Alice in Wonderland

Frederica Mathewes-Green is one of my favorite movie reviewers (and essayists in general). Here is her take on the new Alice in Wonderland. She gave it 2 stars.

Cast: Johnny Depp (Mad Hatter), Mia Wasikowska (Alice), Helena Bonham Carter
(Red Queen), Anne Hathaway (White Queen), Crispin Glover (Stayne – Knave of

This is not your grandmother’s Alice. Though the title is the same, director
Tim Burton did not film a new version of the classic novels by British
clergyman and logician Lewis Carroll (1832-1898), Alice in Wonderland and
Alice Through the Looking Glass. Instead, Burton and screenwriter Linda
Woolverton have moved the action forward 13 years. Now Alice, almost 20, is
attending a garden party where the unappealing son of a local lord intends
to propose marriage. Fleeing him, and pursuing a white rabbit, Alice kneels
at the base of a tree and peers down an immense hole. Then she falls in.

The seemingly-endless falling is well-executed, as Alice dodges various
objects, including a grand piano. She lands upside-down on a ceiling, her
hair standing on end. She falls to the floor and discovers she is in a
small, round room-a dingy and decaying room, subtly ominous-and tries each
of the doors that ring it. As in the book, she discovers a door that is too
tiny for her to exit and drinks a shrinking potion; then discovers she has
forgotten the key on the glass tabletop and nibbles a growing-cake to
retrieve it; then drinks the potion to shrink again, and at last passes
through the door. This entire sequence is excellent, though there is the one
curious element that Alice’s clothes do not shrink and grow with her, a
convenience usually employed in such scenes. Instead, her clothing has to be
adjusted each time, a problem which may occupy some viewers’ thoughts more
than is strictly necessary.

On the other side of the door Alice immediately runs into a crowd of odd
figures-a Dormouse, Dodo bird, Blue Caterpillar, and the Tweedles-who launch
into an absurd discussion of whether this is or is not the “right Alice.”
Their bickering conversation is worthy of Carroll.

But with that I’m nearing the limit of what I can praise. It turns out that
Wonderland has been waiting to Alice to return, because it is prophesied
that she will slay the Jabberwocky and restore the White Queen to her
rightful throne, and free the citizens from the wicked Red Queen. Yes, the
film turns into an action movie, with a now overly-familiar CGI battle
sequence at the end. Alice even has to get into a suit of armor and fight
the dragon-beast with a sword. The original Alice stories are odd, strange,
unsettling, dreamlike, and wholly unpredictable; “Lord of the Rings with a
Girl” is as predictable as they come.

It’s even worse, though. The Wonderland adventures are framed with another
story. In the opening scene, we see a group of Victorian men debating
international trade. (Huh?) When Alice, age 6, comes in to report a bad
dream, her dad kindly puts her to bed again. She asks if her strange dreams
mean she has “gone round the bend.” Dad smiles and says yes, “You’re
bonkers-but the best people are.”

(This theme of it being a grand thing to be mentally ill is reinforced over
and over. It doesn’t seem to have done the Mad Hatter much good, though. And
Alice’s Aunt Imogen, who delusionally thinks she is engaged to a prince, is
not allowed to continue her comforting fantasy; Alice informs her flatly,
“There is no prince.”)

At the movie’s end, Alice re-emerges at the garden party, refuses the young
man’s hand, and then speaks to his father-one of her dad’s partners of old,
it turns out, and now owner of the company. She talks of the thrill of
international trading, and stresses particularly the opportunity to be the
first to initiate trade with China. The lord is impressed, and invites her
to be his apprentice. In the final sequence we see Alice standing nobly on
the deck of a ship, heading out to the open sea.

This is wrong on so many counts it’s hard to know where to start. It’s a
dud, dramatically, to go from multicolored Wonderland to the world of
business planning. It’s hard to picture capitalism as the ideal calling for
the girl who fell down a rabbit hole. And were those 19th century
international corporations really so admirable? In the “Pirates of the
Caribbean” movies, Depp’s character fights against exactly the same type of
business that Alice champions here.

And did it have to be China? Won’t some history-savvy viewers wonder how
many years Alice can profit from that nation, before its citizens rise up
against foreigners in the Boxer Rebellion? “Let’s be first to trade in
China” is a bit like “Let’s be first to invest in the Hindenburg.”

It’s surprising, too, that the message this movie hammers home with a mallet
is that a woman can be more fulfilled climbing the corporate ladder than
having a husband and family. We heard a lot of this 30 or 40 years ago, but
reality has turned out to be a lot more complex than that false choice made
it appear. The baldness of this “I am Woman, Hear Me Roar” assertion,
demonstrated by Alice in Wonderland of all possible characters, makes the
movie look outdated.

This film isn’t lacking in delightful moments; there just aren’t enough of
them. Some elements of the story are buried in the noise and haste. For
example, characters sometimes speak in an ancient Red-Queen-subversive
dialect, but that is never explained, and if you didn’t know that you’d
assume they’re mumbling. I enjoyed Helena Bonham Carter as the Red Queen,
but Depp’s Mad Hatter, though extravagantly attired and made up, vacillates
too much to come into focus. I expect he was trying to convey the exploded
personality of a schizophrenic, but a more run-of-the-mill lunatic would
have been an easier leading character to follow.

The pace is so frantic that there’s no time to savor scenes and characters
that might have rewarded the attention. When I came home from the movie and
read over the list of characters, I was surprised to learn that the
Jabberwocky beast was portrayed by Christopher Lee, the venerable British
actor who was the wizard Saruman in the Ring trilogy. I can’t remember the
Jabberwocky having any spoken lines, though. If they put the 88-year-old Lee
in a motion-capture suit and had him run up a spiral flight of stairs and
swing through the air on wires, well, my hat’s off to him. But I expect his
performance was obliterated by the busy-ness, as other good tidbits may have

I don’t think it’s wrong to create a whole new story out of an old
character; I rather enjoyed the new Sherlock Holmes. But this Alice is a
dud. If you want to experience a strange, unworldly story-something like Tim
Burton films used to provide-stay home and read the book.

Talk About It:

1. The statement comes up several times that “the best people” are insane.
Yet genuine insanity causes great pain, fear, and loneliness. What do you
think the film is trying to praise, if not literal mental illness?

2. Throughout the Wonderland adventure it’s not clear whether the events are
Alice’s dream (as she keeps insisting) or reality. At the end, she comes
back to the garden party disheveled and with her dress muddy. What do you
think we are supposed to conclude about the reality of the Wonderland

3. The White Queen states a couple of times that she “cannot take the life
of any living thing” because it is against her “vows.” Yet a great deal of
bloodshed takes place on her behalf and under her command. Is the movie
trying to have it both ways-deploring violence while employing it to make
the story exciting?

Family Corner: The extraordinary makeup and costumes may be scary to young
children. There are some violent moments and a battlefield sequence. A mouse
plucks the eye from a monster and from then on carries it in a pouch. The
most disturbing sight is the Red Queen’s moat, filled with mire and pale,
bobbing severed heads; Alice walks across it by stepping from one head to

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One thought on “Alice in Wonderland

  1. thanks for posting this! i’d been contemplating see it because of the 3D offering, but it seems many more times less appealing now.

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