Landon and I watched Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland Saturday night, and it left me pondering some questions. It made me think about the sovereignty of God v. the free will of man, whether there's any way to avoid extremes, and the general attractiveness of blue caterpillars smoking hookahs. It was a fascinating movie. It was also a bit of a disappointment.
The movie opens with a flashback, but the story really begins with 19 year old Alice (Mia Washikowska) in a carriage on the way to a party. We begin to see the outlines of her character in her interactions with her Mother (Lindsay Duncan), who is not pleased to discover her lack of corset and stockings. While some of Alice's statements and actions are contrarian and anti-establishment, she speaks and acts with more confused petulance than defiance, as when she sulkily compares a corset to a codfish. Alice is set up as a plethora of awkward: barely more than a child in her blue party dress and hanging curls, yet a woman in marital eligibility. A rebel as concerns her undergarments, but oddly compliant when ordered with whom to dance. Distracted and eccentric, yet socially desirable enough to have caught the eye of a Lord.
By the time that Alice dashes away from a very public marriage proposal to follow the waistcoated white rabbit down the hole it is obvious that this girl needs a good dose of direction, clarity, and what is commonly known as “finding herself.” Through her interactions with and reactions to the whole array of weird, wonderful, and just plain fascinating people and places of Wonderland she finds just what she needs. The possibilities for symbolism in this movie are endless, but there isn't room to explore all of the options here; suffice it to say that in Alice's confusions, triumphs, and breakthroughs in Wonderland, we can see the shape of her successes in the world above ground. In Wonderland she “finds her much-ness” again, and fulfills everyone's expectations of her by just doing exactly what she thinks best. It's very neat, really.
And therein lies my biggest problem with this movie: it doesn't live up to its potential for moral complexity and thematic ambiguity. Follow your heart, believe in the impossible, and you can have it all – Disney modern-princess movie anyone? I'm not against “happily ever after” endings, or fairy tales, or the reminder that sometimes you can do what looks impossible if you have enough confidence. It's just that in this movie, they don't quite fit with the rest of the story; there's a jarring note in the overlay of Tim Burton eccentricity and simplistic Princess themes.
While I am less than impressed with its self-empowerment theme, I can hardly find fault with the movie's presentation. The mix of standard computer animation, CGI, motion capture animation, and live action characters allows for a gorgeous multi-layered visual. The landscape can be jewel toned, despairingly dark, and confusingly dreamlike as called for. Some of the characters are a mixture of two or three of those methods, like Helena Bonham Carter as the bulbous-headed Red Queen, and Crispin Glover as the knave of hearts with a live action face atop a motion-capture animated body. Johnny Depp plays the truly mad, slightly pathetic, but very brave Mad Hatter with discomfiting eyes. And, speaking of Disney princesses, Anne Hathaway's White Queen is (in my humble opinion) one of the most bizarre and unsettling characters in the whole movie.
As a whole, I would heartily recommend this movie if you're already interested, but wouldn't count it a must-see. Although it's definitely a treat for the eyes, it doesn't quite have the substance that it could; like Alice, it's lacking a little much-ness.
“Alice in Wonderland” is rated PG, and is quite clean as far as innuendo and language are concerned, so it's suitable for almost any audience; I probably wouldn't recommend it for very young children who are going to be confused by the dreamlike qualities of Wonderland or frightened by the mild action scenes.