Saturday, December 17, 2011

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Alice in Wonderland (2010)

"Sometimes I believe in as many as six impossible things before breakfast."

- Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland (2010) 

Mea culpa.

Although universally and no doubt rightly considered a literary classic, Lewis Carroll's surreal Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865) has always given me a headache. 

No doubt this is a tremendous failing of imagination on my part, but I'll readily own it.  I simply don't have much affinity for Carroll's admittedly colorful universe of literary nonsense: a cosmos of neologisms, riddles, word-play, mathematical concepts, and nonce words.  Alice's universe (also featured in Through the Looking Glass [1871]) is deliberately not of the fantasy genre because there is little or no internal logic to it, and if you know anything about me from reading this blog, I hope it's that I'm a big proponent of internal logic in works of art.   

In fact, my opinion of Carroll's mythos conforms well to Alice's description of the poem Jabberwocky:

It's pretty, but rather hard to understand.

Again, I realize it's my own personal failing that I'm writing about here, but when I last read Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (admittedly well over a decade ago...) I also found it vaguely sinister, and more than that, somewhat unsavory in its sadistic qualities  The story essentially involves a girl who is denied -- again and again -- understanding of Wonderland, and also put through some savage physical trials and tribulations. 

Additionally, from my perspective, the various adventures in Wonderland (from the Mad Tea Party to the Queen's croquet game) appears to lack legitimate thematic connection beyond Carroll's focus on animals from natural history, mathematical concepts, and nonsense.  The tale is interesting as a surreal, dream experience, but not as a coherent narrative.  The threads don't all tie together, in other words.

In exposing my personal opinion of Alice in Wonderland, I reveal -- as I've already stated -- the nature of my own limitations as a thinker or philosopher, I suppose.  There you have it.  But it's crucial you understand my perspective as I write about Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland film of 2010. 

Because, in many significant ways, I suspect Tim Burton may hold the same opinion of Carroll's "classic" that I do.  In fact, he has taken into consideration all my reservations about the material and created a work of art that rebuts them.  In doing so, however, Burton certainly "re-imagines" the Alice universe rather dramatically.  If you're a big admirer of Carroll's written words and world, I imagine you might easily and no doubt accurately find Burton's approach grating, and a poor creative decision. 

So right off the bat, let me state that Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland is not for the purists, or for those who appreciate Carroll's work and consider it sacrosanct. 

If, on the other hand, you're open to seeing a film that psychologically interprets Alice's adventure in Wonderland, you may find there's a much to appreciate here.

Outside of considerations about the source material, I admired the film as a visually enthralling (and dazzling) fantasy piece, and also as an exception to the Hollywood rule about young women acting as heroes.  Here, the lead female character is not just the girlfriend to the male hero (Twilight, j'accuse), the sidekick to the hero (Harry Potter), nor the object to be rescued (James Bond), but the central figure and hero in her own adventure.  Alice slays the dragon -- or the Jabberwocky -- herself; she doesn't need St. George to contextualize her role. 

Alice's heroism may sound like a small element, but consider for a moment how few modern fantasy or adventure films actually position a female as savior/messiah/"The One"/defeater of evil.  In contemplating that idea,  you'll gain a small sense of how special and unique this film truly is.  Accordingly, I would unequivocally recommend the film to all children, but especially to girls.  Tim Burton has transformed Alice from a girl who is acted upon -- shrunken and grown at random by quasi-malevolent forces out of her control -- to a girl who takes responsibility for her choices and makes her own destiny in the world.

Although occasionally a little meandering, Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland emerges as a breathtaking re-invention of a literary classic, and one I highly recommend if any of my thoughts above resonate with you.

"Why is it you're always too small or too tall?"

Nineteen year-old Alice (Mia Wasikowska) attends a garden party at the home of a rich businessman only to learn that it is actually her engagement party, and that she is to be married off to the odious Hamish (Leo Bill), a man with digestive problems. 

As Hamish escorts her to a gazebo to ask Alice's hand in marriage, hundreds of party-goers gather to celebrate.

Needing a moment to compose herself, Alice runs off alone.  She spies a white rabbit descend down a rabbit hole, and follows it, falling it into "Underland." 

There, Alice experiences the powerful sense that she has been there before, as a child.  She meets many "friends" she seems to remember, including a blue caterpillar, Absalom (Alan Rickman), the Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry), Dormouse (Barbara Windsor) and the twins, Tweedledee and Tweedle Dum (Matt Lucas). 

Soon, Alice also runs into her old friend, the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp), who tells her that Underland is experiencing difficult times.  The Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) has seized control of the land from her kind sister, the White Queen (Anne a role crying out for Lisa Marie).  Worse, the Red Queen ruthlessly defends her authority with her beastly champion, the monstrous Jabberwocky.

The Mad Hatter informs Alice that it is her destiny to acquire the "vorpal sword" and destroy the Jabberwocky, thus restoring the White Queen to the throne and balance to Underland.  Alice rejects this destiny again and again, but when the Mad Hatter is captured by the forces of the Red Queen, led by Stayne (Crispin Glover), she realizes she must act meaningfully to save her dear friend...

"Have you lost your senses? This picture is impossible."
Alice in Wonderland is another Tim Burton film focused on a misfit or an outsider. In this case, that fiure is Alice, who dreams of breaking convention and doesn't fit into "proper" English society.  

Let's talk about that proper 19th century society for a moment.  There, women were treated as little more than slaves.  If single, women were met with disdain and denigration.  Furthermore, women could not hold down jobs, either, and were forbidden from attending university or bettering themselves through a significant education.  A woman's only "meaningful" destiny at this time was to marry and have children, and see her "wealth" and assets transferred to the ownership of a man to spend as he saw fit.

This is the system, the "proper" world that Alice has trouble accepting in the film.

"Why is it you're always too small or too tall?" The Mad Hatter asks Alice at one point in the film, revealing her status as an outsider who doesn't seem to fit in anywhere.  She seems "too big" for the role of a woman in 19th century England, and yet too (physically) small and fragile to be a dragonslayer in Underland.   

Early in the film, Alice also asks the question "who's to say what's proper?", a question which reveals how she deeply chafes under society's rules.  Importantly, following her adventure in Underland, Alice is ready to leave "proper" society behind and set out on an adventure to faraway China.  In other words, she is determined to make her place in the world on her own, without people telling her what to do, or whom she should marry.  The film's dialogue makes the question of Alice's journey an explicit one: should she follow a well-trodden path, or diverge from that path and make her own road?

Considering this important aspect of the tale, Burton's Alice in Wonderland is a coming-of-age, hero's journey/passage type story, and it's illuminating to see how Burton creates the story of one girl's journey from diffident adolescence to confident maturity.  Interestingly, he adopts the Wizard of Oz conceit that "real" life boasts a mirror in the "other" (fantasy) life.  In The Wizard of Oz (1939), as you'll recall, the shape of Dorothy's life in Kansas was mirrored in her dream of Oz.   Hunk, Zeke and Hickory became the Scarecrow, the Cowardly Lion and The Tin Man, respectively, and Miss Gulch became the Wicked Witch. 

Although the mirror aspect of Alice in Wonderland (a nice allusion to Through the Looking Glass) isn't quite that on-the-nose, aspects of Alice's life do find expression in Underland, a land, to be sure, representing her subconscious mind.  In real life, Alice walks through the garden of Hamish's parents, and refers to painting white roses red while in the company of her would-be-mother-in-law.  This discussion positions the draconian mother-in-law as the "Red Queen" of Alice's reality.   Also, two girls in Hamish's family are shallow, superficial twits, and their presence is echoed in Underland by that of the dim-bulbs Tweedledee and Tweedledum.

Similarly, when the White Queen gathers her troops to ask for a volunteer champion to defeat the Jabberwocky, Burton determinedly re-stages, with minimal variation, the moment from early in the film when Hamish gathers onlookers at the gazebo to propose marriage to Alice. 

In both instances, Alice must make a fateful decision.  The first time -- in real life -- she runs away to her subconscious, to Underland.  Then, in Underland, she finally steps up to become a champion.  And then, after defeating the Jabberwocky, she returns to the Gazebo and has the strength of mind and personality to refuse Hamish's proposal.  These three scenes -- of identical staging -- are the crux of the film, for they ask us what Alice is made of.  Has she lost her "muchness" or, in the act of exploring her subconscious (Underland), does she restore her "muchness?"  The film suggests that Alice can only be victorious when, in Absalom's words, she decides "which" Alice she is: the one who makers her own path, or the one who blindly follows the path of others.

In the same vein, the villainous Jabberwocky -- the champion of the Red Queen -- represents the status quo in Alice's subconscious.  If Alice can't destroy the beast, the Red Queen stays on the throne...and nothing changes. 

If Alice is victorious, however, Alice will possess the freedom (because of the transformatiional power of the Jabberwocky's blood) to return to her "real" life as an empowered champion. Of course, this is what occurs.

Alice's character arc in Burton's film is quite an empowering one.  Alice need not fit in, the film states, but merely decide her own path, and that's just about the best message you could possibly showcase in a fantasy during our Twilight/Kardashian age.  Alice need not be defined by who she is with romantically, or by family name, or by wealth (or paucity of wealth).  I love the film's message and it isn't particularly heavy-handed, which is nice.  Alice in Wonderland doesn't browbeat with you the "point," which is a tremendous gift in a world where most contemporary films lack subtext.

Mia Wasikowska is a revelation in the film, a major young talent.  She is one of those luminous, somewhat unconventional-looking actresses who grows more beautiful, more interesting, more graceful and more compelling the longer you watch her.  She holds the screen.  Wasikowska successfully imbues this Alice with a fetching intelligence and sense of vulnerability, and such qualities are important, because Alice is our anchor; the person from whose mind Underland is drawn.  Fortunately, it's very possible to believe that this Alice could create such a fertile realm of the imagination.

You also won't be surprised to learn that the visuals in the film are ravishing.  This film boasts amazing sights not easily forgotten.  These include a post-apocalyptic Underland under the rule of the vicious Red Queen, and an army of soldiers falling in battle -- literally -- like a deck of cards. 

Alice's first, dizzying descent down the rabbit hole is also noteworthy.  I can't imagine how amazing the film looked in its original 3D presentation, but on high-definition blu-ray Alice in Wonderland remains an absolute stunner.

Again, this isn't Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland by any stretch of the imagination.  It's more like a sequel that makes logical, behavioral sense of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland.   Tim Burton has added a psychological dimension to the tale, showcasing a world not in which a young girl is acted upon (and tortured...) by strange, inscrutable creatures, but in which that world is a manifestation of the girl's desire to find her own place in the world. 

It's silly to argue that a movie is "better" than a work of literature, I realize.  But Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland re-imagines the world of Lewis Carroll in an empowering, visually-stunning fashion.  In doing so, it far exceeeded my expectations of what what the tenth or so cinematic adaptation of Carroll's classic work could achieve.

As the Mad Hatter might say, this one really-- quite unexpectedly -- turned out to be my cup of tea.

Next Week: Batman (1989)!


  1. Hello John,

    It is all a it twisted in Carroll's world. It has oft been written his personal life is a bit questionable. It's been a long time since reading about him, but outside of his literary genius, his personal life was considered a bit unsavory if I recall.

    Nevertheless, it is colorful and I can't say that I love it myself, but it's always intrigued me and perhaps the fact, like you, getting my head around it is never easy for me.

    We have the film and I have not seen it with the kids, but it does look remarkable and once again I will have to remedy this void.

    I've always walked a fine line with Burton and his works and your analysis over the past month or so of his work has reminded me of the things I do enjoy about him. I've also, enjoyed his latter work, ie Charlie and..., more so I'll have to invesitgate Alice.

    Once again, your insightful thoughts on the director's work has given me food for thought on the man. Cheers, sff

  2. Hi JKM;

    Great insight into a film I liked but wasn't blown away by. I don't think Wonderland lends itself to the sort of heroic narrative we see here, but it's an interesting take and Burton makes it work, though the effort shows. Put in a psychological context as you do here it does gain more resonance.

    There's a very good movie about Lewis Carroll and what may or may not have been his proclivities called "Dreamchild" starring Ian Holm, who gives an unforgettable performance. One (brief)scene features a grown-up Alice visiting a wasteland Wonderland that seems to foreshadow Burton's movie.

  3. Hello my friends,

    SFF: We seem to be keying off the same thing as Carroll. There's some "twisted" aspect to his Alice universe that I admit I find a bit unsavory too. This film, I feel, goes a long way towards rectifying that quality. I also agree with you that latter-day Burton is turning out to be quite incredible. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Alice in Wonderland are both wondrous, visually amazing films.

    DLR: I'm so glad you brought up Dreamchild. I love that film and its vision of a "wasteland" Wonderland as you aptly term it. I saw the film some twenty-five years ago or so and I have never forgotten it. I remember it deals with some of the very issues that I raise in my review, vis-a-vis Carroll and the sense that Alice in the story is being sadistically exploitated. The older Alice, in the film, must deal with this, as I recall. I really need to watch that film again, but I remember I very much appreciated it as a (much) younger man.

    best wishes to you both!


  4. Fine examination, John. I just saw this first time with my daughter on the plane home from Portland, OR yesterday. I find it your take very interesting on the original story and this re-imagining of the tale (which is a scary thought given what an atrocity such an effort did to 'Planet of the Apes'). I like, not love, Burton's work in this. That said, my 12 year old daughter loved the film. And given what you've said, it's the empowerment factor that may be what she really admires in this. Being her father, I regard what she cares about with interest. Though, being male, I may not truly understand or discern with any great clarity what she sees exactly in it from her POV. I'm just thrilled that she does. Always great to hear your thoughts in this series, John. Many thanks.