Alice in Underland–Things to Think About   3 comments

I went to see Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland movie on Sunday afternoon. Somewhat to my surprise, I liked it. Like Avatar, the movie succeeds not because of story and plot, but because of settting and special effects. And like Avatar, there are more things going on beneath the surface than are readily apparent.


You know how the story is going to end even before  you go to the movie. Somehow, a simple journey through a fabulous land of imagination is not enough for Tim Burton. He turns it into a female version of the Hero’s Journey, thank you very much Mr. Joseph Campbell, in which the stricken land must be redeemed by a hero who fights and slays a monster. I suppose it’s a good plot for children, and this is really  a movie for children–what else would we expect from Disney productions. Any child can go see this movie safely enough.

As the characters explain, Alice is really in Underland, not Wonderland. Lewis Carroll wrote of her first venture there when she was a 6 year old child–somehow I always thought of her as more tennish, but . . . whatever. Carrol’s tale is a simple travelogue–Alice wanders around, meets some odd characters, and wakes up. Burton’s movie  is not about the journey at all. It’s all about opposites: possible-impossible, big-small, good-evil, lush-desolate, awake-asleep.  Opposites abound. Perhaps you can think of some more. Oh yes, there is enough subtext in Alice to keep analysts busy for a long time.

In the picture above you can see how lush and fertile Underland is. But much of Underland has become a desolate ruined place. Look below to see what a barren and hideous country it has become since the child’s visit.


The land is barren. Storm clouds fill the sky. Even in the rich picture above, there is the suggestion of storm and decay and rottenness.  Underland has become a Wasteland.

Of course, we have a handy scapegoat–villains who did this to Wonderland. The Red Queen, the Jack of Hearts, the Jabberwocky, the Jubjub bird, the Bandersnatch, and the Red Queen’s Cards (guards).  (That’s a pun, son.) And, Alice learns her lessons and becomes a champion who can redeem the land.  She faces her own moment of truth, and is not found wanting. However, I wonder what she is redeeming?


The White Queen is the symbol of the old, good Underland–white the color of purity versus red the color of blood. The  White Queen wears too much lipstick, and it’s black. Her fingernails are painted black. She minces and poses through her scenes. Like her sister, she has a court of sycophants and flatterers. She also is a witch, and the ingredients she puts into her potion to transform Alice to the “right” size are vile–urine and severed fingers are shown.  The White Queen reminds me of Emma Frost, the corrupt leader of the X-Men.  Emma was the White Queen of the Hellfire Club. Surely the resemblance is no accident–I’d guess that Tim Burton knows American pop culture as well as anyone. Where there are resemblances, there are intentions behind them.  She pouts and sulks when it seems like she may not get her way. She is cruel and spiteful when she sentences her defeated sister to go into exile in the Outer Lands.  Her creed may be never to kill, but she has no compulsions about getting others to kill for her.

I wonder why the Looking-Glass land had to mingle with Underland. Is it because there was no true darkness, no evil even implied in Wonderland? But when Alice went through the Looking-Glass she encountered all sorts of violence, though it was more implied than shown. The flowers are spiteful and mean in Looking-Glass land. The poetry is vicious and menacing.  (Twas brillig and the slithy toves did gyre and gimbal in the wabe.)  The world is violent behind the mirror. The Jabberwocky poem is one of horror, and even though the beamish boy with the vorpal blade triumphs, not all of the monsters are defeated. Humpty Dumpty falls off the wall and is broken to pieces and all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty together again. The Lion and the Unicorn were fighting for the Crown. The Lion beat the Unicorn all around the Town. The Looking-Glass world  has much more violence and evil in it than Underland, so when Burton needs villains, that is where he turns.

There are strange things going on in Underland–not just the obvious strange things like talking animals and fabulous monsters, but psychologically strange things. Burton’s story is a boy’s adventure tale where everything is reversed. The champion-hero is a girl, but she takes up the vorpal blade and dresses in knightly armor to slay the dragon. The sword is the ultimate symbol of male potency. Why is a girl wielding it? The strong characters in the movie are all women. Red Queen, White Queen, Dormouse, Alice–even the Mad Hatter, the closest thing we get to an admirable male, is extremely effeminate.  The Jack of Hearts is a blackguard–literally. The White Rabbit is a coward. The Caterpillar is an overbearing pedant with a vile habit–always blowing smoke in people’s faces and gloating when they choke on it. The Bandersnatch is a simple but ferocious beast. The March Hare is raving mad, and dangerous–always throwing things. The Mad Hatter is angry and crazy.  Tweedledee and Tweedledum are morons.  The only admirable male in the film is Alice’s father, and he’s dead. What’s going on?

You might argue that Burton is just working with what Lewis Carrol gives him, but that would be simplistic. Carrol’s White Rabbit is not the cowering lickspittle that Burton portrays. There are male characters in Carrol’s story, conspicuous by their absense in Burton’s movie. The Walrus and the Carpenter are not nice guys, but they are not the weaklings that are all we see in Burton’s movie. The White Knight in Looking-Glass land may remind us of Don Quixote, but he’s a champion all the same. Old Father William, although only a character in a poem, is quite a remarkable fellow. None of them make an appearance in Underland. What’s going on here?

Alice in Underland is another retelling of the hero’s journey, except the hero is a girl. She descends into the Underworld, is tested, slays the dragon, and returns to the surface world to set things right. Alice learns her own true identity and becomes her own person only by leaving her dreams behind. But is she a good person at the end? She stands on her own two feet and confronts her adversaries, but only by becoming like them. She bullies the bullying mother. She blackmails the cheating brother-in-law. She connives with the conniving businessman. Yes, Alice learns to survive in our all too imperfect world, but she is corrupted just the same.  Alice in Underland is a story about the loss of innocence–it may be a necessary loss, but it is a sad one.

When the Red Queen, the Bloody Big Head, is defeated, the Mad Hatter is able to dance the Futterwacken once again. It’s a marvelous dance. It should be. You know what the verb to futter means–it means to fuck. Sex can be the most wonderful thing in life, and so it’s a wondrous dance. It is also used as the ultimate expression of contempt and defilement. When somebody says “Fuck you!” they’re not wishing you a joyous coupling with the mate of your choice. Sex is also the loss of innocence. 

When Alice fell into the Underland, she was innocent and unsullied–naive, pure.  It was a fall from grace.  When she returned, she came back dirty–no longer pure. She faced and defeated her real world foes, and then futterwacked them.  It was a symbolic degradation in the truest sense of the word.

It may sound like I’m being critical and negative here, but I’m not. I liked the story. Burton has a message, and it’s not a simple good vs. evil tale. I liked it because there is so much sub-text. I haven’t touched on a quarter of it. The real story of Alice in Underland is told in the imagery and the conversation–not in the simple linear story of heroine in a strange world who slays the dragon and finds  herself. It’s all symbolic, folks. Think about the symbols and enjoy it on an adult level.

P.S. Why is a raven like a writing desk? It is Carroll’s most famous riddle, and he never gave us the answer. Over the years a few good answers have been offered. The Mad Hatter didn’t know the answer, although it was his riddle. But I heard an answer that I like. I forget who came up with it, but it’s a great answer, and makes perfect sense if you know anything about Victorian England and Carroll’s love for wordplay.

Why is a raven like a writing desk? Because they both have INKY QUILLS! (ba-dum bump!)

Posted March 22, 2010 by atroll in Uncategorized

3 responses to “Alice in Underland–Things to Think About

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  1. Good review. Actually makes me want to see the movie.

  2. Actually, he did leave an answer, because so many people asked if there could be an answer, so he came up with one.

    ‘Because it can produce a few notes, though they are very flat; and it is never put with the wrong end in front!’ (from the author’s preface to the eighty-sixth thousand of the 6/- edition, 1897)

    It’s in one of the preface bits of my book (and i did have to fetch the book to check the exact wording)

  3. Pingback: 2010 in review « Atroll's Entertainment

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