Friday, April 23, 2010

alice in wonderland: a theological film review

Alice in Wonderland
A film review by S(hannon) and S(teve) Taylor

It should work. Computer animation should be perfect for bringing to life a masterpiece of literary nonsense, otherwise known as Alice in Wonderland. Especially in the hands of a seasoned Hollywood director (Tim Burton) and a genuine Hollywood star (Johnny Depp).

It should work.

Sadly, it didn’t, not for the twelve year old, nor her accompanying father.

Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland is a playful reinterpretation of themes and characters from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and the sequel, Through the Looking-Glass (written by Charles Lutwidge Dodgson under the pseudonym, Lewis Carroll).

Alice, now grown up, faces a marriage proposal. She finds herself caught between family expectation and personal dreams of freedom and adventure. Fleeing the decision, she finds herself falling down her childhood rabbit hole, returning to a wonderland filled with painted roses, competing Queens, a grinning Cheshire Cat and a Mad Hatter. Yet her search for identity continues, for if she is the real Alice, she is fated to fight the fearsome Jaberwockie.

And so, for 108 minutes, Alice struggles to find her true self. The film is thus a mirror of her adult world, her search for the real Alice.

Perhaps this is why the film struggles to work.

It fails to find an audience. If it’s a kids movie, why weight it down with adult themes? If it’s a children’s fantasy, why create scenes that remain too scary for those needing parental guidance? As a kids book, how do you overcome that common cliche in which innocent child falls into a world of fantasy?

The redeeming features are few. They include the acting of Johnny Depp (well known for starring roles in The Pirates of the Caribbean saga, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Chocolat), who is a superbly sinister and clearly Mad Hunter.

Another is the cinematic wonderland of stunning visual effects. (Although audience response to the 3D version remain mixed.) Scenes like the Mad Hatter’s tea party, in which Alice shrinks and expands, all the while surrounded by unchanging characters, are compelling pieces of cinematic creativity.

Yet a film is the sum of more than the stunning effects or the best efforts of acting A-listers. Without a coherent plotline, Alice in Wonderland simply wobbles toward a cinematic rabbithole. It looks fantastic, but ends up tumbling into incoherence.

S’s fantastic facts file:
– The original book has been translated into 125 languages and twenty four times has been made adapted to the big screen.
– The book began life as a story told to bored kids during a punt up the River Thames.
– Kiwi viewers might note the use of a koru, not as a symbol of new life, but amid a dark sinister forest setting.
– Well known “Alice” phrases now in common usage include the lines “Off with his head” and “Curiouser and Curiouser”
– Mathematical concepts are ingrained in the book.
– In Chapter Eight, where three cards paint white roses red, may be a reference to the Wars of the Roses.
– The author was a church minister. So would this make this piece of literature “Christian”?

Rev Dr Steve Taylor is Director of Missiology at Uniting College of Theology and Leadership, Adelaide, Australia. He is the author of The Out of Bounds Church? (Zondervan, 2005) and writes regularly at

Posted by steve at 09:40 AM

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