I’ve recently returned home from a disappointing Alice in Wonderland. Like many other people, I think my expectations were too high. When you hear Tim Burton and Johnny Depp in the same sentence it almost always means something magic, add to that a mythical world of upside down that is really right side up, and how can you go wrong? Well …
An adult Alice, age 19, returns to Wonderland to avoid a forced marriage proposal and finds herself a key figure in the counterrevolutionary plot to overthrow the Red Queen and reinstate the White one. Accompanying her on her journey are all of the familiar characters from the original novel and a few new ones.
I was almost immediately taken out of the film by the trite mobilization of banal “feminist issues” in the beginning of the movie. Don’t give me a sad morality tale about a “poor girl” and a boorish aristocrat, “spice it” w/ a cheating husband, and expect me to be politically moved, especially if you intend to drop the whole thing for “the real story” later anyway. Let’s get clear, Burton’s re-imagined Alice is feminist enough without this transparent packaging. She is courageous, strong, clever, and loyal. She also single-handedly bests or subdues several beasts in this film and stays true to herself no matter what others want or expect of her. Though powerful in Wonderland, Alice is reduced to caricature by a script that has her rehashing a trite marriage plot at the beginning of the film, then simply dodging it at the end by telling off ever single person involved, one after the other, in a far too tidy ending.
Worse, Alice’s seeming empowerment when she rejects the marriage, fails to empower any of the other women present. She does not tell her sister about her husband’s infidelity, though she does warn him that she is watching him, nor does she stand up for her mother or her aunt. Instead, she tells her “crazy aunt” whose “crime” is not getting married, and being driven slightly crazy by the judgment she endures as a result, that she needs to get over her fantasy life because no one is coming to marry her. What could have been a moment of shared triumph between Alice and her Aunt as self-directed women with active fantasy lives, turns into an ugly and dismissive gesture that seems to utterly contradict the empowerment Alice is supposed to have gained through her own fantasy world.
Nor is Alice’s empowerment very meaningful in and of itself. Moments after claiming the right to go her own way, she proposes a plan to the man who has bought her father’s company to increase their profits. There is no attempt by Alice to get the company back, presumably bought because women cannot be left in charge. While this is at least historically accurate, in the next breath the new head of the company offers Alice an “apprenticeship” for her ideas. It’s her father’s company and her ideas, yet she is not offered anything like the inheritance she would have gotten were she a man nor that she has earned on her own. You can’t have it both ways. If we are going to stick to history, Alice could not have been an apprentice sailing off to China on her own and if we are going to offer fantasy with a feminist twist, then why not give her mother back the company or at least partnership in it?
There are no people of color in Alice in Wonderland. There is however colonialism. Not only does Alice resolve the unwanted marriage proposal with an individualized rant at various people, but she also proposes that her father’s company expand to China. This seems harmless enough, but colonial and Asian historians will shutter at the image of young blond blue-eyed Alice helming a boat to “open the markets in China” at film’s end. What is sad is that this is the way many white women in Victorian England escaped marriage and found empowerment, ie boarding boats and participating in colonialism to increase their station in life.
I also found myself thinking for the very first time: are there ever people of color in Tim Burton’s films? The answer that came back was telling since it hits on the next issue, dis/ability … The only film I could think of was Big Fish in which two Asian American women play conjoined twins.
Dis/Ability and Physical Difference
One of the things I have always loved about Burton is the way he embraces the strange, unique, and different. His worlds have always offered us characters that live outside the norm and often invite scorn from normative characters who turn out to be the more flawed. In the magical worlds of Burton unique characters are central, movingly human, and illuminating. While Alice in Wonderland gives us some of that in Johnny Depp’s Hatter, there is very little elsewhere.
In fact, the story hinges on a conflict between two Queens, the good one is able bodied and all white (except for some black eyebrows and black nail polish) in an all white world, and the bad one is best known for her big head and even bigger temper. The Red Queen’s head is the source of endless speculation, mockery, and even an ablist comment from the White Queen about her mental health as evidenced by her physical appearance. As if the emphasis on the Red Queen’s physical difference were not bad enough, everyone in the Red Queen’s court has some kind of physical issue. There are women with huge noses, ears, and pointed breasts, and men with paunches and eye patches. No human in her court is without some visible physical difference and everyone in her court is in some way morally corrupt.
Even though it is later revealed that most of the people in her court are faking it, the film fails to make the connection between their passing and their fear of the Red Queens judgment. While it would be easy to interpret the court as sycophants who exaggerated their features in order to suck up to the Red Queen, 1. this continues to center physical difference as a sign of corruption and failure and 2. Burton and the screenwriters do not do enough to depict the Red Queen’s court as three dimensional characters who both fear and loath her enough to act this way. Instead, the exaggerated body parts are played for comic effect and then torn off when needed to move the plot forward, much like Alice’s real world feminist dilemmas. Worse, the only two people punished at film’s end have actual physical differences while all of the able bodied characters on both sides remain free.
(It should be noted however, that characters with mental differences are actually on the side of the White Queen. While this does balance out the dis/ability issues on one level, mental health issues are no less positive in this film. Instead, we are given a hare who looks like someone chewed it up and spit it out, who mutters to himself and throws things at everyone’s head, while he is universally ignored and the Hatter whose bouts of PTS are often sharply corrected by Alice as if his abilities are a choice. Thus while their presence contradicts the differently-abled=bad, able-bodied=good paradigm, they do little to correct ablism in general nor the emphasis on physical difference as evil. Honestly, the ablism in this film is incredibly jarring given Burton’s classic, Edward Scissor Hands, and his wonder-inducing embrace of difference in all of his films.)
Character development in general is one of the major flaws of this film. Very few human creatures in this film are three dimensional. As a result, Burton’s attempts at visually deconstructing them is often lost. Like the ablist portrayal of sycophants in the Red Queen’s court, the White Queen’s constant pose with her hands “just so” like a fairy from Cinderella fails to resonate as a critique of her “overwhelming goodness” precisely because she herself never moves beyond the flat representation she embodies. Since the film ends with her win over the Red Queen, there is no structural critique of the “good queen” archetype either. Burton’s more subtle reference to the White Queen’s decision to study undead arts does a better job, but it is a fleeting glimpse at his genius that is otherwise sorely absent here.
The conflict between the two Queens and how it plays out also contradicts the trite nod to feminism at the beginning of the film. In Wonderland, we are given a world in which female leadership is reduced to “who is more loved.” Though the Red Queen makes references to the difference in the way she and her sister, the White Queen, were treated growing up, no real attention is paid to her complaints. Her desperation to be loved is played for comic relief and scorn rather than presented as a possible counternarrative to ablism linked to physical difference. And while Alice’s entrance into the conflict re-centers female power, both Queen’s wage their war with male champions, male spies, and male heroes prior.
On the positive side, most of the animals in Alice and Wonderland are far more complex than the 2-D humans. For the most part, their motivations and their desires are well thought out and their loyalties and actions convey a complexity that the original story relied upon. Alan Rickman’s caterpillar is appropriately condescending and wise. I think his casting was a stroke of genius even if his delivery of the famous line “who are you” was not slowed down enough for my liking. The Cheshire Cat’s comedic timing was also a highlight of the film.
The animation related to the animal characters is where the creative team shines. For the most part, I don’t think this film needed to be in 3 D as much of its wonder is no more spectacular than any 2D Burton film (which is both a compliment to Burton’s previous vision and a slight against the rush to 3 D film in Hollywood). While some of the animation for the dog was somewhat questionable at times, the animation for the Cheshire Cat made me fall in love with this character all over again.
Interestingly, despite their centrality, the Red Queen only keeps animals who can help her oppress others and like the humans of her court, she keeps them in line through cruelty. At least one of the animals in her court has its eye torn out and nothing is done to heal it. When Alice returns the creature’s eye, it in turn heals Alice’s wound. So there is some subtle comment on animal rights here as well, it is just too bad that it is still couched in the physical difference narrative of the film.
Ultimately Alice in Wonderland is another visually stunning film from team Burton. Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter give two of the better performances in the film, though Depp’s in and out brogue is distracting. The newcomer playing Alice also does a good job, but the rest of the human actors are either wasted or phoning it in. The people in the real world are particularly two-dimensional and it is hard to separate the failures of the writing from those of the actors because their time on screen is so brief and insignificant.
The storyline is updated and yet retains much of the interesting lyricism and quirkiness of the original while losing the stark class critique. As long as the movie stayed in Wonderland it was compelling, but when it leaves that magical world it falls as flat as matzoh (unleavened bread). In the real world, the story is contrived and borderline offensive in its easy attempts to mobilize a throwaway feminism that never really comes to fruition.
With regards to diversity, there is very little, and what is there is sadly invested in oppressive narratives.
If you haven’t gone to the theater yet, I’d suggest renting Burton’s Alice in Wonderland or at least going during the matinee. Only pay for 2D unless you have a thing for 3D b/c it isn’t necessary for the majority of the movie and in my theater several people complained of eye problems or headaches during and after the showing, including my movie companion and myself. (This may have been a result of human error at the showing, but still, if you go to the 2 D version, you don’t have to worry poorly calibrated tech is going to cause you pain for no reason.)
And if you want my honest advice: skip this movie until it comes on cable and go rent Alice, a SyFy Channel import that was far more creative and interesting despite a much lower budget. (Review of Alice forthcoming, see: Go Ask Alice Pt II.)