under a sky that seems perpetually overcast, the Hatter (Johnny Depp) presides over a massively unkempt table, with plates and cakes and teapots and cups scattered everywhere with no rhyme or reason. The March Hare is still there, strung out on caffeine and throwing plates like a junkie, while the Hatter himself appears blissfully unaware of what a pitiable sight the whole thing is. I never thought I’d say this, but perhaps Wonderland could benefit from gentrification.

I don’t think anyone other than Burton would think to film the Hatter’s tea party in quite the same way. Since most of Burton’s live action films have been adaptations of previously existing characters and stories, a lot of their appeal comes from seeing how a familiar icon will be uniquely Burtonized: Batman as gothic film noir, the legend of Sleepy Hollow as a rococo Hammer horror film, the “Mars Attacks!” trading cards as a big-budget Ed Wood film, and now Wonderland—actually “Underland,” as it turns out—with all of its fantastic flowers, mushrooms, and forests overgrown and messy like an abandoned nature preserve.

As always with Burton, Alice in Wonderland is fundamentally a visual experience. Wonderland is rendered almost entirely from CGI, and instead of Avatar-style photorealism, Burton’s surreal landscapes are like computer-rendered paintings. There is intriguing tension between Lewis Carroll’s candy-coloured vision and Burton’s gloomy sensibility: the film suggests Carroll’s Wonderland is in desperate need of a janitor and a paint job.

As much as Alice in Wonderland seems ideally bizarre material for Burton’s sensibilities, his heart has always been with the outcasts and the eccentrics, and he barely conceals his indifference for Alice herself. There’s nothing really wrong with Mia Wasikowska’s performance, but Alice is more of a reactive than proactive character—an audience surrogate who can view the oddball characters objectively, she never becomes more than a bland teenager. Burton is more interested in meandering around Wonderland, sketching little character portraits: the Red Queen, amusingly played by Helena Bonham Carter, is loud, quick-tempered, and thin-skinned; the White Queen (Anne Hathaway), is a parody of royalty, prissily holding up her arms and talking in a Glinda the Good Witch squeak. Burton is even interested in the Mad Hatter, though I admit I never really got a handle on Depp’s performance. He seems constructed from the spare parts of other Depp oddballs, with a level of self-awareness—and accent—that rotates between Jack Sparrow, Willy Wonka, and Ed Wood.
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The film is a delight in its early stretches when Burton’s Wonderland has real novelty, but it starts sagging at around the one-hour mark. There is no real emotional investment in these characters (Alice is a black hole, and even the best of the supporting characters are regarded with a certain cool detachment), and the plot machinations—from rescuing the Hatter from the Red Queen’s castle to Alice’s battle with the jabberwocky—are predictable. Maybe Burton would have been better off doing a straight remake of the 1951 animated film—he may have felt he was treading familiar ground, but it might have been exciting to see all the iconic set pieces as if for the first time through Burton’s eyes. Alice might have become more of a living, breathing character if we were re-introduced to her from the beginning, as opposed to several years after the story began. Certainly, the original film’s episodic structure better suits Burton, who has never been very interested in three-act narratives.

Still, there are a lot of images that I really will cherish: Helena Bonham Carter’s head balanced precariously over the Red Queen’s tiny animated body; her animal servants, including a snobby-looking fish that walks on its tail, and frog guards who stand upright with their chests out; the White Queen’s faceless army marching to the beat of Danny Elfman’s score; Tweedlee and Tweedledum, who look like two little balls of white dough with matching slacks, suspenders and striped shirts. As a film, Alice in Wonderland is a marvellous coffee table art book.

Alice in Wonderland is now in theatres.