Alice in Wonderland

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.

0 Responses to “Alice in Wonderland”

  1. leatherdykeuk

    I’m an Alice die-hard and I thought the film very fine indeed, so long as you remembered it was ‘a new telling’ of the tale.

    • Marie Brennan

      Yes, it’s a sequel rather than an adaptation of the source. Which I was fine with: an older protagonist helps the movie appeal to a broader audience than a little girl would, and frees Burton up to do new things (like Alice whacking the head off a dragon) that would be enormous violations of the original text.

  2. london_setterby

    Wow, really? Maybe I’ll go see this movie after all. Even if the ending is stupid, it’s worth it to see a movie that passes the Bechdel test!

    • Marie Brennan

      I didn’t find the ending stupid so much as unsuccessful. There was a thread of narrative there Burton didn’t really deal with well enough — what exactly Wonderland meant to Alice, and how that would affect her decisions regarding it. And you can see from comments below that it isn’t a brilliant work of feminism in all respects; but it’s still (imho) better than a lot of things out there.

  3. greybar

    Interesting. When mentioned you did a review from a feminist perspective I figure you would rip it up. But that may be coming from my own disappointment with the film. Yes, the drivers of the story are female, but they’re stereotyped aspects: the White Queen who frankly looks to manipulate others while professing that she can’t dirty her hands (instead she guilt-trips others into taking the risks), the Red Queen who is just a spoiled bitch, and even our heroine who comes into the story and leaves without any real growth.

    What really struck me was that the film opens with the real world dictating that she must follow a script decided by others, then in Underworld immediate presents her with a predestined hero-role, which she rejects. Ok, excellent, she’s going to not follow the future others have laid out for her and instead find her own way to solve the problem. She then proceeds to find her own way to “beat” the Bandersnatch. So now we’re primed for her to find her own way to beat the Jaberwocky… but oops, no, she goes right back to doing what she’s been told to do by the grownups. What a huge miss.

    In short, I think that the SyFy Alice from last fall was a more imaginative and engaging re-envisioning of Alice in Wonderland.

    • juushika

      So now we’re primed for her to find her own way to beat the Jaberwocky… but oops, no, she goes right back to doing what she’s been told to do by the grownups.
      This. The movie started going in the right direction for me as Alice began to lose patience for everyone ordering her around and trying to decide her fate. The fact that it ended with “oh it’s your choice, but if you don’t chose it we’ll all die, so of course you chose it” just killed that for me. It bucked fate only to return directly to it, and yes—I would call that a “huge miss” too.

      The ending bothered me on the same note. Alice’s decision to go “home” was played as, well, a decision, but when a visitor to a strange, magical world decided they should head on home at the end they’re merely sticking to convention: portal fantasies require that you go back home (at least until you’re killed on the train and Aslan sweeps you away to Narnia forever). What I wouldn’t give for one where the visitor choses to stay.

      Speaking as someone very attached to the books, the interpretation never quite meshed with me; the aspects pulled from the source material seemed arbitrary and misrepresented. I wasn’t a fan of the premise of the thing, simply because making Wonderland “real,” rather than a partial/total dream creation strips away the wonder, psychology, and nonsense of the place—and just didn’t make sense, given how many hints there were at the beginning of the film that Wonderland’s characters and imagery was inspired by Alice’s daily life. But despite how much I have to say about all that it’s neither here nor there. As far as the empowering plot and themes go I thought they showed such promise—so I was left with a sour taste when I saw where they ended up.

      • greybar

        Okay, my brain couldn’t let this go, so the post in my LJ has what I would have done with the film, departing from its base.

      • Marie Brennan

        but when a visitor to a strange, magical world decided they should head on home at the end they’re merely sticking to convention: portal fantasies require that you go back home (at least until you’re killed on the train and Aslan sweeps you away to Narnia forever). What I wouldn’t give for one where the visitor choses to stay.

        I’d like to see that, too, but I don’t think this movie was quite the Narnia pattern of “visitor returns to reality,” either. The kids never choose to go back, in the Narnia books; they just get too old for fun and games in another world, which pisses me off immensely. And I am a strong supporter of the notion that we shouldn’t have to run away from this world to have awesomeness — we should have awesomeness here! So on that front I felt like Burton almost gave me something I would have really, really liked. But he didn’t sell it effectively, and for me that was the much bigger miss, though see my response to for how I felt about the Jabberwocky resolution.

        As for Wonderland being real, my hatred of magical realms as either partial or total dream creations knows very few bounds, so I preferred this approach. But that’s where we move very much into personal taste.

    • Marie Brennan

      I didn’t claim it was a shining paragon of feminine characterization (or really, characterization of any kind) — but I do stand by the assertion that it’s better than a lot of films out there, which can’t put in female characters without sexualizing them, can’t give them strength without making it be dependent on a man, and generally can’t make there be more than one woman in the story unless they’re all related through the medium of a more centrally-placed man. I personally thought it hilarious that the White Queen, the “good” Queen, was also a moderately creepy necromancer whose floaty la-la behavior was a performance for her court (as seen when she drops it to greet Bayard). The Red Queen/Queen of Hearts was interesting to me because although Wikipedia tells me she was supposed to be commentary on Victoria, there’s an obvious parallel as well to Elizabeth I, who had not only red hair but a shitty temper, and was known to shout for people’s heads to be cut off (though she rarely followed through). So I was reading all the Red Court stuff through an Elizabethan lens.

      You’re right that the story missed an opportunity to do something more interesting with the Jabberwocky. I very much liked the line of “I make the path,” but ultimately it was her own path to the same destination. (With a hint that maybe “her own path” was the predestined one anyway, and the people of Wonderland just didn’t understand that.) I still enjoyed the climax, especially since it was, in the end, Alice’s decision to step up and be champion — nobody forced her — but a more complex answer to the problem could have been cooler, yes.

  4. beccastareyes

    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.

    Oh, good, I’m not the only one who has noticed this in shows. (Though mostly in the context of kid’s programming, either American or Japanese. Digimon Frontier was a bad offender in that pretty much the only ‘cool’ moments the Token Heroic Girl got were against the female Bad Guy, and the female Bad Guy targeted the Token Heroic Girl almost exclusively after her introduction. I’m contrasting that to something like Avatar: The Last Airbender, which while it still had the Female Lead facing off against the Villain’s Daughter/2nd in command, it felt more like ‘well, let’s send the Villain’s Son/Fire-user and the Water-user in to deal with someone who can throw around fire, while the person who can tear metal with her mind and the two mundanes stop the airship fleet’. Add in the second-season’s finale had Villain’s Daughter versus Hero and Villain’s Son versus Water-using Female Lead, IIRC)

    • Marie Brennan

      It drives me crazy. It’s like, okay, we’ll give you your moment, but it’s going to be a special Girl Moment made just for you, because you can’t handle the real stuff.

      (Not the Avatar: The Last Airbender — just the general pattern of shows and movies.)

  5. sartorias

    I loathe the books too much to see the movie (and the trailers reinforced everything I hate about them) but it does sound like this is a better version.

  6. misterseth

    Here’s some thoughts (or rather, a stranger’s thoughts) I posted a week ago about the Alice film…

  7. gryphynshadow

    I was waiting, at the end, for the bit where Johnny Depp without the makeup shows up, to be the real world love interest… and was incredibly overjoyed when he didn’t! It doesn’t end with her finding a man to love! I really expected it, I was anticipating that she’d turn around and there would be a real world man waiting for her…

    Calloh! Callay! it made the movie just that much more wonderful to me. (plus, I loved the Hatter’s recitation of the Jaberwocky poem.)

    • Marie Brennan

      Depp did a surprisingly good job with the Scottish accent — and the abrupt switch to a grim manner that went with it was excellently creepy. 🙂

  8. kthanna

    I really enjoyed the movie, more than I thought I would. The ending surprised me. I’d fully been expecting a happy ending in the way of her finding her ‘real’ love. Definitely liked the movie a lot.

    And by way of introduction. I hadn’t wanted to read books for the longest time and credit Doppelganger and Warrior and Witch with my renewed interest in reading. Thank you for writing 🙂 So happy to have found your LJ.

  9. gothicsparrow

    I just saw Alice yesterday, and I really enjoyed it, even though I didn’t have the realisation that the movie passed the Bechdel test.

    I thought the ending was weak too. They didn’t put in enough detail near the start to make it seem to us that it’s worth it for Alice to go back to the real world.

  10. sapphohestia

    The Alice vs. dragon scene left me wishing that I was watching a big screen adaptation of Hero & the Crown. That movie would be awesome.

  11. shiegra

    I’m a die-hard fan of the books and I loved the movie; they had a lot of references to it.

    She’ll return to Wonderland. Alice states in the end of the movie that she’ll return ‘before [he] knows it’ — so I liked the ending. Rather than being kidnapped to a place and ending up enjoying it there, she has the chance to go back, not abandon her family, and explore what the more mundane world has to offer her before returning to Wonderland. If she’d stayed, I would have been left with a bad taste in my mouth, as much as I loved Wonderland and her adventures in it; Alice didn’t knowingly choose to come to Wonderland/Underland and ‘because she found she liked it after all’ wouldn’t have really worked for me as a conclusion to her being ripped away from her life and family. Especially her mother, who while clearly rooted in a more realistic view of society than Alice — and trying to pave the way for her the resources a young woman who does not (as far as her mother knows) have the recourse of Wonderland or apprenticeship might need — clearly cared for her. I would have been horrified if they’d had her skip off merrily into Wonderland’s sunset, and found Alice stating she’ll return when she chooses — on her terms — a much more pleasant ending.

    • Marie Brennan

      She’ll return to Wonderland. Alice states in the end of the movie that she’ll return ‘before [he] knows it’

      I had forgotten that. I think because I reflexively assumed she was wrong; the Hatter says she’ll forget about them, and that’s enough of an established genre trope (not to mention what happened to her before) that I thought he was right. And with the way the film ends, it doesn’t give any evidence that Alice does remember and go back. Which is not to say you’re wrong, and in fact I hope you’re right; it does help some with the ending, though it doesn’t fix all of the weaknesses there.

      • sarahtales

        Well, Alice saying ‘hello, Absalom’ as her last line indicates she does remember, at least?

      • shiegra

        Hatter stating she wouldn’t remember was a direct callback to earlier in the film, when she did forget, not just a reference to the genre tropes. And in the ending, it’s made obvious she remembers because she calls the butterfly by the caterpillar’s name.

  12. sarahtales

    I too found myself swept away by the Epic Lady Errant feel, and I loved the actress who played Alice! I didn’t care for the way the White Queen’s prettiness and the Red Queen’s ‘ugliness’ were stressed, and it made me feel rather on the Red Queen’s side (plus Helena Bonham Carter really worked for me while Anne Hathaway did not) – but it was hard not to love Alice, and the casual, cool Bechdel Test passing.

    A friend did point out at the end that Alice was going to end up involved in the opium trade…

    • Marie Brennan

      The deformity of the Red Queen bothered me, yeah. Anne Hathaway did work for me, the way she played the White Queen’s mannerisms as very mannered indeed, but I would have preferred it if the film had somehow escaped the pervasive notion that ugliness = evil. (I was happier before it came out that all of the Red Queen’s courtiers had fake deformities, because then I could imagine that her court was a home for people not pretty enough for the White Queen.)

      • shiegra

        That bothered me, as well. The whole symbolism of both the Red Queen’s head and Stayne’s unnaturally elongated body deeply bugged me; as though they were saying their atypical physical forms were analogous to evil. And the whole thing where the court’s breaking of loyalty with her was lined up with them ripping off their fake deformities just…ugh.

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