Tim Burton’s film version of ALICE IN WONDERLAND, though attacked by many reviewers and troubling for Carroll purists, is, unequivocally, an emotionally satisfying, fantastical quirkfest. The movie takes Carroll’s children’s book’s mostly carnivalesque properties and rearranges events into a cohesive plot where Alice finds herself caught in a brewing battle between two queens and moved to fulfill her destiny—to slay the Jabberwocky. The result is a powerful coming-of-age story where a teenage Alice negotiates her stifled Victorian life while she navigates and triumphs her way through war-torn Wonderland.
      The film successfully captures Victorian sensibilities regarding women, social expectations, and sexual development—all issues haunting the pages of Carroll’s story if not explicit in the text. Madness, a term used to describe Wonderland characters, is a disease that Burton’s Alice fears she possesses. Visited since childhood by dreams and visions of Wonderland, Alice fits the Victorian criteria for a “hysteric.” Indeed, at her engagement party in the opening scene, her imaginative independence come across to most around her as a symbol of awkwardness, a severe social handicap best kept repressed. (What “sane” person finds quadrilles dull and corsets and stockings bothersome?) Fortunately, this Alice’s deceased father (I love that he is named for WATER BABIES author, Charles Kingsley!) encouraged Alice’s uniqueness. Thus when she finds herself on the verge of making a milestone decision in her life, whether or not to marry the twitty Hamish, she plunges into a world where women and what women want have no boundaries: Wonderland is deadlocked between two ultra-powerful female rulers. In Wonderland, Alice finds that even her body, has no real limits, growing and shrinking even against her will. Indeed, Alice, in order to restore the more worthy ruler, the white Queen, must embrace the limitless. Alice’s winning moment happens in the scene where she battles the Jabberwocky while simultaneously vowing her belief in the impossible. This part is near genius. I love the visual effects here—I never noticed how closely John Tenniel’s depiction of the fighting knight of “Jabberwocky” resembles his illustrated Alice.
      My main criticism of the movie is that Alice’s “mission” in her actual life seems inconsistent with her values developed in Wonderland. The battles within Wonderland are essentially anti-imperialistic: Depp’s Mad Hatter slips into a Scottish accent during his subversive, political tirades; the Red Queen exploits the natural world, brutalizing animals and the landscape and killing indiscriminately those who displease her. Alice effectively breaks apart all that is undemocratic and ruthlessly imperial. This is why I felt surprise, at the end of the movie, when Alice apprentices herself to the current owner of her father’s trading firm, Lord Ascot, and urges him to expand the trade company to China. Really? Would it have been too much to ask for Alice to become a human rights activist? A suffragette? A physician for the poor? Anything but an aggressive, venturing capitalist riding the waves of British imperialism.
      Still, in spite of this slip in the frame story, I still give three “Callooh! Callay!” shouts for the film. “O frabjous day!”