Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland sees Lewis Carroll’s Alice returning to ‘Underland’ at the age of 19, falling down a hole in pursuit of the familiar white rabbit, and more importantly in flight from an unwelcome marriage proposal. She has no memory of her childhood visit, and the fantastical characters debate among themselves whether she is in fact ‘the right Alice’. But of course, really this is a question Alice herself must answer: can she remain the free spirit with the wild imagination that was encouraged by her late father, or must she ‘grow up’ and learn to conform to Victorian Britain’s expectations of a young woman of her social class?
Naturally, the moral of Burton’s story is that freedom and imagination must triumph over conformism. As Alice’s father told her, all the best people are completely bonkers. But the moral is no less appealing for being predictable, and there are a few suprises and twists in the telling of the story. Significantly, screenwriter Linda Woolverton gives Alice herself the famous line about believing ‘six impossible things before breakfast’, something her father apparently used to do. In Lewis Carroll’s original Through the Looking Glass, it is the White Queen who reprimands the exactly-seven-and-a-half-year-old Alice for not trying hard enough to believe that the queen is a hundred and one, five months and a day. Now Alice has internalised the lesson that believing the impossible requires imaginative effort, and is challenged to act on it.
In the real world, this means turning down the awful aristocrat Hamish, despite the wishes of her family and an entire garden party gathered to witness her acceptance. While Alice refuses to wear her corset, and prefers gazing at clouds to dancing quadrilles, she doesn’t know if she has the courage to assert her own wishes against such oppressive expectations. Hence the visit to Underland. Here, Burton and Woolverton slip Alice into the role of the young boy (another impossible thing) in ‘Jabberwocky’, the nonsense poem included in Through the Looking Glass. Alice must find the vorpal sword and slay the Jabberwock before she can return to the world and slay the dragon of an unwanted marriage.
The quest is enjoyable enough, with 3D effects adding to the impression that Alice is trapped in a computer game, and an impressive cast of gargoyle-like characters including Helena Bonham-Carter as the huge-headed Red Queen and Johnny Depp as a tragic Mad Hatter. Alice herself is played by Mia Wasikowska (fresh from a more naturalistic teenage psycho-drama in HBO’s In Treatment), who brings just the right combination of vulnerability and assertiveness. If anything, though, the film is perhaps too star-studded, with celebrity turns like Stephen Fry as the Cheshire Cat distracting from the story.
The dramatic pay-off at the end is pleasingly unexpected, however. Having slain the Jabberwock and turned down Hamish, Alice announces that she will now take responsibility for her late father’s business. His impossible idea, now vindicated, had been to establish trading posts in the far east, and Alice now intends to expand into China. What a contrast with the more right-on 3D blockbuster Avatar, which slavishly follows the script of postcolonial guilt and suspicion of progress. By way of Underland, Alice takes herself out of her corseted role as a woman in Victorian Britain, and into the world. That sounds like progress to me.