Alice in Wonderland (2010)

Posted: 3rd June 2010 by Mister Critic in Random
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“’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.”

Excerpt from “Jabberwocky” by Lewis Carroll

When I was in about fifth or sixth grade, my teacher sent us home with the instruction to memorize a poem and the next day we were to each recite said poem to the class. For reasons unknown to me now, I picked the Jabberwocky from the book Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There. My guess is I chose it because the story of Alice and her journeys through Wonderland fascinated me as a kid. I find myself drawn to things that seem to have more than meets the eye (who just heard the theme to the Transformers as they read that? Nerd), and I like to figure out the hidden meaning of things so I can be in on the secret. The Jabberwocky poem seemed like one of those secrets when I first read it. It just had to be. Look at those words, “mome raths” and “borogroves.” What the hell are those? As hard as it is to believe, kids, Dad didn’t have the Internet or Wikipedia back then, so he was on his own to figure out the mystery of the Jabberwocky.

So I struggled all night and into the next morning. I distinctly remember, standing waiting for the bus in the morning with a crinkled paper in my hands, reciting all seven stanzas. By the time I arrived at school, I more or less (more less than more) had the poem committed to short term memory, but we had to do this thing right now people! We’re burning daylight. Unfortunately, the teacher waited until the end of the day to get to the homework assignment, which meant by the time it got to me, class was over. I had driven myself as mad as a hatter for nothing, which seemed fitting for the subject matter.

Although the words have faded now from my memory, the image of the Jabberwocky still remains, and I was excited to see that he would make an appearance in the new movie Alice in Wonderland (2010).

This movie is not the story you may have known as a kid, rather it is a story inspired by Lewis Carroll’s original works. Some of the characters will seem familiar, but now thanks to the latest craze to retell every story ever told all over again in high tech glory, things are different. What does that mean? Well for starters, Alice has grown up. She is now nineteen, facing adult choices, like being forced to wear fancy clothes she does not like and being forced to marry someone she does not like. So she escapes from reality by chasing a rabbit down a hole which leads her to the dream-like world of Underland (ya that’s right, not Wonderland. According to this movie, Alice misheard it as Wonderland the first time she visited this place. But why did this movie have to change the name? It felt like there was some kind of copyright dispute mid-movie. You know what? I refuse to accept that change. It is Wonderland. Always has been, always will be. You might as well change Alice’s name too while you are at it. Shame on whoever tried to change that.)

Waiting in Wonderland are several local citizens, like Twiddle Dee and Twiddle Dum, the white rabbit, and the hookah smoking caterpillar, and they are looking for “the Alice” who is prophesied to slay the Jabberwocky, which restores the White Queen to her rightful place as the head of Wonderland. The evil Red Queen, a combination of the Queen of Hearts (you know, off with her head and all that jazz) and the Red Queen from Through the Looking Glass, played by Helena Bonham Carter, has overthrown her sister and has brought misery to Wonderland. Now, an uprising is being organized, led by the Mad Hatter, played by Johnny Depp. Alice must find the Vorpal Sword and slay the Jabberwocky. But there are doubts that she is the right “Alice” for the job.

As with his past movies, I really enjoyed Tim Burton’s visual choices in his interpretation of characters and setting. And I am sure the 3-D stuff would have been a perfect compliment to those visuals.  I appreciated that the movie takes some time at the beginning to develop Alice’s character rather than jumping right into the visual clusterfun that is awaiting us in Wonderland. However, that development of plot went of the tracks once we got to Wonderland.

Let me start by saying that I am not completely against reboots or reinterpretations. They can inspire a whole new generation to fall in love a literary character or story. And sometimes the movies of old just didn’t have the capability to fully explore all of the fine details in a certain piece of fiction.  And I’m sure everyone has their own interpretation of what Alice in Wonderland is really about. I was always told Lewis Carroll was a druggie and the book was one big drug reference. Then I read this article about how Mr. Carroll was a mathematician, and many of the characters are poking fun at the new math of the time called Algebra. What I love most is that no matter what, there is a deeper, hidden undercurrent of meaning beyond the literal story of girl going down the rabbit hole.

In an interview, Burton said he felt that original was just about a girl wondering from one character to the next and he didn’t feel connected to that emotionally, so he felt there needed to be more of a story as opposed to a series of events.  But I think that misses what is great about the way Carroll presented Wonderland.  It is about a series of random encounters. Just like in dreams, we jump from one strange thing to the next. No rhyme. No reason.  Wonderland, just like our dreams, is not rational.

So to create a rational, literal story, with no mysterious subtext, is not what Alice in Wonderland is about. Especially, when the plot is basically a rehashing of the idea that “the Chosen One will save us” as seen in the Matrix or Lord of the Rings. And worse than that, someone felt the need to turn Alice and friends into Braveheart for good measure. See, the climax is reached when the White Queen’s side meets the Red Queen’s side on the battlefield, where Alice is to fight the Jabberwocky. It is deeply disturbing seeing characters I loved from my childhood wielding swords acting like they are trained warriors. He’s a hatter not a freaking ninja. That is not what these stories are about. I mean, I don’t pretend to know exactly what Mr. Carroll was writing about or what the deeper meaning was, but I don’t think it was intended to be a Thunder Dome, Battle Royal: “two queens enter, one queen leaves.”

And when Alice is battling the demons of oncoming adulthood, we see her literally battling a demon, or a Jabberwocky in this case.  Visually, the Jabberwocky was cool, but I was hoping for more substance than it being just a dragon that needed a smack down. I appreciate this interpretation of what the Jabberwocky represents, although I don’t think the audience needs to be slapped across face with the subtext  to get the point across. To add insult to the injury inflicted by the change in the story, (spoiler alert) once said demon is defeated and Alice returns home, the story wraps up at a comical pace. The idea that our all her problems could evaporate  so quickly is more wondrous than Wonderland.

But I think the best way to illustrate the distaste I have for the changes made to the characters in this movie is with this clip from the movie. Thanks to the magic of CGI and I would guess marketing focus groups also played a crucial role, we are treated to/tortured with (depending on your perspective) the Mad Hatter’s performance of a dance called the Futterwacken.  Futter-whatten? Yes, that is right. Futterwacken. Don’t remember that from the original story? Because it wasn’t there. At least I don’t remember it. It is just one of the most wondrous changes made to make a more emotional connection for Mr. Burton (I’m being sarcastic if you can’t tell).  Do not watch this clip if you have a weak stomach, are pregnant, or will become pregnant. Tell your doctor if sudden side effects occur. And don’t Futterwacken in public, you’ll go blind.

I know the movie is rated PG so perhaps the focus was more towards children, and thus I should try to be more lenient in my criticism. However, I don’t think a movie for children has to treat us like we’re stupid, like we can’t get any deeper meaning, nor does it have to include all things the lowest common denominator in a focus group loves: violence, pretty colors, dancing and more violence. You can say I am a purist, and I just don’t like change, but I there are lot of interpretations of Wonderland I love that aren’t exactly like the original, like Tom Petty’s music video for Don’t Come Around Here No More. That scene with the cake makes me all mimsy in my borogroves.

The worst sin of all is committed if these changes ruin the story of old for those who have not read the original. My hope is that some will be inspired to seek out the novels after the movie, or memorize the Jabberwocky poem, but I will be very upset if I hear there are those who don’t like the books because there’s no battle scene or Futterwacken. It already upset me that my daughter had to ask me whether she should call it Wonderland or Underland? There should be no doubt! That is my big complaint with these reboots. Reignite the love for the material, but don’t ruin what was already a good thing.