Red Queen/White Queen: A belated defense of Burton's Alice

by on May.29, 2012

I didn’t get around to see Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland until yesterday, partly, I think, because I didn’t care too much for Sweeny Todd, but partly because of the overwhelming bad critique it received when it first came out. It quickly fell out of view. I never actively sought it out. Luckily, in a home where many kids roam, these things tend to correct themselves.

In short, I thought it was awesome. I’m glad my daughter got to witness a female lead in an adventure pic hopscotch on severed heads and without much anguish and tribulations decapitate the top-beast-monster, the grimly jabberwocky, voiced by the always evil baritone Christopher Lee. (Is he even a bariton? It sounds nice to say though.)

What the critics I’ve read seem to agree on is that Alice sucks because the characters are flat, too much craziness going on and not enough substance, repetitive, the simplistic division of good and evil etc. It is also predictable. Alice’s arranged husband to-be in the beginning of the movie is a total dumbass, flat, a caricature like the rest of the aristocracy undone by their own formal gesturing, and of course Alice is not going to marry him. So what? Alice is quirky, goth-pale and doesn’t belong. She prefers to chase rabbits. She says weird things. Why would you want “realism” in Alice in Wonderland? Come on.

I was expecting a hallucinatory dream, which might have been its own awesome, but found the story surprisingly straight forward. However great Fantasia is, there’s no way my daughter would sit through it. We’ve tried. She sat through all of Alice and giggled. She’s almost 5. Her standard response when we ask her if something is scary (like when the little mouse pops out the bandersnatch’s eye with a needle) is “yes”, but when we ask if she’s scared, she’ll say “duh, no.” 

Alice aside, the two other most fun and interesting characters in the movie are also female. Helena Bonham Carter (of course) as Red Queen and Anne Hathaway as the White Queen. In contrast, it’s Depp’s madhatter who gets to be the damsel in distress, starring off into space more often than not. I might be out of my depths here but this seems like a rather rare, if not unique, constellation in a popular children / young adult / adventure genre. Something that none of the reviews I have read even touches on. Sure, a female lead might get to be there in the final battle to assist, offer moral support or fire off a distracting arrow, but to slay the ultimate badass monster? Hardly. Kenneth Turan for LA times gives it a snappy once-over.

Burton and company have taken special care to provide pictures of Alice as a warrior princess in full Joan of Arc armor as a female empowerment icon for the girls in the audience. “

I don’t know in which world this is suppose to be ironic.

Philip French for The Guardian chimes in, after a minor history lesson and a bit about why an original is always complex and mucking or mixing up the original for eccentricities is less so.

Now Disney returns to the fray, with Burton directing a script by American children’s writer Linda Woolverton, whose previous work for Disney on The Lion KingMulan and the stage version of Beauty and the Beast is redolent of fashionable rites of passage and female empowerment.”

What’s wrong with female empowerment? Must movie critics all be so inherently dismissive? What’s fashionable about rites of passage?

This got me thinking further about the trend (I see anyway) of propping up adventure and action hero flicks with psychology and realism to unflatten them. Spiderman, Batman, Superman can’t just be POW WOW and latex but have to get real, have to have a prequel, have to have a back story and childhoods, have to have doubts, have to overcome conflicting emotions. Frodo and Harry Potter also comes to mind as icons of this trend with their excruciatingly drawn-out bouts of doubt that they have to overcome in order to defeat evil. Saving the world is a lonely business. At the end of their 9 and 18 hour (or whatever) walks through the purgatory they come out looking about as tired and pale as Alice does at the beginning of Wonderland. Alices who needs about 30 seconds to convince herself that she can take down the beast and does, as we know she will, adding just a minor dent in the special effects budget. Predictable? Hell yes! The jabberwocky’s head comes off all too soon with a thud not followed by the adoring cheers of masses but with a kind of sad melancholy, the hollow thud of anticlimax. The hatter’s awkward and weird victory dance that follows only reinforces the banality of the conquest.

I’m curious. Is this moping and whining and internalization of struggling male super hero characters suppose to “complicate” the good-evil division? Isn’t the good-evil division simplistic simply because it is, however many human elements are added to either the good or bad side’s parties? It seems to me only to reinforce it, and if you don’t buy it, it seems to be saying, we’ll waterboard you with character development until you do! Sooner or later, batman, if he wants to be batman, has to strap on his batman suit. He can be ironic about it and he can try to make it as black and shiny and cool as possible, he can be waist-high in human emotions, but he still have to go up against The Joker in bat-ears and play the part of good and reasonable. Or he isn’t batman. He’s doomed to always win and always be the not cool one. I’m curious. Is satire really that hard to detect? Or is it that satire itself always is flat (even if sharp) and must be disqualified? Or is it that satire is always political and political is not just flat but uncomfortable in the arts? I hate reviews that disqualifies.

Hand me down the shark repellent bat spray.

At some point the mad hatter (I believe) says to Alice that she has “lost her muchness”. That Alice is, in fact, yes, flat. Alice is literally stretched and unstretched through out the movie. The drawn out process where the lead figures out that he is in fact The One in Alice has been stripped down to a relatively painless equation: the real Alice versus the not real Alice. Instead of development there is repetition. Instead of psychological realism there is obsession.

Off with their heads!” is the Red Queen’s answer to everything. She says it through out the movie. She has a big head, it’s her only obsession, and heads have to roll. She’s over-evil, the kind of evil which is impossible not to find likable, an eccentric. Impossible to find evil. Little monkeys support her chair. Her entourage support fake-deformities to appease her. Seeing her I can’t help but to see a mash up of recent dethroned dictators, Gaddafi and Saddam, not to mention Kim Jong-il. Red queen, big head, no? “Off with their heads!”

More remarkably the White Queen is no wise daisy mother of goodness either. Hathaway plays her wonderfully. Her vow preventing her from harming living creatures is not some blissful state but a noticeably awkward deformity, much like the Red Queen’s head. Beauty contains her. I was sure she was going to explode into an evil rage at any moment. In her inability to violence there seemed to me to be an even wickeder violence lying in wait. Red Queen it becomes quickly obvious has very little power, but what about White Queen? She’d cut off your head and eat it, if she could. White Queen’s elegance is never elegant but exaggerated, resembling more a kind of zombie twitch-step, (echoing good old Bush’s awkward attempt at honesty?) She’s ready to explode the good-evil division. She’s real creepy.

Just one last thought. The super hero with feelings, with doubts, where fighting evil becomes as much an exorcism as actual kickassness seems to me to be reinforcing the narrative of the terrorist. The threat from within. A narrative swallowed with hair and heads and all. Well fuck that. Alice for the win!

4 comments for this entry:
  1. Kim

    A correction. Philip French writes for The Observer. They seem to have joined forces or something, sharing the same site. The Guardian review is shorter and more positive.

  2. J. Karl Bogartte

    Agreed. The old morality play is absolutely boring. There’s nothing worse than seeing a movie, or reading a text of some kind where atonement is the final outcome.

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  4. Johannes

    I’ll have to watch this now. It seems that the movie doesn’t compare flatness vs complexity, but different kinds of flatness, with varying degrees of involvement with a kind of evil or violence that contaminates and moves through characters.

    Johannes