We saw Alice in Wonderland Saturday evening. It’s getting lukewarm reviews and that’s pretty much how I feel about it. Of course, it was visually rich, and even without the obligatory presence of Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham-Carter, it had Tim Burton’s fingerprints all over it. It kind of felt like last year’s Star Trek reboot — a chance to see familiar characters interpreted in interesting new ways. Unfortunately, where Alice fails is in the story. Other critics have complained that it feels too “Hollywood,” with caricatures rather than characters and the story galloping along to the inevitable Big Fight™ at the end of the film. Well, they’re right, and so I won’t beat on that particular dead horse. Rather, I want to look at the more interesting-from-a-Celtic-mythology question of how we relate to otherworlds and underworlds. After all, Wonderland is such an archetype of the mythic otherworld that “Going down the rabbit hole” has entered our cultural lexicon — think of The Matrix.
Wonderland gets renamed “Underland” in this movie, and actually the characters tell Alice that she got it wrong the first time — the name has been Underland all along. And, yes, this isn’t Alice’s first fall down the rabbit-hole, a crucial plot element that is hinted at throughout the narrative but only made clear well into the film. This is not little-girl-Alice, but Alice-on-the-verge-of-womanhood, dealing with an unwanted suitor and a controlling mother; and while she seems unable to manage the various claims that other people place on her in “real” life, once she lands in Underland, Alice asserts herself. Convinced that Underland is merely a kaleidoscope within her own subconscious, whenever the Caterpillar or the Hatter or any of the other characters express an expectation of her, she confidently replies, “This is my dream, I make my own path” or something to that effect. In this sense, Alice seems to be bringing to her otherworldly journey the same modernist/rationalist assumption that shapes the greatest of all alternate-reality movies: The Wizard of Oz, in which Dorothy wakes up at the very end to discover her entire adventure in the land of Technicolor was “only a dream.”
But Tim Burton’s Alice ultimately cannot take refuge in such a reductionist approach; when she finally realizes that she really has been to Underland before, she likewise realizes that this mythic land has a reality that exists independently of the machinations of her dreaming mind. This adds a bit of gravitas to her impending battle with the Jabberwocky: if the dragon she needs to slay is more than just a demon conjured out of her own shadow, then perhaps it will not so easily be vanquished. But this is Hollywood, after all, and the movie ends up pulling its punches as the story resolves itself in utter, banal predictability — down to Alice rejecting her suitor and becoming a poster-girl for Victorian-era Grrl Power once she climbs back out of the rabbit hole.
So I really like the fact that Burton and screenwriter Linda Wolverton mess with the “it’s-only-a-dream” convention. But in the end, that was the only really cool thing about this film. Otherwise it was just too neat and formulaic to really matter. I think it would have been a more dangerous and interesting story (but probably less marketable to today’s Cineplex world) if the same theme had been thrown at little-girl-Alice rather than young-adult-Alice. As wonderful as Mia Wasikowska was in the title role, imagine if the part had been given to Elle Fanning (alas, even Abigail Breslin and Elle’s sister Dakota are getting too old for this) — and imagine if the Red Queen had been truly scary, instead of Bonham-Carter’s petulant, over-the-top performance (like I said, this movie deals in caricatures). After all, as Celtic myth reminds us: when the dream is real, so is the nightmare.