Friday, May 14, 2010

Alice in Wonderland -- believing and doing the impossible

Director: Tim Burton, 2009. (PG)

Burton's latest film is a gorgeous extravaganza full of vibrant color, fantastic creatures and imaginative design. It is an excessive sensory experience that deserves to be tasted and savored before being analyzed and critiqued. This is to be expected as Burton often uses expansive fantasy (e.g., Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) or elaborate caricature (e.g., Mars Attacks) to create his movies. Though I did not see it in 3-D, one of the cinematic options, the characters and creatures almost leapt off the screen in a dizzying speed that left me almost breathless. Yet the story itself felt episodic and patched together.

This is not the "Alice in Wonderland" written by Lewis Carroll. There Alice is a girl; here she is 19 and about to be engaged. This Alice has already visited Wonderland but returned and forgot her adventures. All that are left for her are recurrent nightmares of that place, and even then she does not recognize the traces of reality embedded in her dreams.This is more of a conflation of "Wonderland" and "Alice Through the Looking Glass" with some additional thematic elements thrown into the mix.

At the start Alice Kingsley is running late to a large garden party. Little does she know, it is an engagement party being thrown in her honor, assuming she will accept the proposal of a dull and boring English nobleman. Alice, though, is an unpretentious individualist, willing to march to her own drum. Seeing a white rabbit in a waistcoat, she leaves her potential fiance waiting at the gazebo, in front of all the guests, and pursues him right up to the proverbial rabbit-hole. When she tumbles in, she falls through a weird vortex into a locked room that offers escape into a new land.

This Wonderland is really "Underland" and it is populated by the creatures we know from "Alice": the white rabbit (voice of Michael Sheen); the blue caterpillar (voice of Alan Rickman); the March Hare ("You're all late for tea"); Tweedle-dee and Tweedle-dum (Matt Lucas). Then there is the Cheshire Cat (voice of Stephen Fry) whose liquid-like appearance and disappearance is as good as we can imagine.

Alice in Wonderland (2010) Publicity StillOne of the strengths of the film is in the cast for the human characters. Anne Hathaway (Rachel Getting Married) plays the White Queen like some delicate pansy, all limp wrists and longing gazes. Her big-headed (literally) sister, the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter), is the tempestuous one, with serious anger-management issues ("Off with their heads!") This is the Queen of Hearts, as is clear from her guards who look like playing cards. She has a fondness for public decapitation and flamingo-and-hedgehog golf. Johnny Depp is perfect as the Mad Hatter, bringing an energy and quirkiness that fits to a tee. Burton has worked with Depp and Carter numerous times before (Sweeney Todd, Corpse Bride, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) and knows how to get the best out of these two accomplished actors. But it is the relatively unknown Australian actress, Mia Wasikowska, who steals the show as Alice, with her confident performance that carries the film.

When the creatures of Underland find Alice they are expecting her, still remembering the girl from her prior visit. Is she that Alice? They don't know, and she can't remember the prior meetings. But this is crucial, because one oracle predicts that Alice has a very important date -- the soon to be Frabjous day. On this day Alice is predicted to fight the Jabberwocky to bring justice back to Wonderland. The Jabberwocky is, of course, the dragon-like monster that Carroll wrote about in a separate nonsense poem ("Twas brillig and the slithy toves, did gyre and gimble in the wabe. . . Beware the Jabberwock, my son!") This same poem introduced "the frumious Bandersnatch," another fearsome creature Alice meets in this adventure.

One of the themes on display in this film is that of expectations and choices. Alice is living under the pressure of external expectations from just about everyone. Her mother expects her to wear certain clothes to the garden party, and then expects her to accept the engagement proposal. She has already chartered Alice's future life. Even the Hatter and his mad friends expect her to fight the Jabberwocky and free the land from the Red Queen's harsh rule. But Alice has strength of character beyond her years and stands up to her mother, her suitor and both queens. At the end when the White Queen asks for a champion to fight the Jabberwocky, it becomes Alice's choice whether she will accept the challenge, even if it is expected.

Too often we find ourselves living under others' expectations. Now, there is nothing wrong, per se, with expectations. These can help us rise to the occasion. But when we submit to them against our desire, we become unhappy, even bitter. Better to be like Alice, self-assured and confident enough to swim upstream and go against the crowd and their expectations. There is always a choice, and we must recognize this. Even if we choose to meet expectations, it then becomes our choice. When we can choose, we have freedom and are not living as subjects. We can be free-spirited like Alice.

Another theme is doing the impossible. We might be mad to believe the impossible, but madness is a thread weaving the story together. When the Mad Hatter says to Alice, at one point, "Have I gone mad?" she responds, "I'm afraid so. You're entirely bonkers. But I'll tell you a secret. All the best people are." This is the message her father told her in the prologue. When we are too rational and logical we discount the irrational, the illogical, the impossible. We begin to believe only in what we can see or measure. It tends to rule out faith, which believes in what cannot be seen (Heb. 11:1).

Toward the end, Alice declares "This is impossible." She is seeing with her eyes, not her heart or mind. The Hatter brings up her short, "Only if you believe it is." And a little later Alice declares, "Sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast." By opening up her mind to these impossibilities she is ready to face her foe. After all, this whole adventure is impossible by any normal standard, so believing in the impossible is almost natural.

We can take this lesson to heart. We may limit the impossible by refusing to accept or believe in it. Yet the Bible tells us that God is the god of the impossible -- "for nothing is impossible with God" (Lk. 1:37). Many believe that miracles are impossible. but God has done many miracles: from the parting of the Red Sea for the Israelites, to the raising of the dead in Lazarus and Jesus. Miracles by definition cannot be explained by natural means. If our minds are closed to the possibility of these miracles, of the impossible, then we will seek to explain them away, and ultimately ignore the miracle of Jesus' resurrection and the new life he offers by grace. One of our six impossible things we should contemplate before breakfast is salvation in Christ.

Alice in Wonderland (2010) Publicity StillIf Alice offers us a perspective on faith, the Red Queen offers insight into fear. She tells her trusted friend, "It is far better to be feared than loved." She rules with an iron-fist; fear is her watchword. This is, of course, a reference to"The Prince", written by 15th century Italian political philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli, where the same question is asked: "It may be answered that one should wish to be both but, because it is difficult to unite them in one person, it is much safer to be feared than loved." She is Machiavellian, but not biblical

God our Creator answers this same question differently. He wants both. He demands to be feared: "Now fear the LORD and serve him with all faithfulness" (Jos. 24:14) Indeed, "For great is the LORD and most worthy of praise; he is to be feared above all gods" (1 Chron. 16:25). But this fear is not a terrible dread of impending judgment; rather, it is more of an awe of one who is so much greater than us. It is a beneficial fear: "The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge" (Prov. 1:7). This fear results in love from God: "For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him" (Psa. 103.11). If God calls us to fear him, he also wants us to love him. A teacher asked Jesus what the greatest commandment in the Law was, and Jesus replied, "' 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment." (Matt. 22:37-38) He was citing Deuteronomy 6:5, one of the books of the Pentateuch in the Old Testament. God is love, and he wants us to relate to him as Father by loving him whole-heartedly. Love and fear find balance in our relationship with the Lord, unlike the Red Queen.

Ultimately, Alice in Wonderland is too quirky to be a classic or one of Burton's best. But he has refashioned a classic of English literature for a new generation. And in so doing he has shown us that it is possible to believe the impossible. Now it is our turn to fall down our own rabbit hole into a more extravagant wonderland -- the marvelous kingdom of God, which impossibly is working its way to fruition in this antithetical, science-focused planet. Believe the impossible; believe in Jesus. Then you can live forever in Wonderland with exotic creatures called angels.

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

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