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Alice in Wonderland

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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  1. David Steynberg says:

    You know what, I really hate so-called spoiler alerts. I don’t see what right a few journalists have, who get to see the movie first, to introduce it to the public before its release date! I think that is highly irresponsible and selfish.
    Sheetal, I too went to the press screening last week, told all my friends that they would probably enjoy it, but didn’t give any more away. Why? Well, because they really didn’t want me telling them more than was provided in the previews! People are curious and will read your totally self-involved review because it’s right there in front of them, one click away!
    Did you realise that Alice is now older than she was in Carol’s book? She’s not a girl anymore, and with age and maturity come new insights into the world. Maybe Wonderland was alway political, but because we were seeing it through her eyes none of it was evident.
    In my opinion (for what ever it counts), Burton did a great job in the 90 minutes with such a colourful cast of characters.
    But I have to agree with you on the performance of Helena Bonham Carter. She was brilliant and I felt that she stole the light from Depp (who probably didn’t get the camera time he needed to really get under the Hatter’s skin).
    If I could give anyone a useful bit of advice it would be to go see the movie in 3D. Don’t even waste your money on an ordinary cinema.

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  2. warra says:

    david shutup

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  3. David Steynberg says:

    Nice one Warra. No, you shutup…

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  4. Warren says:

    I found the review to be largely self-obsessed and overly grandiose. It was grandiloquent in the extreme and more than a little sesquipedalian. In short it was, what we in the real world call “wanky” and the reviewer should probably get his head out of his arse. Just because you can speak in academic structures and tones does not make you a capable journalist.

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  5. pity the fools says:

    and just because you can leave a comment, doesn’t make you a valid source of commentary.

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  6. Plus One says:

    and just because you have cock doesn’t make it the biggest

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  7. David Steynberg says:

    Pity, all I was saying was that journalists shouldn’t jump the gun before the movie is released. There are certain journalistic ethics attached to the profession. It’s much like an embargo on a press release.

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  8. Sheetal says:

    @ David, I will actually certainly take that criticism, its a fine balance and perhaps I still need to get my head around how much opinion is warranted in a review.
    @ Warren, well firstly I’m a girl, and i think maybe young writers over intellectualize their articles for fear of being crucified as an idiot on this site, but touche. Self-Obsessed? or trying to communicate that a remake or adaptation will always be measured against the viewers subjective experience of the original or the text, and yet I would not have said any of the above about the The Lord of the Rings Trilogy.

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  9. David Steynberg says:

    Wasn’t it Einstein who said that the smartest people are those who can explain something that is already over-complicated in simple terms so that everyone understands? Or something along those lines.
    The point Sheetal is that many readers don’t have the time and energy (or the vocabulary) to read through something that has taken someone a week to put together (as the screening was last week).
    Just a thought when writing anything is that information is best digested in easy-to-consume pieces.

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  10. filipa says:

    couldn’t even get passed 2 lines on this one..
    why would or should i trust megans point of view? especially when all the movie reviews I’ve read on this site are really crap. so crap that most of the readers say so..and get angry. maybe thats the point. get your readers pissed off…?

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  11. Roger Young says:

    Okay, kids. Let me step in. If you want a two line puff piece giving you a synopsis of what the movie is about, there is always imdb. I know the golden age of film critique is long gone but here at mahala we don’t “review” films (if we did you’d have about four a week) we discuss films, the intentions of the film makers and whether they succeeded or not and we try to do this from a personal level.

    @David I’m very impressed that you went to the preview and had the balls not to tell anyone about the film. But why is it that you went to the preview? Does the distributor pay you to hype their products?
    Your idea that “information is best digested in easy-to-consume pieces” is the very thing that is destroying intelligent mainstream film and probably the reason for that ridiculous battle sequence at the end of this film.

    @filipa – Why should you trust anyone’s point of view? We’re not asking you to, we’re not even asking you to read it. But if you plan to judge it, at least have the decency to try read it all the way through and not go off half cocked.

    @Warren – Valid critique on the grandiloquent part, I disagree on the self obsessed, film is personal.

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  12. David Steynberg says:

    Roger I’m a journalist. I was invited by the distributor to the press screening and as far as can see my initial comment contained no hype.
    My gripe was not neccessarily with the review itself (or discussion as you put it), my problem is a write up on the film based on having seen it before its official release. That’s just ethics as far as I’m concerned – something that has flown out the window in the age where anyone with a keyboard can become a critic, journalist or writer.
    And why is easy-to-understand writing destroying intelligent mainstream film? Not sure I understand the point you’re trying to make.
    I agree with the final battle sequence though. I think the death of Burton’s budget at the end of filming must have meant that he didn’t have more time to make the film longer and thus give a better battle sequence with more tension.

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  13. Roger Young says:

    @david – “I too went to the press screening last week, told all my friends that they would probably enjoy it, but didn’t give any more away. Why? Well, because they really didn’t want me telling them more than was provided in the previews!”

    Well, David, if it was all in the previews, what exactly is your role?

    Also, I wasn’t saying that the battle sequence itself was bad (although yes it was) I’m saying the inclusion of a battle sequence and the build up to reduces Lewis Carrol’s tale to a substandard “Chronicles If Narnia” esque adaptation, this is a product of film makers having to make film for people who like their films unchallenging, and in easily digestible chunks.

    The role of the critic (not the reviewer) is to translate the art into the zeitgeist. I actually abore the statement “spoiler alert” because quite frankly if you don’t want to know anything you shouldn’t have picked up the newspaper in the first place. And yes I said newspaper, this is not a new thing, Rex Reed and Pauline Kael were giving disussions on films that contained vital plot points way before the internet. A film should not stand on surprise, as that will lead it to fall apart on repeated viewings, rather the craft of film is to make us feel that surprise that anticipation vitally on every re watching.

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  14. Anon says:

    Gotta agree with Roger on this one, surely we shouldn’t be encouraging our young writers to fabricate dumbed down promotional material, certainly not on Mahala. It is a verbose review, but the insights are sound and even entertaining. She’s got potential, keep writing.

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  15. Rettambuli says:

    I thought the review was fluent and solid and look forward to hearing more from you hon…

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  16. bob says:

    ummm… Roger I think you mean abhor, not abore

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  17. Anonymous says:

    I think the piece had some interesting insights and was a colourful read – though I have to agree, it was sometimes over academic and verbose. I too am a writer and a journalist and had to learn to walk the fine line between basking in the glory of my own vocabulary and writing something that people would actually want to read. That said, I like the edginess of the article (and Mahala as a whole) and I look forward to reading more from this writer.

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  18. Anonymous says:

    FFS it’s a film review – take it for what it is! It seems like some readers here are expecting something that you can submit for a literary prize…

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  19. Anonymous says:

    PS I skimmed through the review and found it to be really good – for what it is!

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  20. Jip de Jagger says:

    You know, i hardly ever bother with the articles on this site. I go straight to the comments, they’re more fun. People take themselves and their big expensive brains WAAAAAAAAAY too seriously. Seriously. LOLZ.

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  21. hakar-g says:

    I thought you touched on the important facts of the film which really makes Burton’s movie stand out more.

    It was a beautiful movie and should be seen in any cinema, you can just appreciate the art of Tim Burton, the man is pure genius.

    Danny Elfman’s music is also a must hear, his score of Wonderland really transcends the feel from the screen through your ears. its magic!

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