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Returning to Wonderland

Tea party scene
Tea party scene

The newest film by Tim Burton is a beautiful imagining of Wonderland with an interesting, if occassionally simplistic screenplay by Linda Woolverton.  Woolverton composed an original story that is not an adaptation but a continuation, detailing events that take place after Charles Lutwidge Dodgson’s (or by his pseudonym Lewis Carroll) stories, Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There.  Wonderland has been portrayed many times before on both film and television, but those adaptations have always lacked a certain something that director Burton specifically wanted to bring out in his film.  In early interviews about the film, Burton expressed a desire to show a “darker” Wonderland. The movie is indeed strong on visuals and heavily references the nonsense poem about the Jabberwocky from Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There. Overall, the film is “dark” but  lacks the creepy, almost threatening nature that most adaptations of Wonderland have typically enhanced.  However, it works well for a film partnered with Disney and makes the story more accessible to children and adults who do not fully understand Carroll’s intricate wordplay and musings on logic and mathematics.  Noting the immense commercial success the movie received on opening day it appears that it will continue to do quite well at the box office, and will undoubtedly kindle an interest in Carroll’s stories with a younger audience.

Wonderland revives an old trope, possibly one that originated with Carroll himself, that concerns a journey from Reality (this world) into another land that is usually fantastical in nature with odd, quirky inhabitants who are sometimes helpful, sometimes threatening. But why is there such a fascination with sending young girls (and occasionally boys as in the case of The Never-ending Story) into an unknown fantasy world? What is the reason for entering a new land that is foreign and strange, and why is the hero/heroine always young?

This trope has been used not only in popular literature, such as Baum's The Wizard of Oz, but also in original movies like Jim Henson’s Labyrinth which has become a massive cult favorite.  The trope has also become extremely popular in Japanese manga (comics) and anime (animated series), one of the most popular being Yuu Watase’s Fushigi Yuugi series. High school student, Miaka, opens a book on the Universe of the Four Gods and finds herself in a fantasyland resembling Ancient China where she becomes a Priestess of Suzaku, one of the Four Gods. Miaka's journey shares similarities with most shoujo manga and anime, or female-oriented comics and animated series.  Visions of Escaflowne, another popular series in Japan, features another young girl who is magically transported to a fantasy world called Gaia.  Sometimes the young female protagonists can return to Reality and go back and forth between home and the fantasy realm, as in the case of Carroll's stories.  The Japanese in particular have adapted Carroll’s story numerous times, including a very bizarre parody manga by all-female group CLAMP called Miyuki-chan in Wonderland as well as use the storyline as a "filler" episode for a normally non-fantasy anime.  The popular movie Spirited Away by Hayao Miyazaki also referenced Carroll's stories, albeit with a very strong Japanese mythological slant.

Burton's movie has more in common with Japanese shoujo than the original tales.  There are even tiny elements of romance, which would no doubt be enhanced in shoujo.  The character of Alice in particular is quite different from the curious little girl of Carroll's stories.  She is calm, clever and has a small bit of sternness about her that makes her appear more mature.  She even (SPOILERS) gets a chance to fight.  It is this reinvention from a witty wordplay tale to a young girl's triumph search within herself that allows the film to resonate more closely with modern audiences.  The trope of a youth entering a strange world continues to be of interest to modern filmmakers and writers, and the continued popularity of Alice in Wonderland coupled with the success of Tim Burton’s stylish film show that it will stay a significant staple in film and literature.