Burton’s Looking Glass Goes Topsy-Turvy

Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland strays from Lewis Carroll’s original story into feminist territory.

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 they have been roped in and squeezed into society’s mold.

After a prologue in which we briefly see 6-year-old Alice’s irrelevant father comforting her after a bad dream about falling, we meet Alice at 19. She’s 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, while dancing with Hamish, Alice giggles and says, “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. (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 for Mulan, The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast.

Interviewed for a New York Times piece, Woolverton explained her approach to characterizing Alice: 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 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 nominal sequel to Lewis Carroll’s tale 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 looking-glass topsy-turvy: 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 destined to claim the fabled “Vorpal Sword,” don shining armor, and wage an epic battle on the fated “Frabjous Day” against the forces of the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) and the dragon-like Jabberwocky.

Yes, the Jabberwocky, reader. You say the beast is called the Jabberwock, not Jabberwocky? Ah, you have read the poem. Have the filmmakers? Who can tell?

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, whose caricature-like portraits of the Red Queen and of Tweedledee and Tweedledum have been realized with goofy literalness.

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 perhaps the best thing in the film. Depp, on the other hand, disappoints; his Hatter is a collection of tics and vocal stylings, none of them entertaining.

The Cheshire Cat, enjoyably animated, is 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’ 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 Eowyn in a corridor of the Red Queen’s castle. (Note: Obligatory spoiler warning.)

The Eowyn resonances are even clearer in the climactic battle: Alice hacks off the dragon-like Jab-berwock(y)’s head just like Eowyn decapitated the Fell Beast.

In J.R.R. Tolkien’s book, 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 freighted with 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. Who exactly is the target audience here?

Steven D. Greydanus is editor

and chief critic at DecentFilms.com.

He blogs at NCRegister.com.

Content advisory: Mild fantasy action violence and a few moderately scary images; a few mildly suggestive bits. Not really appropriate for kids.