Early in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland comes the Lament of the Corset. What, you ask, is the Lament of the Corset? This is the scene in a period piece, from Titanic to Ever After to Pirates of the Caribbean, that reminds us how cruelly constrained women have been by patriarchal expectations, how roped in and squeezed into society’s mold.
It’s the scene where women say things like, “Of course it’s unfair! We’re women. Our choices are never easy.” Or, “If one cannot breathe, one cannot eat.” (Like it was a good thing.) Or, “You like pain? Try wearing a corset.”
After a prologue in which we briefly see six-year-old Alice’s irrelevant father comforting her after a bad dream about falling, we meet Alice at nineteen in a carriage on her way to a gala at the manor home of some chinless wonder named Hamish whose engagement to Alice is a fait accompli in every way except that Alice doesn’t know the proposal is coming.
En route, Alice’s mother is aghast to discover that for this clandestinely momentous occasion her daughter made the shocking choice not to wear a corset — or stockings. “I’m against them,” Alice (Mia Wasikowska) declares firmly. “Who’s to say what’s proper? If everyone decided that wearing a codfish on your head were proper, would you wear one? To me a corset is like a codfish.” Or something like that.
An ominous sign, you say? Reader, you don’t know how right you are. Before long, dancing with Hamish, Alice giggles. “I was just picturing all the women wearing trousers and all the men wearing dresses.” His lordship is not amused: Alice would do well to keep such fancies to herself.
Not once, but twice, the film enumerates all of the reasons Alice must marry Hamish: (1) Everyone expects her to; (2) she doesn’t want to be a burden to her mother; (3) he is a lord; and (4) she doesn’t want to wind up an old maid — like dotty, disheveled old Aunt Imogene, with her pathetic delusions of a forbidden engagement to a prince.
Who, you ask, could possibly think it a good idea to trick out Alice in Wonderland in such aggrieved feminist didacticism? The answer, apparently, is screenwriter Linda Woolverton, who contributed to the similarly schoolmarmish, politically correct Arctic Tale, and was one of a great many writers on Mulan, The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast.
Interviewed for a New York Times piece, Woolverton explained her approach to characterizing Alice: She says she “did a lot of research on Victorian mores, on how young girls were supposed to behave, and then did exactly the opposite.” Reader, I believe her.
Woolverton believes it’s important to “depict strong-willed, empowered women,” she says, “because women and girls need role models … who are empowered have an opportunity to make their own choices, difficult choices, and set out on their own road.” As a father of three daughters, I couldn’t agree more. What I don’t think my daughters need is yet another case of Squelched Girl Syndrome, à la Monsters vs. Aliens.
Alice embodies the gender feminist narrative of vibrant young girls losing their mojo as they come of age in patriarchal society. When she returns to Wonderland — or Underland, as this sequel to Carroll proposes it’s actually called — she has no memory of her first visit, and few of the Underlanders recognize her, not because she has grown but because she has diminished.
“You were much … muchier,” the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) tells her. “You’ve lost your muchness.”
How to regain a young woman’s lost muchness? Woolverton — whose sensibilities regarding Carroll’s world seem to be all looking-glass topsy-turvy, so that the worse an idea is, the better it sounds to her — says she saw Alice’s story “more in terms of an action-adventure film with a female protagonist.” Reader, I kid not. Alice is like Burton’s take on one of Disney’s Narnia films (“a C. S. Lewis Carroll Alice in Narnia,” critic David Edelstein cracks).
The film is actually a joint evisceration not only of Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, but also of “Jabberwocky,” with Alice recast as (so help me) a messianic warrior-hero in shining armor destined to claim the fabled “Vorpal Sword” on the fated “Frabjous Day,” waging war against the forces of the cruel Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) on behalf of the dulcet (if slightly Goth) White Queen (Anne Hathaway), ultimately confronting the dragon-like Jabberwocky (voiced by Christopher Lee).
Yes, the Jabberwocky, reader. You say the beastie is called the Jabberwock, not the Jabberwocky? Ah, you have read the poem. Have the filmmakers? Who can tell?
Burton’s last adaptation of a children’s book, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, had its good points, though Depp’s Willie Wonka was easily the worst thing in the film. That’s not the case here, though Depp is no better, running the gamut from irritating to insufferable with a repertoire of disjointed tics and vocal stylings. Charlie at least had the virtue of sticking close to Dahl for much of its running time. At no point does Alice threaten to do anything similar.
Computer graphics have now advanced to the point where Burton can put basically whatever he fancies on the screen, and he fills the screen with his mad visions, not without some consolation for the viewer. Perhaps the real textual basis for this Alice, since it is obviously not Carroll, is the illustrations of John Tenniel. His caricature-like portraits of the Red Queen and of Tweedledee and Tweedledum have been realized with goofy literalness, though why Helena Bonham Carter’s head has been digitally swollen to twice its size for the Red Queen, while Depp’s head, except for slightly exaggerated eyes, has been left alone, is a mystery. (Tenniel gave them both heads the size of beach balls.)
In any case, Bonham Carter’s imperious, delusional Red Queen is the best thing in the film, followed by the enjoyably animated Cheshire Cat, who’s voiced by Stephen Fry with the same sort of purring, smugly knowing quality that Keith David gave the Cat in last year’s Coraline. Crispin Glover, as the Knave of Hearts’s head on a spindly computer-generated body, is oddly reminiscent of Wormtongue in Peter Jackson’s The Two Towers. “I like largeness,” he whispers leeringly at an oversized Alice, buttonholing her like Éowyn in a corridor in the Red Queen’s castle.
(Note: Climactic spoiler warning.) The Éowyn resonances are even more pronounced in the climactic battle, with Alice triumphantly hacking off the dragon-like Jabberwock(y)’s head, like Éowyn decapitating the Fell Beast. In Tolkien, that was a prelude to the confrontation with the Witch King. Here, it’s a symbolic image of Alice confronting her anxieties about marrying Hamish. Watching Alice grasp the Vorpal Sword to decapitate the serpent, it doesn’t take a Dr. Freud to conclude that the wedding’s off.
P.S. Alice’s shifts in size seem to come with a body-image subtext. For whatever reason, her clothes don’t change size with her, so she repeatedly winds up nearly or even entirely naked, and spends much of the film in ill-fitting, rather revealing makeshift garb. Reader, who is the target audience again?
Lewis Carrol is now right side up in his grave, having turned over twice.
Out of a few topics I was considering blogging about today, none captured my attention quite like this impassioned email from a young reader who strongly disagrees with my review of Alice in Wonderland, and the issues suggested by the email, at least in my mind.
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So I haven’t seen Alice in Wonderland yet. I can neither agree nor disagree with your assessment. But reading the review — and keep in mind I always enjoy your reviews, and agree with you at least a healthy 80% of the time — I wonder if you have a particular beef against this film for two reasons: overtones of feminism, and literary revisionism.
Now I admit that both of those things are annoying, but I didn’t read anything else in your review that would result in such low ratings. Could you perhaps clarify in more detail? I have a hard time believing that a Corset Lament, a hamish Mr. Depp, and an errant “y” at the end of Jabberwock were the culprits.
Does it seem so un-Alice-ey for the now grown-up girl to maintain some anti-establishment sentiments? After all, would you want one of your daughters to marry this Hamish fellow? I wouldn’t want mine to, the way you describe him. Of course I wouldn’t want her to reject him with “womyns’ empowerment” and typical feminist derision — but that doesn’t seem to be what you describe this version of Alice doing.
Anyway, thanks for all the hard work and effort you put into your site. I’ve blind-bought many a DVD because of you (including your entire “Lenten Viewing” list). I plan to see the movie this weekend and judge for myself, but I would appreciate an expansion of your view on this one.
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I’ve been greatly bothered by the pervasiveness of the message of “parents bad and stupid, kids smart and funny and good” that is surrounding children today. From seemingly harmless “Hannah Montana” to movies like Alice in Wonderland, our children are presented with a constant message that they already know enough and don’t need to listen to anyone else.
From your review of Alice in Wonderland, it sounds like a movie that can cause great spiritual damage to our children. It gives a message that your parents or the Church or anyone, really, cannot tell you what is good for you. That you must reject out-of-hand people telling you that you must do something you might not like particularly (or not understand). And that your best interests are not what drives them to make decisions on your behalf.
To constantly bombard children — and especially girls — with the message that your parents are wrong if you don’t like what they tell you is a dangerous thing. It breeds mistrust and mindless rebellion. The message is “To thine own self be true,” but no one ever gives thought that Polonius is the very ruin of his children with his soundbite advice that he gives them. His sayings are full of pithiness and short on wisdom.
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I took the kids to see Alice In Wonderland 3D and loved it. I won’t dispute your decision to give it only 1.5 stars, but I really cannot see how you could say Coraline was better and appropriate for a younger audience. I thought Coraline was incredibly creepy if not sick and I’m a bit aggravated with myself that I let the kids see the whole thing. As far as adding a y to Jabberwock, who cares — if one is really such a purist I doubt if one could approve of any movie based on a book.
Of course you are right about the feminist overtones, but again, if you judge Hollywood movies by that yardstick you could enjoy virtually nothing — sometimes you just have to ignore that nonsense. The funny thing is, I’m normally not a Burton fan — he’s usually doing something as creepy as Coraline. Anyway, I really enjoy your analysis on your website and hearing you on Al Kresta’s show — sorry you had to hear from me when I had a bone to pick with you. God bless you and keep up the good work.
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In a response to a reader, you wrote:Alice is a quite ordinary little girl; this, indeed is integral to the narrative strategy of this kind of fantastic tale, in which extremely odd things happen to a very ordinary character. The whole point is that Alice could be anybody. The attempt to turn her into an interesting character with her own back story and issues is fundamentally un-Carolinian, I think.
Bingo. I was just explaining to someone yesterday that the problem plaguing all adaptations of Alice is the fact that she is not a character, she is the tool the author uses to thrust the reader into Wonderland. She herself is the most uninteresting part of the books, and her dialogue mainly consists of asking questions the reader might want answered from the odd people she meets. She does not make a good protagonist because she is the most paper thin part of the books. Not to mention that the books are not plot-based; the are merely a series of vignettes strung together by the one unifying device that is Alice. Trying to shape these stories into a single cohesive narrative does not simply does not work.
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You need to add an additional “r” and “l” to the word “un-Carolinian” in your response to the Alice in Wonderland where you said, “The attempt to turn her into an interesting character with her own back story and issues is fundamentally un-Carolinian, I think.” You misspelled Lewis Carroll’s last name: it should be un-Carrollinian.
Speaking of misspelled names, your review takes issue with the addition of the letter “y” to the creature called the Jabberwock. One of my favorite lines in the movie is when the Red Queen says, “Someone’s gonna slay my Jabber-baby-wocky?” Is it possible that the added “y” is a way to make the name a diminutive? Does anyone call you Stevie or even Steve?
Unlike you, I think the filmmakers did read the poem. After all, the Mad Hatter recites the poem exactly as it is written. Do you have an explanation for the poem being entitled “Jabberwocky,” anyway?
I’m a Catholic homeschooling mom. My husband, 13½ year old daughter, and I all thoroughly enjoyed the movie.
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How did you not pick up on the occult nature of the White Queen? She says, disparagingly, that her sister wants to control nature, as somehow opposite of her, who makes magic spells? She says she won’t hurt anything, but she wants Alice to kill. In her belief system about caring for nature, though she doesn’t want to believe it, she is an accessory to murder. It seems many in nature worship seem not to see the natural law-breaking nature of abortion. I wonder, though, do they go about their merry, fertile ways and let the abortionists do the dirty work?
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.