Spoilery thoughts will go behind the cut, but the exterior thought is this: that Tim Burton, working from a base of freaking ALICE IN WONDERLAND, has done a better job with the notion of “strong-minded female protagonist does protagonisty things, up to and including saving people and kicking ass” than most directors who set out to tell a story about a Strong Woman Kicking Ass.
The movie has flaws, but this aspect pleased me quite a bit.
Gender-related thoughts started niggling at the back of my head when the White Queen and the Red Queen faced off across the chessboard, but they didn’t really take form until the “catfight.” Which is my personal term for that bit you get in action movies, when the love interest (who generally gets at least marginal amounts of badassery these days) has her throwdown with the Token Woman on the bad guy’s side, while the hero throws down with the villain. Which tends to feel annoying: it always reminds me of elementary school phys ed classes, where girls did the easy version of whatever test the boys were doing a harder version of. “See, the love interest is Tough — well, tough enough to fight another woman, anyway.” So then along comes Alice in Wonderland and it has a catfight, only it’s the Mad Hatter throwing down with the Knave of Hearts. While Alice chops the head off a dragon.
And it isn’t a pom-poms, rah-rah, Celebrate the Power of the Woman kind of moment, either. It’s just, here’s our hero, doing the heroism thing. Her armor covers her entire body and doesn’t have specially sculpted boobs (now directing 67% more force into your sternum!), and okay the joints of that armor would be ripping her lovely flowing hair out at every turn, but all things considered, I’ll take it.
Especially because it isn’t just Alice. It’s her, and the Red Queen, and the White Queen, and the Dormouse, and them passing the Bechdel Test with flying colors. The women in the real world pretty much just talk to Alice about Hamish or her father, but the women of Wonderland (or rather, Underland) talk to her, and to each other, about . . . anything. Whatever suits the story at that moment: the Red Queen’s crimes, the recipe for the shrinking potion, whether Alice is the right Alice or the wrong one. Romance is limited to a slight whiff, which Alice rejects in favor of pursuing her own life. This is why the faceoff between the two queens struck me; at that moment I realized that this was a film with multiple important female characters. Who have relationships with each other. And that is still enough of a rarity — outside the realm of “chick flicks” — for me to think, whoa.
The major place the movie fell down for me was the ending. I think I see what Burton was aiming for, and I actually kind of like it: rather than saying, it’s better to flee the real world and go to Wonderland where things are magical and fun, it says you should bring wonder into the real world. Alice chooses to pursue her own ambitions, to tell off everybody she detests and then go to China. Unfortunately, it came out of left field; the early references to her father’s trading concerns were too slight, and insufficiently important-seeming to Alice, for me to get the right emotional payoff from her decision.
Which was a shame. Because I actually enjoyed the movie a fair bit. Coming at it as I did, with no particular attachment to the books or any interpretation thereof, I’m happily oblivious to details that probably annoyed better-informed audiences than I. But sometimes, that’s exactly the way I like it.