I’ve always had a liking for Tim Burton and his movies. From Beetlejuice to Edward Scissorhands to Big Fish and Sweeney Todd, Burton has kept me amazed and grateful: here, I thought, was a man who was fully capable of giving full shape to his imagination, from the realm of the mind to the realm of the real. Or at least, as real as the cinema can be. Imagine being able to depict so clearly the light and dark one imagines and dreams up! It’s not everyone who can truly and so starkly bring out into the open the contents of his brain, monsters, creepy crawlies, blossoming flowers and exercises in fragility and silence.
But Alice in Wonderland — yes! This is the movie that really made me love Tim Burton.
To me there has always been something grim and dark about Lewis’ two books; as a child reading them, I would end up both highly entertained and not a little scared at all the sights and sounds described: the Jabberwocky, the Mock Turtle, the Cheshire cat and his grin that was always the last to disappear. The Duchess who violently rocked a baby in her arms and the babe slowly transformed into a pig and wandered off. Twiddledee and TwiddleDum who fought like fat gladiators clad in foam over a rattle; the battle between the Lion and the Unicorn.
Lewis Carroll would’ve loved Tim Burton’s work on his beloved little girl. Burton’s ‘Alice’ is humorous, intelligent, funny and frightening; but he added his own understanding of the characters: he made them more real (as real as imaginary characters can be, if that makes any sense?) and more sympathetic.
The White Queen in the original books was always sleepy and lazy; in the movie she’s more active, despite being a pacifist: she was a bit of an apothecary, and she believed in justice.
Burton’s Red Queen was the same as Lewis’ — strident, aggressive, violent. The reasons behind the anger, however, were more than hinted at: she needed love (despite being the Queen of Hearts), and she resented not being her parents’ favorite. She reminded me of Macapagal-Arroyo: big-headed (arrogant), temperamental and human (and animal) rights violator that she was. When the Mad Hatter was thinking about words ‘M’, he looked at the Red Queen and said ‘monster’ and ‘murderer.’ Tim Burton could very well have added ‘Macapagal-Arroyo.’
I never particularly liked the Mad Hatter; after all, he was mad. But he was always amusing, as Lewis Carrol made him clever even in his lunacy. Tim Burton made the Mad Hatter into a hero — whatever craziness he possessed was directed towards the goal of restoring Wonderland (or Underland) and giving back the White Queen her crown her sibling stole. Johnny Depp made the Hatter a compassionate character, unselfish in his lucid moments, poetic in his crazy ones. He spoke American, British, Scottish and Irish in turns, and I thought it made his Hatter more interesting. He was a good friend to the 19-year old Alice in contrast to his conduct in the original books when he was an adult annoyed with the six year old she was before.
There were a few scenes there when it seemed that a romance of some sort could bloom between the Mad Hatter and Alice. Thank goodness nothing of the sort happened, nevermind that the Mad Hatter looked like Johnny Depp.
The plot was, to me, about defiance: defying roles that are foisted upon us; defying rules that serve no purpose but to keep some meek and obedient, while others strong and powerful. It was about taking back what’s been taken; and reclaiming selves lost because of years losing contact with our childhood and its illimitable power: there are no boundaries to a child, we are only taught to recognize them, respect or fear them as we grow up. Some lines are meant to be crossed, especially if it means keeping our braver, brighter selves intact. If we mean to grow up, Burton’s ‘Alice’ teaches us, then it means learning to defend what we truly are and what we really want for ourselves to be. It does not mean forgetting the world of fantasy; growing up means learning to appreciate the gift of imagination and learning from it. Imagination is something that can help strengthen us because in it there is freedom.
Burton’s ‘Alice’ made me realize how not very far off one’s childhood is — it’s always there, and it’s the defining moments that helped give shape and shadow to one’s character even as a child are easily summoned at the smallest visual reminder. I remember believing in fairies and aswang, in talking to animals and flowers and having them talk back (and what interesting conversations we had!). I believed in wanting to be taken seriously by the adults around me, yet at the same time not caring what they think. As a child I liked playing alone, and even then I knew the difference between solitude and aloneness.
I also hated being doubted when I told the truth; and there were days when I wanted to run away because I couldn’t stand other people ( I did run away once, but that’s another story) and what they wanted of and from me.
Burton reminded me of how I was as a child, and I now feel a little bit bewildered despite the gladness at being reunited with the forgotten memory. I don’t have to act all grown up (hahaha!, yes!) because who sets the standards for grown-up behavior anyway? So-called adults all over the world are killing millions of people with their policies of government and warfare. What is necessary, however, is to be responsible and to believe that justice should always be for the greater number even as we assert our own individuality. Alice took advice from the Blue Caterpillar who smoked a hookah and found her strength; in real life there is no such catterpillar blue, hookah-smoking or otherwise. We must, all the same, find ourselves, what we’re meant to do, and do our best to be of purpose, even if it doesn’t have to be slaying Jubjub birds or Jabberwockies.