Is There No Wonder in Wonderland? A Review of Burton’s Alice in Wonderland

What do you want when you get down the rabbit hole?  Burton begs this question in his version of Alice in Wonderland.  Folks will probably enjoy the visuals–they are delightful to watch.  But in this age of CGI, there’s not as much fanfare left for special effects.  It’s coming down quickly to who tells a good story, and I want to examine Burton’s story here.

What I like about the story of Alice in Burton’s Wonderland is that we get a detailed look at Alice’s life before the rabbit hole–especially her cloying debutante-shuffling world, where so little was expected from women, and so much was expected from their cooperation.  I like the summer dance on the lawn, the hordes who like to watch when she’s proposed to.  I like Alice.  I liked that narrative so much that I was expecting more of it when we got to Wonderland and it wasn’t there, not immediately anyway.    When I realized that Wonderland was reflecting her own re-vision of a forced duty, then it got more interesting–but that time in Wonderland feels off.

Two things happened when she got into Wonderland.  I got confused, and Wonderland was reduced to a strip of land between two kingdoms.  The premise of this movie is that Alice has been here before.  In fact, she has recurring nightmares throughout her childhood and young adulthood, and yet nothing in Wonderland sparks her memory?  Even a memory of the dream?  I don’t buy it.  If I was haunted by something, I would start recognizing people and things.  She acts like she’s never even SEEN the place.  Why doesn’t anyone try to jar her memory when they pull out the Calendria?  (When we do see her previous journey in montages it looks vaguely like the same plot…and boring)

This plot seems very focused on the end of the movie.   It’s like one big long foreshadowing.  She has to fight the Jabberwocky–everyone tells her this.  All the beautiful weird dialogue of Lewis Carroll is gone, pared away to focus on an ending that’s so inevitable we might as well have just skipped to the end.  All the characters are focussed on Alice.  This is so unlike Carroll’s version where everyone was focussed on themselves.  Alice was merely observant.  Here she does only what we expect her to do; she goes through the motions of the Eat Me/Drink Me sequence, a moment with the Mad Hatter, a second with the Cheshire cat.  She’s not even curious anymore.  Where’s Alice–Carroll’s Alice?  

Wonderland really takes on the rivalry between Elizabeth and Mary, two queens that duked it out after Henry VIII died.  I didn’t buy the petty rivalry of sisters.  What’s there to fight over?  Two courts, fully intact.  The flashback involving the Jabberwocky smoking a White Queen party—well, there weren’t any consequences.  The White Queen had a new castle, attendants, and enough white to choke the Arctic.  I didn’t get the queens at all.  There’s no reason for them to be upset, and in fact, the White Queen seems devoid of any will to fight–she has to be saved.  Her court resembled the starchy-white English party Alice just left.  And we hated that.  

Remakes where characters revisit their original stories can be good.  Hook is an excellent version of the grown up Peter Pan visiting Never Never Land.  The script was brilliant.  Burton’s Wonderland has very little wonder left–even for the characters involved.  

Yes, Carroll’s original story is obtuse and playful–it isn’t easily figured out.  But Burton scrapped the multiplicity of places in Wonderland, the depth of odd characters, and Alice’s curiosity in favor of a plot.  If you’re going to put all your money on a plot, it better work.  This one is so muddly in the middle, I just waited for there to be a reason for Alice to do something….until we see her realize that everyone is telling her what to do–in both worlds, and then she goes and does something else.  But it’s not enough.  She hurries through the epilogue in the world’s longest/shortest “I need a moment to think.” 

I liked Burton’s rescuing of Alice’s real world experiences—though she doesn’t talk about them much in Wonderland any more.  I like the ending, I like the beginning, but her time in Wonderland plays like nobody wants to be distracted by wonder anymore–they want the big battle.  Carroll’s Wonderland was about the wandering, about the figuring things out, about the wonder— but this one had few choices for Alice, a lot of inevitably and no wonder.

4 thoughts on “Is There No Wonder in Wonderland? A Review of Burton’s Alice in Wonderland

  1. Amanda Graham March 15, 2010 / 9:59

    How sad.

    I was so delighted to find out that the story is really all about math!

    See this OpEd piece by Melanie Bayley, “Algebra in Wonderland,” in NYT online (6 March 2010) here

  2. jstueart March 15, 2010 / 9:59

    Amanda, I read the piece. Amusing, but tangential at best. The author makes his case based on absurdum, and irrational numbers—when absurd and irrational may be character traits, but coincidence at best. There’s more math in his essay than proof-text. Even his “for sure” moment at the end–that Carroll was talking to adults has nothing to do with math.

    I’ve seen a better case that Queen Victoria wrote Alice in Wonderland, or this one, that Alice is about the War of the Roses.

    But I love everyone trying to find their own interpretation of it. Makes me want to write an Alice….

  3. Dan Davidson March 22, 2010 / 9:59

    We saw the Burton last week and quite enjoyed it. I was relieved that he didn’t tackle the original story and didn’t mind the Underland take on the situation. To me, grown-up Alice had spent her life trying to block the trauma of her first visit and a lot of the movie was about waking that girl up. I suppose a lot of my positive reaction to the film was my relief that it wasn’t completely Burtonized.
    Did you see the other Alice, the Syfy mini-series in which a lineal descendant of Alice gets popped into another dimension 143 years later and also has to end the tyranny of Kathy Bates’ Queen of Hearts? I only got to see it in pieces on YouTube, but I hope to be able to rent the video eventually.

  4. jackflack1516 June 18, 2010 / 9:59

    I think the liberal mediea has a problem with women doing traditional things so that’s why they make movies showing how “opressed” white men treated thier women but I disagree. I am pleased that today women can be doctors and scientist but I don’t see why any woman would want to goto war. And the zionist have made it so women HAVE to work. You can no longer survive on just one average sallary. It use to be almost asured that women would be cared for but retarded liberalist screwed that up to.

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