Alice As Bourgeois Revolutionary

Alice As Bourgeois Revolutionary

By now it’s become a truism among film critics that Tim Burton’s misleadingly-titled Alice in Wonderland is the nadir of a decade the director spent making high-budget butcheries of deeply-loved classic films that usually get described as both “visual treats” and “pieces of shit.”  Written by Linda Woolverton (of The Lion King fame) with as much hubris as Hamlet 2, Wonderland is both sequel and update of the tale as we know it from Lewis Carroll’s books and the 1951 Disney film, from which it lifts most of its limited charm.  The twist: Carroll’s bubbly nonsense world is submitted to a conventional Hollywood fantasy-adventure narrative.  Take, for example, Carroll’s nonsense poem about a boy who slays a “Jabberwock” with his “vorpal sword” on a “Fabjous day!  Calloh!  Callay!”  In Burton’s version, all of these neologisms become real things: their playfully elusive meanings pinned down as mere fantasy jargon.  To compensate for these heresies of unimaginative thinking, Burton marches out streams of animated characters acting “crazy” and hopes that layering Johnny Depp in three inches of makeup will disguise the fact that his Mad Hatter is not that mad after all, just slightly eccentric and traumatized.  When he stares at Alice with enormous green Bambi eyes you can’t help but long for the comparatively subtle gestures of Edward Scissorhands.  This is another reason the film disappoints: not only does Burton sabotage characters we love; he reminds us that we used to love his films too. 
Where Burton’s film fails most spectacularly is in its slaughter of the tale’s critique of ideology.  Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland stands out from most works of children’s literature that earnestly try to impart “a moral” to their juvenile readers.  In contrast, Carroll’s fable sees the young Alice mystified by the strange Victorian ideology she is supposed to absorb.  She tries to grasp the correct way to behave, but her lessons become muddled in her dream state and come out as nonsense.  Carroll’s nonsense is not just random weirdness but a garbled version of the common sense of the adult world.
Woolverton’s script is also about ideology.  At the beginning of the film Alice (Mia Wasikowska), now 19, is being set up to marry Hamish, a bumbling, unattractive Lord who is far too much of a utilitarian to understand her eccentricities.  Everybody expects her to accept him because he’s rich and women shouldn’t really think too much anyway.  Alice, of course, refuses to follow social convention and runs off chasing a white rabbit in a waistcoat.  We get to feel smug about the advances women have made from Carroll’s day to ours—if only those Victorians had been smart like us.
The world down the rabbit hole has been turned upside down after the assumption to power of the evil, bulbous-headed Red Queen (Helena Bonham-Carter).  As opposed to the perfect features of her sister, the sadly-usurped White Queen (Anne Hathaway), the Red Queen’s physical deformity is a sign of her decadence, something her sycophantic courtiers encourage as they decorate themselves with exaggerated ears, chins and codpieces.  When the Queen loses the support of her drone army at the end, one of her drone soldiers expresses his liberated consciousness by calling her a “bloody bighead,” as he defects to the side of the Hollywood hotties.  Rather a strange take on disability from a director who used to champion scissor-handed underdogs and write poems about oyster boys.

Alice emerges from the rabbit hole confident to turn down Hamish and rebuke her relatives for their lack of 21st century liberal sensibilities.  Then, in an amazingly weird scene that will certainly seem ironic if you’re reading it without having seen the film, Alice announces to Lord Ascot that the future of English trade depends on establishing oceanic trade with China, which she then heads up herself.  By killing the Jaberwocky, Alice the Bourgeois Revolutionary has severed ties with childhood meekness and archaic feudal values and made the world safe for intrepid female imperialists.  This is, of course, nonsense: in Burton’s Wonderland, Alice herself ends as a representative of that insane adult world, filling it with exactly the kind of nonsense Carroll’s Alice would have found ridiculous.

Rover Arts June 2010

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  1. Wow! You certainly didn't like that one. On the other hand, my 7-year-old daughter and I loved it for the simple reason that it was a girl-centred film. Alice declines marriage, slews the jabberwocky and is hired to head a shipping empire. Quite empowering and anti-princess. It's on my list of great films for girls. Heather


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