Alice in Wonderland

At the last meeting, there was small discussion of Tim Burton’s sequel Alice in Wonderland. I had written a review, one hopes from a vaguely Chestertonian point of view, and people asked me to share it. So in the interest of using the St. Louis Chesterton Society Website more fully and as an illustration of how Our Motto works itself out in practice (‘specially for Regina) here is my review of the film…

Alice in Wonderland
Reviewed by Tom Leith

There’s nothing wrong with “derivative”. Nobody says Easter Parade is poor because it is derivative of Pygmalion. Maybe they say it is poor despite being derivative of Pygmalion. West Side Story is derivative of Romeo and Juliet. So is The Fantasticks. Nobody says these are poor shows because they’re derivative of a great one. Of course, it helps to start with timeless material.

Tim Burton returns us to timeless Wonderland, and what would Wonderland be without all the familiar characters? Humpty Dumpty is missing though — evidently all the king’s horses and all the king’s men really couldn’t put him back together again. Besides, who can follow WC Fields in the role? Anyhow, when you buy a ticket to Alice in Wonderland you do have your expectations, and Burton doesn’t disappoint.

But watch carefully and you’ll see that Burton is derivative not only of Lewis Carroll, but also of every other fantasy film you’ve seen, Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, The Wizard of Oz, The Chronicles of Narnia, probably more. Well, OK, the film is derivative of more than we might’ve expected. What I had not realized however, is just how derivative of Wonderland and Looking Glass (the originals that is) all the other fantasy stories are, and Ulysses now that I think about it is even a stylistic hommage to Carroll. If you see the film keep an eye out for all the references, it is part of the fun.

Being a Tim Burton film, the visuals are stunning, imaginative, beautiful, strange, strangely familiar, and meticulous. One negative thing I will say is the after-the-fact 3-D effects don’t add anything to the film, and I think they make it harder to watch, perhaps because of imperfections in the 3-D process or perhaps because the film wasn’t conceived in 3-D. I don’t know why exactly, but don’t skip the film because you have missed the 3-D showing. The 2-D version is probably better.

Johnny Depp’s performance as the Hatter is terrific as usual, and the quirky young beauty Wasikowska marvelously portrayed two characters, both of them Alice. Anne Hathaway’s very, very good White Queen was supposed to be fairy-tale stylized, right down to hand gestures, but she didn’t quite pull it off — she ended up looking too stiff walking about with her elbows up and her pinky extended. It is unclear to me whether her pacifism is meant to be hypocritical and therefore at least a serious flaw, but that is how I read it. The Red Queen was overtly Machiavellian right down to a very famous line from the man himself, but she wasn’t hypocritical. The bulbous head Burton managed to give her was perfect; it didn’t look like makeup, my guess is it was done digitally. The overall look of the characters are lifted straight from the illustrations of the original Carroll books. Unlike a lot of fantasy stories, the main characters are more than sketches — the Hatter goes mad and Alice does get over herself in Wonderland. Pity she didn’t carry the lesson back to Real-Life with her, but we were warned.

The film has two plots: the Wonderland plot and the Real-Life plot. This is something new for Alice I think — Alice doesn’t do anything in Carroll’s books besides look around Wonderland; the plot is “get home again”, like The Oddessy. But in Burton’s story, she is engaged, and what she does in Wonderland is wonderful. What she does in real life, well…

The set-up masks the subtext. Alice is to marry Hamish, but she doesn’t know it, for good reason as we will see. I would not want a daughter or niece marrying Hamish no matter how rich he is. He’s a dweeb with no chin, doing exactly as he’s told by his own parents, playing his assigned role, namely spoilt rich kid. We could see him as a “victim” as much as Alice, but we can all see he’s getting the better part of the bad deal. We’re being led to rebel along with Alice against something that never was; intended to represent an evil, repressive, un-enlightened, corseted “past” away from which we’ve all made so much “progress”. Except that one progresses towards something, not away from something. So what is it Alice progresses towards?

In both worlds there are social expectations of Alice and a role for her. In the non-existent fantasy world, it is heroic to accept her role in the society and history she’s found herself in. The parallel with Joan of Arc is hard to miss. But here in Real-Life, why all that’s a lot of hooey. There are no saints, there is no duty except to oneself. Nothing matters in Real-Life except individual will. Or will to power — look here to see the beginnings of cultural imperialism and globalization right on the screen in front of you in the last shot of the film.

In both worlds Alice does not want the role she’s thrust in to. In Wonderland, Alice comes to see the evil that will result from her refusing to accept the role she does not want. In Real-Life, she (and we) are never shown the evil that might result from her rejection of a traditionally feminine role in society and history. She’s never shown the good that might result from her acceptance of a feminine role either. It does not occurr to her to ask whether or not Real-Life could be like Wonderland, whether she would be fulfilled in the role society expects her to fill. She doesn’t know what her oh-so cosmopolitan Real-Life adventure might bring, but since it is her will to pursue it and defy convention, the film portrays her as unambiguously heroic, sailing off into the decidedly un-domestic sunrise. Not sunset — sunrise. More hard-to-miss symbolism.

This is a family review, so I’ll just say Balderdash! Alice in Wonderland is at last a conventional modern diatribe against traditional understandings of gender roles and makes the standard feminist mistake of destroying femininity by holding up male roles as the ideal for women. Alice could have been so much more than a big little girl, and that would have been refreshingly unconventional.

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