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Wonderland Demystified

by Sheetal Magan / 04.03.2010

*spoiler alert
Enter Alice in Wonderland 3D – The Tim Burton Experience. Put on your glasses, leave all civil adult cynicism at the door and allow your faculty of wonder to be awakened and the child in you to be entertained. This is what I told myself when going to watch the Alice in Wonderland, remembering that it was a book that once captured my imagination, an animation that I consumed daily with feverish enthusiasm because before I even knew how to spell – I was spellbound. Perhaps the tales of Alice’s adventures in Wonderland have gained popularity because they offer adults reprieve from the strictures of sensibility and offer children a rebellious sense of relief by encouraging them to consider that maybe their parents don’t know everything. My curiosity was coupled with nostalgia and I was ever eager to venture down the rabbit hole once more in the hope of returning with befuddled and quizzical findings.

Tim Burton’s Wonderland is expectedly macabre, a dystopian wasteland divided by political conflict and wilted by death and decay. Its inhabitants live under the tyrannical rule of the Red Queen who has misappropriated the throne from her sister out of spite. The white rabbit is a double agent spy who deliberately lures Alice, the reluctant bride away from her own engagement party and the mort of the Red Queen’s castle is lined with the floating heads of those found guilty of treason or petty offences. It is a place where the beasties of Underland, from the field mice to the hounds, are freedom fighters willing to take up arms to return the crown to the benevolent governance of its rightful monarch, the White Queen. Alice’s arrival spontaneously introduces the prophecy of “Alice the Saviour”, a warrior child who will slay the Red Queens terror tactic pet, the Jabberwocky and emancipate Wonderland from oppression. Instead they find “Alice the Amnesiac” who has no recollection of her mission or its purpose and she is soon abandoned as “The Wrong Alice” who is left to fend for herself. All the potential of a mythological struggle story with undeniably epic scope is rapidly set up and then gradually watered down with each encounter that Alice faces. The further she went, the harder it became to remain a childlike in my observations.

The Mad Hatter

The cast of guides and skeptics she stumbles upon boast Alan Rickman as an ambiguous Yoda-esque Blue Caterpillar, Stephen Fry as the nonsensical Cheshire Cat, Johnny Depp starring as Burton’s stock character Johnny Depp with an interesting hat, whose madness is rationalized as post-traumatic stress disorder and Anne Hathaway as the whimsical White Queen whose Buddhist devotion to the sacredness of life prevents her from taking any action to extricate her people from their suffering. While each character is intriguing in their own right, as a collective they fail to resonate any authenticity in this fantastical world, as they seem to either have little or arbitrary impact on one another. The Tweedles conveniently forget their skepticism as Alice seems to earn the confidence of her companions before she has really proved herself. Helena Bonham Carter’s eccentric portrayal of the autocratic twit, the Red Queen, is perhaps the only truly unpredictable performance in the film and yet it is undermined as Alice seems to face and elude her villain all too soon, effectively squandering any prospect for establishing a real threat when she finally takes on the David and Goliath show down with the Jabberwocky.

The Red Queen

Mia Wasikowska is certainly a promising protagonist but her characterization is highly problematic. She is confused about her trajectory in the real world and suffers from restless re-occurring dreams, but she is immune to her isolation both above and below the ground and any real potential for catharsis is lost in her unchanging self-assured precociousness and her spontaneous, unmotivated character growth. The result is not so much “Alice the Day-dreaming Outsider” but “Wet-Dream Alice”, the psychological equivalent of a pin-up heroine who lacks vulnerability and whose journey is never cast in doubt and therefore lacks suspenseful engagement. Her lack of dimensionality is loosely motivated by the fact that she is Alice from Through the looking glass, but in truth she is invulnerable to Wonderland even after she has left and returns sous-terre with a farcical capacity to redefine her place in society and shed the metaphorical aristocratic corset that we already knew she would refuse to wear. Her metamorphosis is synthetic and essentially her adventures in Wonderland are reduced to a resolution for a back-story that was hardly convincing to begin with.

The Tweedles

In the end the grown up in me could not be nullified, as Burton’s rendition succeeds in generating areas of novel detail, intrigue and atmosphere but ultimately lacks abstraction and the central conflict in both Alice’s psyche and the world she find herself in are overtly rationalized in a way that dissipates all of the mystery of Lewis Carroll’s original text. It answers questions it fails to pose and reduces a fascinating metaphor for growth to a story about gender identification in Victorian times, as Alice’s struggle is not so much about being a child in an adult’s world as it is about being a girl in a man’s one. This thematic confusion may well echo Burton’s own admission that he struggled to identify with the character of Alice in the making of the film, but the result is an unfocused and inarticulate interpretation of the character of Alice and her adventures.

The story fails to evoke any credible complexity in its exploration of the fairy tale and instead employs misplaced absurdity, explanatory flashbacks and didactic dialogue to hold the threads of the plot together, while the sensational visuals hide its holes. It seems that Tim Burton too has fallen into the technological trap of becoming preoccupied with visual spectacle and neglecting the fundamentals of storytelling, but the film will no doubt milk the box office and ride the hype of  “Disney in 3D with star studded cast a La Burton”. The child in me, who once turned to Alice in Wonderland for tumultuous comfort and confirmation that things need not always make sense for us to derive meaning, could not hide her disappointment and left feeling both unchallenged and unspooked by wearing tinted glasses in the dark.

The White Queen

Alice and the Tea Cup


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