Raising Trouble: Tim Burton's “Alice”

Liza Featherstone
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“How did the dodo become distinct?” Ivan, my four-year-old, wanted to know. We had no idea, but once we grasped the meaning behind his malapropism, we realized this was something we’d like to know, too. Reading Lewis Carroll’s classic Alice in Wonderland, with the hilariously odd John Tenniel illustrations, raises such questions.

Disney’s Alice in Wonderland, directed by Tim Burton, does not inspire investigations of this kind.

No matter how subtle and cerebral – or in the case of Lewis Carroll’s 1865 tale, wonderfully meandering and weird – the original story, these days, Hollywood will figure out how to transform it into an action movie. Market research on children, conducted by entertainment companies, shows that kids do almost always want more action. But most parents have also noticed that children want whatever they’re accustomed to – if we stopped for a muffin after school yesterday, they want a muffin again today, and they want to eat it sitting in exactly the same spot. Since kids are increasingly used to movies that look and sound like video games, they expect movies to deliver that same noisy, chaotic experience and tend to “like” them more when they do.

More action means more violence, and Alice was no exception. It’s remarkable that Carroll’s brainy, plotless tale of fanciful wordplay could become a fiesta of bloodshed and mayhem. Violence in kids’ media contributes significantly to violent behavior, especially in boys, so such objections are not prissy matters of taste.

Of course, there’s a grisly undercurrent to Carroll’s original story – with the Red Queen cavalierly ordering executions, and menacing creatures popping up everywhere. That nightmarish quality appeals to kids. (In the leisurely garden-party opening sequence to the movie, Ivan kept asking impatiently, “Where are the scary things? Where’s the Red Queen?” He loves “bad guys and bad shes.”) Helena Bonham Carter’s lusciously evil Red Queen probably would have made the movie entertaining enough for kids, but Disney had to add warfare into the mix, plus a monster that needed to be decapitated.

And don’t get me started on how dumb and unnecessary it was to make Alice in 3-D.

But the good news is that the movie is gorgeous, and Johnny Depp is totally bananas as the Mad Hatter. Also, in an era when kids are deluged with Princesses and other hyper-girly stereotypes, Alice (played by the winningly smart Mia Wasikowska, who was equally terrific as a messed-up teenager on HBO’s shrink series In Treatment) is a wonderfully imaginative, independent character. She struggles with Victorian high society’s expectations for young women, and ultimately bears a sword, slays a ferocious monster and returns home to take her father’s business global.

Disney’s is kind of a tepid liberal feminism, but that’s far more badass and entertaining than no feminism at all. (Although, have I mentioned? Disney sucks?) Alice is not alone: There have been a number of other awesome girl characters in kids’ movies recently. Take Susan, Dreamworks’ computer-animated heroine of last year’s Monsters vs. Aliens, for example, who is nobody’s helpless princess, and, in a nice feminist allegory, has to deal with a douche of a boyfriend who breaks up with her when she turns into a giant.

Ivan doesn’t want to see Alice again. But inspired by this dubious Hollywood product, we’ve been having a fine time reading the book. The 19th-century Alice is no swashbuckler, but her verbal skills are excellent. And now we know why the dodo became distinct.

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14 Comments Have Been Posted

"No matter how subtle and

"No matter how subtle and cerebral – or in the case of Lewis Carroll’s 1865 tale, wonderfully meandering and weird – the original story, these days, Hollywood will figure out how to transform it into an action movie. "

Agreed! I felt like they tried to turn this in to some epic adventure, which is not, what I think, Lewis Carroll had in mind. It lost the cleverness and playfulness of the book for more action and dark visuals that are weird, but don't have the words to back them up (sorry—having a hard time articulating this).

And the action wasn't all that interesting anyway — it felt visually and thematically, like a re-hash of the other Hollywood blockbuster adventure films like Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter (full disclosure—I'm a massive Lord of the Rings fan, but I don't want it mixing with my 'Alice').

Great post, Liza. I was

Great post, Liza. I was particularly disappointed that the film collided that tepid liberal feminism with an entrepreneurialism I didn't recall from the original. I agree that much was lost in the pointless 3D translation, but when I'm so desperate for a female lead I'll go to Disney, who then adds a massive dose of good-old boot-strap capitalism-as-savior? Barf, barf barf.

The movie "Alice in

The movie "Alice in Wonderland" is based on *both* "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" and "Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There." The latter is basically about a chess game--a game abput warfare--and *is* framed like an epic adventure as Alice crosses each brook, in the end being crowned queen with the help of several men long the way.
I haven't yet seen the film but from what I can surmise from plot summaries Burton has turned the poem Jabberwocky--in which a boy must decapitate a monster with the "vorpal" sword--into part of the plot of the two combined books. My further assumption is that the inheritance of her father's business is either a modernization of running a "queendom" or simply an extension of the "girls can do anything" theme. I would guess that had Burton chose monarchy over capitalism for this theme then some feminists would be upset over the "barf-iness" of imperialism.

and yes, kaylynuke, it is

and yes, kaylynuke, it is true that the movie is based on "Through the Looking Glass" as well as Carroll's first book, and you are right that TLG is more like an adventure story. but it still doesn't translate at all into a traditional action flick.
and you're right that burton has made jabberwocky part of the plot -- one of the most absurd elements of the movie. in the book it's simply a nonsensical poem, but hollywood just couldn't resist the lure a of having a monster to kill.

...it's a nonsensical poem

...it's a nonsensical poem which also couldn't resist the lure of having a monster to kill.

<i>One, two! One, two! and through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.</i>

I think you and I must have read different poems.

Thank you

Thank you for confirming all my fears and misgivings. Why does Tim Burton continue to sabotage any chance that I could love, even respect, his work? *sigh*

Do you find any issue of race here? cause I kind of did...

Hmm. Now I am in NO WAY claiming to be an expert on this matter, Im caucasian and a student but I was sort of struck by a kind of almost racist aspect. The fact that not only are all the characters whited out but [ not to mention that they are whited out in spite of the fact that most of the cast is already exceptionally fair skinned] also that the "good" characters such as the White queen seemed to me to almost look even whiter then the "Bad" characters like the Red Queen. I thought you could even make these arguments based on there names alone. Also the mad hatter who while he is not evil, he is unreliable and "mad" is noticeably darker skinned to me.

I just noticed there were NO

I just noticed there were NO people of color at all. Which, although it does take place in high society Britain was still noticeable. I didn't notice the darker skin tones within the all the white people though...

Hey Anonymous, It wouldn't

Hey Anonymous,

It wouldn't be surprising if there was a racial subtext to Lewis Carroll's text ("White" queen good, "Red" queen bad), conscious or unconscious, given that he was a white guy writing in nineteenth century imperialist Britain. his illustrator, john Tenniel, was quite an imperialis; he did very racist cartoons of Irish nationalists (at the time, the Irish were not considered "white" by many british upper-class folks).

How to handle those representational issues in a movie adaptation in 2010 is an interesting question, and one I'm guessing Burton may not have considered as fully as he should have.

thanks everyone for the awesome comments!! smartest comments of any blog I have EVER participated in. keep em coming.

Even more impressive...

<p>Small nitpick -- Alice didn't take over her father's company, but the company of the man who was supposed to become her father-in-law. And the man doesn't balk a bit at the prospect. I thought that was pretty cool; more cool than if she'd simply taken over her father's business. </p><p>As for the 3-D thing and kids getting accustomed to what they're used to...I gotta say I'm a little concerned about that. I actually loved the subtlety of some of the 3-D effects in *Alice in Wonderland*, the places where it was more about texture than about creatures' heads popping through the screen. But all the previews for upcoming movies in 3-D, and the fact that 3-D televisions are hitting the market next year, made me wonder if a new generation just isn't going to be able to handle &quot;flat&quot; media.  </p>

Even smaller nitpick, Andi,

Even smaller nitpick, Andi, but one that gets to a relevant point—Alice doesn't take over any company whatsoever, she was merely offered a position within it. Yes, obviously a position with leadership and responsibility, but although I can't remember the exact position on offer, my mind interpreted it as "intern".

Of course it would have bit

Of course it would have bit a bit ridiculous if she was just offered the whole company itself. But I don't think she was at an intern level. She was suggesting major business 'moves' and in the end left on a boat to clearly make business connections abroad.

Askance at Alice

Liza, you blog got me thinking about my kids and my relationship to the movies they watch.

Given that we live in the Bay Area, we can't help but have friends that are more hardcore than we are on a number of parenting issues--there are the no sugar friends, the no dairy products-meat-or-wheat friends, the no-pink-for-my-girls-or-swords-for-my-boys friends, the no-plastic, rubber, silicone or things-with-batteries friends, and many many other variations of things that people are categorically against that I've never even thought about.

But when it comes to movies/videos/television and the-like, not to mention 3-D, we're pretty rigid. That doesn’t mean my kids live movie-free. They love Totoro and Singing in the Rain, The Point, and School House Rock and even Kung Fu Panda, but they’re pretty much barred from most movies and all movies of books we’ve read and loved.

Luna, who is plenty fearful of some things, finds no book scary. She’s read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and Percy Jackson’s The Lightening Thief, in which a son sees his mother’s head ripped off, and then gone right to sleep. Her mind can pretty easily block out the details. In movies, it’s impossible to block out the details. She can be scared by things in a Dora cartoon she saw at a friends house or a dog that goes to a vet hospital in Flash. Once she sees a character on the screen, that’s who that character is no matter what.

I am wary of anything that innundates all my child's senses so there's very little room for processing and digesting, not to mention critical thinking. Because of that, I’m not taking them to see Alice in Wonderland. Luna has read the book and has her own image of Alice. Plum’s heard the book read and is really only interested in the parts with animals in them. In the reading, the subtleties of 19th century implications of race are lost to them (as are the not-so-subtleties of C.S. Lewis’ Christianity).. Luna skips over the parts she doesn’t understand. In the Alice movie, the whiteness and uberwhiteness hits you over the head .

I’m not sold on the “feminism” of female movie characters. If there’s a bold blond girl in the movie, that’s ok, but there’s a better bolder girl in Luna’s mind and she doesn’t necessarily look or act like Mia Wasikowska, but maybe a little more like Luna. Maybe my heart has been broken by one-to-many bad adoptions of my favorite books, but for now, at least until their first kiss and their favorite literary characters have lodged themselves firmly and irrevocably in their minds, they’ll be slogging through the strange but fascinating twists of tongue of Lewis Carroll, Norton Juster, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Madeleine L'engle and others, and skipping the literary adaptions.

I enjoy a lot of Tim Burton

I enjoy a lot of Tim Burton stuff, and this looks just as good. I thought he did a great job with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
But it seemed to me that the film lacked heart. I wanted to like Alice the character, but I never really got a chance; she spent 75% of the movie saying "this is only a dream!" despite all the evidence to the contrary, and then all of a sudden BOOM! She's in armor, going to kill the Jaberwock. There was no character development, just a complete 180-degree turnю

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