March 16, 2010

Alice in Wonderland

From our guest poster Bonnie Norman comes this look at the newest Tim Burton flick...

Disclaimer: I didn't see this in 3D because those glasses give me a major headache, so I may not have gotten the full experience.

Set 13 years after the events of the original Alice in Wonderland, we are once again introduced to Alice Kingsley, a pale blond English girl of about 19 years of age. Alice constantly questions why things must be done a certain way, such as wearing corsets or adhering to societal norms. With the times being very proper Victorian England, Alice has many expectations weighing on her from all sides. She manages to escape them, though, when she tumbles down the rabbit hole to Wonderland, as she did when she was a child. There, she learns that she is the only one who can free Wonderland from the Red Queen's tyrannical rule, and slay the foul Jabberwocky.

Visually speaking, Alice in Wonderland is just beautiful. Bright colors, bizarre and fascinating landscapes, and of course the many interesting creatures that make up this story. Being directed by Tim Burton has done wonders for this movie. The landscapes are dark and gritty, the creatures sufficiently strange and terrifying, and the overall feeling is of a child's fairy tale turned adult and mean. Alice has returned to a Wonderland ravaged by war.

One of the best things about this movie, in my opinion, is that it's about women. The main heroine is Alice, the villain is a woman, and the one Alice champions is a woman. Getting to see Alice ride to battle in full shining knight armor, without even a special "female shaped" breastplate to spoil the scene, was seriously cool. It also passes the Bechdel test quite easily, with most conversations between women revolving around the upcoming battle and what Alice will choose to do. One memorable scene takes place between Anne Hathaway's character, The White Queen, and Mia Wasikowska's character of Alice. Alice asks the Queen why she doesn't fight the Jabberwocky herself, and with a very tongue in cheek attitude, The White Queen answers that it is against her vows. A nod to the ridiculous twist in logic needed to justify one woman being able to fight like a man, but not another?

Alice herself is a very interesting character, with much emphasis placed on her intellect and courage, as well as her ability to do what no one else can. She is meant to physically fight and slay the Jabberwocky, which is another rarity. Generally, the girls are meant to fight from a distance or outwit a monster, not go at it with a sword. The fact that Alice carriers her new-found confidence with her back into the Real World is a big plus, but also predictable.

However. The Red Queen's character in particular very much bothered me. Much is made of her oversized head, as though deformity automatically means depravity. If only she were beautiful like her sister The White Queen, she wouldn't be evil. It's a commonly held prejudice, that those who look different must somehow be wrong or evil, or that their difference somehow excuses or explains their behavior. "Well of course she's bad! Just look at her (skin color, face, ableness, etc.)!"

Another point against the movie; there are absolutely no characters of color in the entire film, either in Real World England or in Wonderland. Considering it is Victorian England and at an upper-class event, the lack of diversity is understandable. But Wonderland is an imaginary world populated by fantastical creatures and characters of all shapes, sizes, and colors. They've got singing flowers and mice with swords, but not a single POC? That's what I call a race-fail.

Overall, I liked this movie, but I didn't love it. It's a big blockbuster, so pushing the boundaries is not usually going to happen. Even with the couple of awesome female representations, there are just too many things missing from the movie for it to be truly great, including anyone not white or an anthropomorphized animal or plant. I'd call it progress in the form of an unusual heroine, the proper English girl Alice, but it doesn't try hard enough in other areas. I give it 2 stars: So Close!

5 Comments

I'm so glad you reviewed this! I honestly hadn't even much thought of it as an HC film, but you're right, there's lots here to go into. The question it leaves me with is this: how do filmmakers responsibly make fantastical worlds (like Wonderland) diverse without ending up with characters whose physical differences are just code for being "weird"? What does HBC's enlarged noggin mean in the film? If any of the human-based oddities in Wonderland (say, Johnny Depp's?) been POC, would they have read differently? Would that have been bad?

i am a big fan of both carroll's wonderland books and tim burton's movies. and yet somehow, burton's movie adaptation left me entirely blah.

it wasn't a *bad* movie, but it wasn't a great one, either. one of the gems of the original story is that alice rejects both stereotypical aspects of femininity offered to her (the overbearing red queen and the fainting white queen), and finds her own path; in burton's revised version, she's conscripted to be the (preening, delicate) white queen's champion. she doesn't quite subscribe to the white queen's version of femininity, but she doesn't reject it, either.

the oversized head of the red queen is evident in the original illustrations for the book. however, what's most interesting to me is the sideplay between the red queen and her court, where the courtiers have adopted prosthetic disfigurements to curry favor with the queen (the long nose, the big belly, the double chins, the enormous ears).

that aside, HBC's performance was hands-down the strongest in the movie. mia wasikowska is strongest at the beginning and end of the film, where she is in england. her wonderland performance (and i really think this is a weakness of the script, not the actress) is unremarkable. it makes no sense that a woman as intelligent and questioning as alice would suddenly become a shrinking violet, just because the world has turned a bit odd - or because she's dreaming. in fact, her belief for much of the wonderland experience that she's dreaming would argue for a stronger expression of her personality, not a weaker one. as the mad hatter observed, once she fell down the rabbit-hole, she lost her "muchness."

i found the movie visually spectacular in 3D, and think it should be watched that way - unfortunately, it's not worth the price of a 3D admission.

The unfortunate thing is that you may find that in films like this, where you have a "strong" female character in the forefront (especially in most action movies), that People of Color are either non-existent; or killed off, usually in quick fashion; or otherwise removed from the action as heroes. They may appear in such films or TV shows as Villains, however.

@ Heavy Armor, I'm thinking that's sadly a good description of most movies, not just most movies like this! :(

i havent watch it in 3D too, but i like Alice (and Mia, playing her ;)) and as 2D)))

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