Monday, March 8, 2010

Six Impossible Things I Can Believe About 'Alice in Wonderland'

Tim Burton has said he never felt an emotional connection to any of the previous movie or television incarnations of 'Alice in Wonderland' and always thought it was a series of some girl wondering around from one crazy character to another. Well, as someone who's read both "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" and the sequel "Through the Looking-Glass (and what Alice found there)", I can tell you that is exactly how Charles Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll) originally intended the Alice stories to be. There was no narrative, no framework in his mind as he invented these stories for Alice Liddell and her sisters; it was merely a series of adventurous meetings. "Looking-Glass" followed a more logical progression, but they're still children's tales.

Burton wanted more structure, though. I don't actually blame him. He created a very good movie, after all. Apart from the visual effects, which were stunning in some cases, he also had an excellent cast to bring his movie to life: newcomer Mia Wasikowska as the grown-up but still childlike Alice; Johnny Depp, as mad as any hatter could be; the lovely Anne Hathaway as the White Queen; Helena Bonham Carter as the threatening but vaguely sympathetic Red Queen; and the inestimable Stephen Fry as the Cheshire Cat. With this ensemble, Burton was able to present an adventure story that I believe Lewis Carroll might actually enjoy. And it isn't as if any previous incarnation was or could have been entirely faithful to the source material.

The purist in me wanted to hate the movie before it was even completed; but, when in Wonderland, you must be willing to let go of everything you know and embrace what you see. And so, as Alice herself did, I'll list the six impossible things I can believe.

***Warning: May Contain Spoilers***

The first is Alice herself. She's no longer a little girl, but a grown woman who needs to decide what direction to follow in life. The adventures of her childhood, she's now convinced, were simply dreams. Now, when the White Rabbit leads her down to Wonderland, it is no chance encounter. The narrative woven by Tim Burton is one of a chosen protector, a champion whose intervention will free the inhabitants of Wonderland from the dominion of a tyrant. That champion, of course, is Alice.

The tyrant is the Red Queen, who years ago usurped the crown from her sister, the White Queen. This is the second impossible thing. The character of the Red Queen is blended with that of the Queen of Hearts, as she often is. Originally, though, the Queen of Hearts was always the ruler of Wonderland, lording (or ladying?) over the other Suits (Diamonds, Clubs, and Spades). The Red and White Queens lived in Looking-Glass Land, and despite their chess battle, they were actually quite friendly with each other. That was the first thing that bothered me about this new movie when I learned about it. However, if you're going to have an epic battle, which this movie does, then you can either face the Queen of Hearts against the other Suits (which may or may not have been a good idea) or you can do what Tim Burton did. One thing you cannot do is have an 'Alice' movie without the Queen yelling "OFF WITH THEIR HEADS!"

The Jabberwock is number three (and yes, it's Jabberwock, not Jabberwocky). The fearsome dragon of Looking-Glass Land never quite made an appearance in the book, or most of the movies. However, it does make an appearance in this movie, as the Red Queen's resident beastie. It doesn't just inhabit the Tulgey Wood anymore, and it isn't just a foe for young knights who want to prove their mettle. Now, it is the creature that Alice must slay if she is to end the Red Queen's reign of terror.

Some very unlikely characters help Alice in her quest. The Cheshire Cat, originally so enigmatic as to be entirely unhelpful, now is almost eager to put his very life on the line for Alice, the White Queen, and even the Hatter himself. Still an enigma, and still charmingly puzzling, he is another indispensable character, wonderfully played by British character actor Stephen Fry.
If the Cheshire Cat is one example of an unlikely character coming to the rescue, then the Hatter is an even better one. Still mad, and still drinking tea with his friends the March Hare and Dormouse when Alice finds him, the Hatter is perhaps the one resident of Wonderland who has been most affected by the Red Queen's rule. His desire to see the "bloody bighead" fall prompts him to risk his life for Alice time and again, even though he is only one of a few in Wonderland who actually believes she is the intended champion. "I'd know you anywhere," he declares, helping her escape capture at the hands of Stayne, the infamous Knave of Hearts, played by Crispin Glover.

The sixth impossible thing is how much I actually liked this movie. Despite the changes made, the end product is quite a good story. Several characters from the books and previous movies didn't quite make the cut, of course. The Walrus and the Carpenter, the Duchess and the Cook, the Griffin and the Mock Turtle, and the Lion and the Unicorn all were left off the guest list. One character I would have really liked to see would have been the White Knight from Looking-Glass Land, who was Alice's escort for part of her journey and would have been more believable in the role filled by the Mad Hatter. I also would've liked the angle I proposed earlier, with the Red Queen appearing completely as the Queen of Hearts and facing Suits rather than the White Army in the end. It would have made more sense to me.

But this is Wonderland; a world of adventure, not logic; of madness, not sanity; of childlike wonder, not cynical criticism. Some say this movie lacked heart; I say the heart is where this movie's strength truly rested. I came close to walking into the movie with my mind made-up, having already decided what it had done "wrong" and how it "should" be. In that sense, I was a little like Alice, falling into a world she had visited before, facing a host of changes, firmly convinced that she would wake up at any moment to what she "knew" was right. I decided not to be that way; not to lose, in the words of the Hatter, my "muchness".

So, if you want to be like Alice, constantly trying to make sense of the madness in this movie, then that's up to you; but I recommend, instead of falling into the rabbithole, you jump in with both feet.

- Stephen Monteith

(read the original review here on Facebook)

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Do you like sci-fi? Sure you do.

Science-fiction has a bad reputation. It's not (all) about pimply-faced basement-dwellers who war with each other online and at conventions about which spacecraft from which series could destroy all the others one-on-one (it's the Super Star Destroyer from "Return of the Jedi", by the way *grins*). Sci-fi has its fingers in a lot of pies.

In the old days (and I mean really old, like Henry Kuttner old), it was called "speculative fiction"; meaning, more than just regular made-up stuff, the type of fiction that asked "what if the world worked differently than it does?" That's why you'll see science-fiction and fantasy on the same shelves together; because they both deal with worlds that operate differently than ours does. The classic sci-fi series "Twilight Zone" and "The Outer Limits" explored any number of possible avenues for "alternate reality"; but speculative fiction has far deeper roots than television.

The original science-fiction novel is "Frankenstein" by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. There have been other, earlier stories of magic, monsters, demons, ghosts, and gods; but while other mythological creatures and characters endure because of cultural forces, "Frankenstein" from its inception was accepted as a work of fiction (and art) and has endured as such for almost two centuries, spawning any number of sequels, spin-offs, spoofs, and adaptations.

In its wake came a host of sci-fi/fantasy novels, including "Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea" by Jules Verne, "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" by Lewis Carroll, and of course, Bram Stoker's "Dracula". These and other novels have fueled our imagination at almost every level, appealing to everything from our childlike sense of wonder to our appetite for adventure to our deepest fears and desires. Parables like Oscar Wilde's "The Picture of Dorian Gray" and Robert Louis Stevenson's "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" force us to look inward to see who we really are. It's a bit of introspection that every great author inspires, but that sci-fi authors can address in unique ways.

They also have greater width for conceiving and creating adventure stories. "The Lord of the Rings", widely considered the greatest modern epic, is fantastical at every level, even to the point of taking place on another world, another earth. The same is true of "The Chronicles of Narnia" and just about every major epic fantasy to follow. More recently, popular series like "Harry Potter" have blended fantastical worlds with our own.

Television, of course, has always had its space operas. When James Kirk captained the Enterprise on "Star Trek", his mission was "to seek out new life and new civilizations". The human race has always sought the next horizon, whether it was across the ocean, from sea to shining sea, or among the stars themselves. I love a good biopic on Christopher Columbus as much as the next blogger, but to see the same voyage wrapped in a good space battle? Who can resist that?

Science-fiction is a pretty subtle, pretty savvy poker player. It holds adventure, drama, comedy, horror, and romance in its hand; but it bluffs you with a geeky exterior, a loser persona that wears rumpled t-shirts and glasses held together with superglue. It learned from the best; classical masters like Ray Bradbury and Orson Welles, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Philip K. Dick, as well as a few modern ones like Joss Whedon and James Cameron. It'll slow-play you with a splashy galaxy quest, and then sneak in with piratical precision. Go ahead; take another look at your favorite flicks, your newest novel. Any appearances by aliens, or traveling through time? Some magic with your mayhem, or a bit of technology out of place? Yes, it may be funny or pulse-pounding, romantic or very scary; but it's more than just plain old fiction.

Monday, March 1, 2010

That's a little ... Seuss-ical

I've never been that great a poet (though I am occasionally very poetical). I could never quite get the knack for meter and rhyme. So, when I wrote this poem, I invented a lot of words on the spot to help the flow:

There once was a man who lived on a street
Two blocks and a half from a good place to eat.
He jogged every morning, six days of the week.
He ate with his family, friends, and his threek.

Now what is a threek, you may say to yourself.
A threek is a creature who lives on a shelf
And who feeds on the dust that collects in the corners
And reads to the children and also the horners.

And what are the horners, you ask yourself next.
They love to learn lessons right out of the text.
Lessons like adding, subtracting, and such,
But they themselves cannot read anything much.

They see all things backwards, so nothing is straight.
They're nothing at all like the Snagglethorphate.
She listens intently to everything said
And plainly remembers all things in her head.

The Snagglethorphate is not nearly as bright
As a Tippenthroe out on a full-moonlit night.
For the Tippenthroe's mind is unleashed by the moon
And knows anything, everything, at least until noon.

Then at noon, the Tippenthroe seeks out a bed.
He takes one vacated by a Simmolothedde
Who wakes and who rises at noon everyday
And who, without thinking will go where he may

But will always return just in time to dine
With threeks, snorks, and snoozles at twenty to nine.
Before he retires, he jogs down the street
Like the man who lives down from the good place to eat.

- Stephen Monteith