Utopia Deferred: Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland”

Having been awoken from a recurring dream of a bizarre Wonderland, a young girl asks her father whether she is going mad. Her father assures her that she is, but, smiling gently, tells her that “all the best people are.” This is an auspicious beginning to Tim Burton’s new Disney film, Alice in Wonderland (2010), which celebrates eclecticism, imagination, courage, and rebellion, drawing on the familiar and ever-evocative characters of Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland books (and also Disney’s animated Alice in Wonderland) to reinforce a message that is, up to the penultimate scene, utopian. In the final scene, the film inexplicably belies its previous message and replaces it with empty rhetoric.

Alice enters Wonderland.

19-year-old Alice enters Tim Burton's Underland.

That Burton decided to focus on many of the more utopian aspects of the story—frequently repeating the idea that one may “believe six impossible things before breakfast” and that “all the best people” are mad, the film glories the untamed imagination and fully recognizes its potential to cause social upheaval and positive, humane change. Indeed, in the end none of the film’s characters are slain save the Jabberwocky (though the audience is denied the thrilling “SNICKER SNACK” that traditionally accompanies the Vorpal Sword’s fatal blows). Even the cruel Red Queen is spared; she is, however, banned from the kingdom, and chained forever to her equally unpleasant steward, the treacherous Knave of Hearts (played by a delightfully creepy Crispin Glover). The White Queen transforms the entire kingdom into a peaceful, human, and equal place—a mad utopia, but a utopia nonetheless.

The ending, however, belies the rest of the film—Alice chooses to go home instead of remaining in Wonderland. She spurns her loathsome suitor’s offer of marriage but decides to follow her father’s footsteps as an entrepreneurial explorer, expanding business into new lands and distant countries (specifically China). In the end, the film suggests, the most important thing is not humane change but potential for exploration and boundless personal and financial gain. Through its rather heavy-handed use of a visual caterpillar (The Hookah-Smoking Caterpillar, to be exact) transformed into a butterfly in the final scene of the film (the butterfly soars over Alice’s shoulder as she strides confidently toward the bow of a ship that will take her to China), the film suggests that Alice’s real destiny, in fact her happiness, self-expression, and true freedom, are inextricably bound to explorations via venture capitalism. Indeed, her imagination seems more contained, more limited than ever—it has been “domesticated.”* Of course, the domestication of the imagination is par for the course with Disney—and Burton’s Alice in Wonderland is, after all, a Disney film.

By borrowing the penultimate act of The Wizard of Oz (in Burton’s version of Alice in Wonderland Alice is given Jabberwocky blood which allows her to be transported home, if she so chooses), Burton reasserts the utopian implication of Frank L. Baum’s novel and of the various Oz films—that home, the real world, can be improved, and made better. However, Burton’s Alice hopes not for improvement of overall conditions, but only for the limited improvement of her own personal life. As Jack Zipes writes in Fairy Tale as Myth, Myth as Fairy Tales, Baum lost faith in the utopian American dream over time; in the final Oz books, Dorothy decides to remain in Oz forever, having no use for the vast, unresolved social and economic inequalities of her original home in America.

Alice in her armor.

That Burton’s Alice is blind, even indifferent to greater social concerns. Although her adventurous actions would have been unusual, even subversive for a woman in Victorian England, viewed in a contemporary context her decision to use her imagination in order to succeed in business perfectly corroborates the myth that iconoclasm, risk-taking and hard work create not just success but also joy. Moreover, the film equates the genuine social parity and happiness achieved in Wonderland with the boundless expansion of business and personal wealth—implying that the latter (personal wealth/gain) creates and support the former (social equality), despite the fact that inequality—especially economic inequality—is entrenched in American society. We need utopian stories to help suggest fresh ways of addressing social imbalance. As Jack Zipes says, “I find our reality so disturbing, so unfulfilling, so corrupt, and so barbaric that I began conceiving alternatives to our social condition. All good literature provides hope, but the best of fantasy literature provides extraordinary hope, and I guess that is what I am after — extraordinary hope.” That’s why the conclusion to Burton’s Alice in Wonderland upsets me so deeply—it lacks the extraordinary hope present in the rest of the film.

A quick look at recent fan fiction based on Burton’s Alice in Wonderland reveals that large portion of the fan fiction written about the story either change the ending so that Alice remains in Wonderland or send her back to Wonderland after she becomes discontent with her drab life in the real world. Perhaps we’re all holding on to that extraordinary hope after all.

*The “domestication of imagination” is a phrase that Jack Zipes uses many times over in his books.

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Filed under children, children's literature, fairy tales, film, films, literature, popular culture

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