ALICE IN WONDERLAND: Alice Among the Assh*les

Alice in Wonderland (2010) – Directed by Tim Burton – Starring Mia Wasikowska, Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Crispin Glover, Matt Lucas, and Anne Hathaway; Featuring the Voices of Stephen Fry, Alan Rickman, Michael Sheen, Barbara Windsor, Timothy Spall, and Christopher Lee.

Every movie has a message, whether it wants to have one or not. In Tim Burton’s ALICE IN WONDERLAND, the message is this: You have to do what’s expected of you before you can do what you want. As messages go, it’s not a bad one, especially in early 21st century America, where it seems everyone is expected to either go to college, join the military, or get a low-paying, hard-working job. Societies tend to work this way; the general populace wants to watch films about individualists but they don’t want them mucking up the agreed-upon system. The hope of Burton’s message is that you have to earn your own path – but it is a path that is attainable. Just do what others want until you have enough capital to tell them you’re flying away.

It is critically important that Burton reinforces this idea at the film’s end; Alice has come back to Earth from post-apocalyptic Underland and convinces Lord Ascot, her father’s old would-be business partner, that she’s got a daring, bold plan to make them money, and he takes her on as an apprentice. The film’s final scene is Alice boarding a ship, bound for China, where she’ll be the first to open trade with that nation. (More in a moment.) Only one character that we’ve seen comes with her, and that is Absolem (the blue hookah-smoking caterpillar that comes to her now as a blue butterfly; voiced by Alan Rickman). Absolem is the only character in the film who’s primary involvement with Alice is to get her to realize her own potential.

Other than Absolem and Lord Ascot, every other character who has a major interaction with Alice wants her to do what they want and not what she wants. It could even be argued that Absolem wants Alice to know who she is so she fulfills the prophecy to fight the Jabberwocky, but at least his method is to allow her to come to her own conclusion. Both Absolem and Ascot get something from Alice’s choices (Absolem gets Underland saved, Ascot gets potentially richer), but Alice is in control of both.

Really, then, in both England and Underland, Alice is surrounded by self-serving assholes who expect her to act based on what’s best for them, whether she’s interested or not.

It’s an interesting and not wholly effective technique. While it’s nice to see a fairy tale where not only is the fantasy world just as demanding towards our hero as the real world but where the hero recognizes and resents it, the technique also makes it hard to root for Alice going along with the Underland crowd. Granted, someone has to kill the Jabberwocky, one supposes, but by the time Alice is being pressured by the White Queen you really just wish she’d toss the Vorpal Sword into a lake and tell these nutbags to sort out their own issues.

Because the only real difference between the Red Queen (Carter) and the White Queen (Hathaway) is that Her Whiteness isn’t quick with the killing. Hathaway plays her wonderfully as a flighty, passive-aggressive, off-her-rocker Queen that seems the very embodiment of being the lesser of two evils. She’s Obama to the Red Queen’s McCain, or maybe more accurately Al Gore to Red’s George W – neither of them are actual leaders, but depending on one’s point-of-view, one would certainly seem to be a little less offensive.

Nineteen year-old Alice’s pre-Underland life (or more accurately, her time in between trips to the fantasy land) sees her mother attempting to marry her off to Lord Ascot’s son, who’s rich, but a loser, and is just trying to trap Alice further into high society life. Alice’s mom isn’t an evil witch or anything (Ascot’s wife fills this role nicely), but that’s the point; it’s not just the mean that trap you, it’s the weak and meek who simply strap themselves in and ride the ride. There’s a huge scene at the Ascot estate that’s all boring dancing and society-demanded behavior. There’s a huge level of phoniness to it all, of course, as evidenced by Alice’s brother-in-law making out with someone who’s not his wife, but the overriding existence of this whole party sequence is to show us how trapped Alice is by society’s expectations.

Cool.

Burton does a good job of not overplaying the hand too much – we get the message a few times but we’re getting it from different people so it provides a sense of how completely trapped Alice is and not just that there’s a singular wicked stepmother responsible for everything bad.

But when Alice leaves Ascot’s kid on bended knee, waiting for an answer as the entire fancy pants crowd watches, you’re ready for her to jump down the rabbit hole – or the hole beneath a tree, as it’s played here – and get on with it.

Perhaps because Burton has an Alice on the verge of womanhood instead of one that’s a child, the demands of Underland’s expectations really pop in this version. Almost everything Alice does in Underland is every bit the society-driven expectation that she’s experiencing from the jerks back home.

She lands in a round room full of doors, and a vial tells her to “Drink This.” Then she finds a cake that tells her to “Eat This.” There is no explanation or hint as to the consequences of these actions because Alice is beneath whomever left the food for her to find. Alice dutifully drinks and eats and drinks again and finds herself in Underland, where the local community of greeters dismisses her as not the real Alice, even though they don’t know for sure.

She needs to be “the right Alice,” you see, because the right Alice is foretold to be the slayer of the Jabberwocky on Frabjous Day, whatever the stupid that means.

Alice has fled from a society that expects her to act a certain way only to land in a society that expects her to act a certain way.

Alice is convinced this is all a dream because if it’s not a dream then she might probably run off and leave this assholes waiting like she did the fancy pants at Ascot’s.

At this point I got frustrated with the movie and sighed loudly several times, which only succeeded in bringing Darwin into the room, looking to be taken for a walk. Which I did. Because the expectations of a dog who might soil your rug are never to be denied.

Why did I keep watching? Well, for starters, ALICE really is a beautiful movie to watch. Despite getting yet another run down fantasy world, Burton offers up a wide palette of bright, vibrant colors, which combined with visually striking fantasy creatures (some CGI, some CGI/live combos). The visuals are so good that you’ll almost forget that Burton used to be strange for a reason and not just because he can, and honestly, this is his best use of the weird since Big Fish.

Simply put, ALICE is the prettiest live action cartoon since SPEED RACER.

Underland’s animals all look amazing, from the fantastical Bandersnatch to the chess piece and playing card armies of the Queens White and Red. The backgrounds look amazing, the digital and make-up enhanced Crispin Glover and Helena Bonham Carter look great, and there is a constant shifting of colors so your eyes never get bored looking at the same palette over and over again.

You can tell real professionals put this film together and that’s worth a lot – though not nearly everything.

I’m a thousand-plus words into this reaction and I have yet to mention Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter. Here’s why: the character is rather useless.

Of all the main characters in the film, it’s the Hatter who’s the least important. You could drop him out of this film and it wouldn’t be worse for it. That’s not a knock on Depp, who does what he can with this role, but the Hatter is neither compelling nor interesting. He used to work for the White Queen and now he doesn’t and he’s crazy. Bravely, I suppose, he’s not even crazy like a fox. He’s just weirdly nuts with his brain quick to scatter; this makes him sympathetic to Alice, but not to me because he’s using her as much as anyone else. He gets points for saving her from the Knave of Hearts (Glover) but he immediately takes her to the White Queen, though they don’t arrive.

Everyone just wants Alice to get the Vorpal Sword so she can kill the Jabberwocky because they all suck too much to do it themselves. There’s something here about how societies can be trapped by prophecies but that’s a comment about fantasy worlds more than real worlds and really, the film doesn’t do anything with it. We’re just supposed to accept it. Well, screw that, I’ve got a new story idea; thanks, Tim Burton, for not thinking too hard about the story. There’s also something here about how societies can have their spark beaten out of them by dictators, and that they can end up simply wishing for rescue instead of doing anything about it themselves, but the film doesn’t do anything with that, either.

In fact, the real big moment for the Hatter is when the Cheshire Cat helps him escape his beheading and he rallies the animals of Underland to rise up against the Red Queen. They do, and they all (like, maybe 6 of them) hurry off to the White Queen’s place, where they … well, where they try to convince Alice to do the real fighting.

Because that’s what the prophecy says.

ALICE IN WONDERLAND is totally that movie that starts out with a solid idea, sets it up reasonably well, and then the wheels don’t fall off so much as they sputter to a halt. For all the crazy, wild, strange things one finds in Underland, it would be nice to have found an engaging narrative, as well.

Alice ends up accepting her place in the prophecy, mostly because she feels bad for Hatter, I think, and she kills Christopher Lee in Jabberwocky form by beheading the big dragon thing. She actually cheezes out a “Off with your head!” before delivering the final blow, meaning maybe Tim Burton has a soft spot for those awful Joel Schumaker Batman films that came after his Michael Keaton movies.

Returning to England, Alice tells everyone off at the wedding except for Lord Ascot, whom she convinces to go off and exploit China before anyone else gets there to do it first. I guess it’s not unexpected that Alice’s reaction to being used and trapped would be to simply flip the dynamic and put herself in a position of power, but it’s a trifling turn of suck to see such an independent spirit simply buy into the existing system of colonial exploitation.

Alice’s best moment in Underland is her experiences with the Bandersnatch. When they first meet, he tries to eat her, giving her a set of nasty Wolverine-styled slashes across her arm. Mallymkun the dormouse sticks her sword into the Bandersnatch’s right eye and rips it from his head, helping to save Alice. Later, Alice takes the eye back from the mouse, who carries it around as a trophy, and gives it back to the Bandersnatch. They become uneasy allies, at first, as he allows her to steal the Vorpal Sword that he’s been protecting, but when the Red Queen’s army threatens Alice’s life, the Bandersnatch saves her.

It’s a nice arc of overcoming differences, of the monster rejecting society’s expectations to embrace his own path, but the film’s narrative drops him soon after. It’s a rare, but well-realized moment of striking out on one’s own for selfless reasons, but no one seems to notice.

Alice certainly misses the message. Maybe in the sequel, someone in China can set her straight.

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