It was a brillig day in Underland, the borogobes being mimsy and all. But Alice was in no position to either gyre or gimble.
It had, after all, been a trying day already. Mere moments before, a supercilious lord asked for her hand in marriage—a wonderful compliment, to be sure. But Alice doesn't love the man (who has a cantankerous digestive system besides). And then there was the well-dressed white rabbit to consider, scurrying through the gardens and brandishing a charming pocket watch.
Naturally, Alice did what any normal 19-year-old girl would do under similar circumstances: She left her hopeful suitor to chase the white rabbit and—again, quite naturally—fell down a rabbit hole.
The hole leads to Underland—a place where certain drinks will shrink you, certain foods will sprout you, certain cats disappear without warning and certain queens will, if they have their way, lop off your head(s). It's the sort of place that takes some getting used to. So weird, so wild, so positively frumious is this place that Alice assumes it must be a dream. Why dwell on the gyres and gimbles when, after all, a quite-normal English breakfast is just around the corner? Why take this world seriously at all?
So as Alice nibbles on cakes to grow and sips vials to shrink, the nervous residents of Underland watch and wonder whether they lured the right Alice down the hole.
Underland, you see, is anxious for Alice (who visited before, as documented in Lewis Carroll's classic children's books) to fulfill her destiny. A magical scroll clearly shows Alice (some Alice, if not this one) doing battle with the fearsome Jabberwocky, a terrible creature controlled by the Red Queen—a monarch who never outgrew her "terrible twos" and rules the land accordingly.
It's quite a duty to saddle on anyone, particularly someone so new to Underland (and whose brain is still wobbling from the fall through the rabbit hole). But even though Alice is reluctant to kill the Jabberwocky—she's a sensitive soul and couldn't kill him even if she wanted to, she says—she treats everyone with the firm kindness Carroll's original Alice displayed.
As she spends more time in Underland, however, she grows ever more courageous and self-assured—gathering her innate "muchness," in the movie's lingo. She infiltrates the Red Queen's castle, rescues the Mad Hatter, braves a toothy Bandersnatch and spirits away the famed vorpal sword—returning it to the White Queen, its rightful owner.
When the fateful Jabberwocky-fighting day arrives, Alice is up to the challenge. And the Hatter matches Alice in courage, risking his life and liberty for the girl's benefit more than once. The White Queen is also a model of good (if odd) behavior: She refuses to kill anything (it goes against her "vows") and pleads with the Red Queen to patch up their quarrel before things get ugly. Granted, she cooks with dead men's fingers (more on that later), but overall, she's quite a well-meaning queen.
When Alice eats or drinks things that make her grow or shrink, is that a) imaginative nonsense, b) completely naturalistic, given the nature of Underland, or c) magic?
To help you decide, let me offer this quick scene: Alice, still slightly too big, is in need of a potion to shrink her a tad more. So the White Queen whips up a special broth made from (among other things) horsefly urine, severed fingers, coins from a dead man's pocket, two teaspoons of wishful thinking and the White Queen's own saliva. This might indeed be a magical concoction—which would make the White Queen into some sort of witch. Or it might be, simply, how they cook in Underland.
Fact 1: Alice is 19 now. Fact 2: Her size fluctuates quite a bit in this story. And that means she shrinks right out of her dress at times, necessitating creative wardrobe decisions by her and others. When she grows out of her dress, her oversized nudity is hidden by a large shrub. We sometimes see her bare shoulders and upper chest.
Before she plunges into Underland, Alice sees her brother-in-law smooching another woman. ("Old friends," he tries to explain.) She accuses a pair of women of "swimming naked in the Haversham's pond." The Red Queen, endowed with a freakishly large head, only allows courtiers who also have huge features—one of whom sports a massive bosom. (It turns out to be fake.) The Knave of Hearts, the Red Queen's consort, makes a pass at Alice (who's about seven feet tall), telling her, "I like largeness." She spurns him, and he retaliates later by telling the queen that Alice hit on him. The Red Queen demands that the girl be arrested and executed for "unlawful seduction."
The creatures in Underland are not all cute and cuddly. Indeed, some are downright alarming.
Take the Bandersnatch, an ill-tempered beast with fur like a cat, claws like a velociraptor and teeth like a Swiss army knife gone horribly awry. He excels in wreaking havoc and, when he greets Alice for the first time, rakes his claws across her arm, leaving angry red wounds. The only thing he fears (or at least should fear), is a sword-wielding dormouse, who stabs him in the eye and plucks out the eyeball like an olive.
The Red Queen's worrisome birdie swoops and caws to hair-raising effect. He's finally grounded after getting his eye skewered and his head smashed by something rather large.
And the Jabberwocky, Underland's most terrible critter, breathes electric fire, bites, and sounds just like Saruman from The Lord of the Rings. The Jabberwocky may well be the star player in many a 5-year-old's nightmares come spring. He's bent on crushing and, perhaps, eating Alice—and he might've done just that had not his tongue been graphically cut out and his head hewn from his oh-so-long neck. The White Queen later gathers purple blood from the head (which drizzles down one of its teeth) and gives it to Alice to drink—a morbid elixir capable of taking her home.
So much for just clicking your heels together three times.
Elsewhere, Alice bounces off furniture and is threatened by a plummeting grand piano as she tumbles down the rabbit hole. She eventually falls with a thud—on the ceiling, oddly enough—then falls again when she realizes she's upside down.
The Red Queen distributes death sentences like most teens send out texts. A number of heads (though gray and purposefully unrealistic) float in her moat. We see one of her executions, which ends with the head floating up off the chopping block.
The Red Queen slaps the Knave of Hearts repeatedly and uses animals as furniture. Tweedledee and Tweedledum lightly punch, kick and jostle each other. The March Hare throws teacups, soup and salt. The dormouse brandishes—and sometimes stabs people with—a tiny sword. He carries the Bandersnatch's eyeball like a trophy.
Crude or Profane Language
Characters refer to the Red Queen as the "bloody Red Queen," a reference that evokes her penchant for executions and shares more in common with England's Bloody Mary than the profanity linked to Christ's death. God's name is misused once.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Readers of Lewis Carroll's imaginative work have sometimes wondered whether the author might've been, well, shall we say, somewhat impaired when he wrote Wonderland. The images he presents are so outlandish and, in some senses, grotesque, that some assume he must've been high.
That notion probably has more to do with Jefferson Airplane than historical fact. Carroll created these stories for real children and there's no record of him using or abusing drugs. But the substances Alice ingests twist Underland's reality every bit as much as hallucinogens twist real-world abusers' reality. Thus, Alice's shrinking tonic and growth cake may strike some as drug-inspired.
More direct is the fact that the caterpillar, Absalom, puffs on a hookah and is constantly enveloped in smoke.
Other Negative Elements
The white rabbit tells Alice that common, non-talking animals are embarrassing creatures, in part because they "shookum in public."
Teaming up on their seventh movie, Tim Burton and Johnny Depp have not merely created a reinterpretation of Lewis Carroll's classic Alice in Wonderland or its sequel, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There. This CGI-stocked live-action flick is actually another sequel—a tale that takes place a decade or so after the childlike Alice first found her way into Underland.
That conceit freed Burton (the man behind such gloomy and sometimes gruesome works as Sweeney Todd, Corpse Bride and Sleepy Hollow) to remake the land and remold the characters to suit his own taste. As such, his Wonderland is a darker country and more perilous—both for Alice and the moviegoer. I know children who would have Bandersnatch nightmares for months if they were allowed to see it. So age-based caution should be exercised before plunging the whole family down this particular rabbit hole.
But there's a dawn lurking behind this darkness. Because while Burton's Wonderland is a far different, far more dangerous place than Carroll imagined, it also requires that Alice be a bit more than the levelheaded innocent Carroll wrote about. Burton's Alice is, flat-out, a hero. Her heroism isn't determined so much by virtue of great intelligence or ability, but her willingness to persevere in the midst of trials, her courage to make sacrifices for others and, finally, her submission to destiny (while still displaying a great deal of free will, too).
In the end, Alice is given an opportunity to stay in Underland—to escape all the problems of the real world by retreating to the comforting nonsense of the rabbit hole.
It's a tempting offer. Who doesn't sometimes long to escape reality through some sort of self-constructed fantasy? Alice, though, rejects the invite, telling Underlanders (or is it Underlandians?) that there are "questions I have to answer, things I have to do." In fighting the Jabberwocky, Alice also finds the courage to face up to more mundane challenges—to turn down her ill-suited suitor, for instance, and take on the challenge of a career.
Alice does indeed find her "muchness," and in doing so encourages us to find ours.