Alice in Wonderland

[Christianity Today Movies; March 5, 2010]

Stars:  2

Cast: Johnny Depp (Mad Hatter), Mia Wasikowska (Alice), Helena Bonham Carter (Red Queen), Anne Hathaway (White Queen), Crispin Glover (Stayne – Knave of Hearts)

This is not your grandmother’s Alice. Though the title is the same, director Tim Burton did not film a new version of the classic novels by British clergyman and logician Lewis Carroll (1832-1898), Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass. Instead, Burton and screenwriter Linda Woolverton have moved the action forward 13 years. Now Alice, almost 20, is attending a garden party where the unappealing son of a local lord intends to propose marriage. Fleeing him, and pursuing a white rabbit, Alice kneels at the base of a tree and peers down an immense hole. Then she falls in.

The seemingly-endless falling is well-executed, as Alice dodges various objects, including a grand piano. She lands upside-down on a ceiling, her hair standing on end. She falls to the floor and discovers she is in a small, round room—a dingy and decaying room, subtly ominous—and tries each of the doors that ring it. As in the book, she discovers a door that is too tiny for her to exit and drinks a shrinking potion; then discovers she has forgotten the key on the glass tabletop and nibbles a growing-cake to retrieve it; then drinks the potion to shrink again, and at last passes through the door. This entire sequence is excellent, though there is the one curious element that Alice’s clothes do not shrink and grow with her, a convenience usually employed in such scenes. Instead, her clothing has to be adjusted each time, a problem which may occupy some viewers’ thoughts more than is strictly necessary.

On the other side of the door Alice immediately runs into a crowd of odd figures—a Dormouse, Dodo bird, Blue Caterpillar, and the Tweedles—who launch into an absurd discussion of whether this is or is not the “right Alice.” Their bickering conversation is worthy of Carroll.

But with that I’m nearing the limit of what I can praise. It turns out that Wonderland has been waiting to Alice to return, because it is prophesied that she will slay the Jabberwocky and restore the White Queen to her rightful throne, and free the citizens from the wicked Red Queen. Yes, the film turns into an action movie, with a now overly-familiar CGI battle sequence at the end. Alice even has to get into a suit of armor and fight the dragon-beast with a sword. The original Alice stories are odd, strange, unsettling, dreamlike, and wholly unpredictable; “Lord of the Rings with a Girl” is as predictable as they come.

It’s even worse, though. The Wonderland adventures are framed with another story. In the opening scene, we see a group of Victorian men debating international trade. (Huh?) When Alice, age 6, comes in to report a bad dream, her dad kindly puts her to bed again. She asks if her strange dreams mean she has “gone round the bend.” Dad smiles and says yes, “You’re bonkers—but the best people are.”

(This theme of it being a grand thing to be mentally ill is reinforced over and over. It doesn’t seem to have done the Mad Hatter much good, though. And Alice’s Aunt Imogen, who delusionally thinks she is engaged to a prince, is not allowed to continue her comforting fantasy; Alice informs her flatly, “There is no prince.”)

At the movie’s end, Alice re-emerges at the garden party, refuses the young man’s hand, and then speaks to his father—one of her dad’s partners of old, it turns out, and now owner of the company. She talks of the thrill of international trading, and stresses particularly the opportunity to be the first to initiate trade with China. The lord is impressed, and invites her to be his apprentice. In the final sequence we see Alice standing nobly on the deck of a ship, heading out to the open sea.

This is wrong on so many counts it’s hard to know where to start. It’s a dud, dramatically, to go from multicolored Wonderland to the world of business planning.  It’s hard to picture capitalism as the ideal calling for the girl who fell down a rabbit hole. And were those 19th century international corporations really so admirable? In the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies, Depp’s character fights against exactly the same type of business that Alice champions here.

And did it have to be China? Won’t some history-savvy viewers wonder how many years Alice can profit from that nation, before its citizens rise up against foreigners in the Boxer Rebellion? “Let’s be first to trade in China” is a bit like “Let’s be first to invest in the Hindenburg.”

It’s surprising, too, that the message this movie hammers home with a mallet is that a woman can be more fulfilled climbing the corporate ladder than having a husband and family. We heard a lot of this 30 or 40 years ago, but reality has turned out to be a lot more complex than that false choice made it appear. The baldness of this “I am Woman, Hear Me Roar” assertion, demonstrated by Alice in Wonderland of all possible characters, makes the movie look outdated.

This film isn’t lacking in delightful moments; there just aren’t enough of them. Some elements of the story are buried in the noise and haste. For example, characters sometimes speak in an ancient Red-Queen-subversive dialect, but that is never explained, and if you didn’t know that you’d assume they’re mumbling. I enjoyed Helena Bonham Carter as the Red Queen, but Depp’s Mad Hatter, though extravagantly attired and made up, vacillates too much to come into focus. I expect he was trying to convey the exploded personality of a schizophrenic, but a more run-of-the-mill lunatic would have been an easier leading character to follow.

The pace is so frantic that there’s no time to savor scenes and characters that might have rewarded the attention. When I came home from the movie and read over the list of characters, I was surprised to learn that the Jabberwocky beast was portrayed by Christopher Lee, the venerable British actor who was the wizard Saruman in the Ring trilogy. I can’t remember the Jabberwocky having any spoken lines, though. If they put the 88-year-old Lee in a motion-capture suit and had him run up a spiral flight of stairs and swing through the air on wires, well, my hat’s off to him. But I expect his performance was obliterated by the busy-ness, as other good tidbits may have been.

I don’t think it’s wrong to create a whole new story out of an old character; I rather enjoyed the new Sherlock Holmes. But this Alice is a dud. If you want to experience a strange, unworldly story—something like Tim Burton films used to provide—stay home and read the book.

Talk About It:

1. The statement comes up several times that “the best people” are insane. Yet genuine insanity causes great pain, fear, and loneliness. What do you think the film is trying to praise, if not literal mental illness?

2. Throughout the Wonderland adventure it’s not clear whether the events are Alice’s dream (as she keeps insisting) or reality. At the end, she comes back to the garden party disheveled and with her dress muddy. What do you think we are supposed to conclude about the reality of the Wonderland adventure?

3. The White Queen states a couple of times that she “cannot take the life of any living thing” because it is against her “vows.” Yet a great deal of bloodshed takes place on her behalf and under her command. Is the movie trying to have it both ways—deploring violence while employing it to make the story exciting?

Family Corner: The extraordinary makeup and costumes may be scary to young children. There are some violent moments and a battlefield sequence. A mouse plucks the eye from a monster and from then on carries it in a pouch. The most disturbing sight is the Red Queen’s moat, filled with mire and pale, bobbing severed heads; Alice walks across it by stepping from one head to another.

About Frederica Mathewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service,, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fourteen grandchildren.

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