by Shannon Buckley – Undergraduate, University of Calgary
“The name ‘Tim Burton’ has become synonymous with stylized films about outsiders with a recognizable gothic design, just as the name ‘Woody Allen’ has come to stand for angst-ridden urban comedies with a mousy intellectual” (Andac, 2003, sec. 2: para. 3). One of the recurring themes in Burton’s work is that of the strange and unusual character – the outcast. Throughout his career, many of the main protagonists of his films have been those that the presented society feels do not belong. Alice, from his 2010 film Alice in Wonderland, is no exception to this; it is “…a fairy tale of the “otherness” felt by every outsider” (Andac, 2003, sec. 1, para. 12). She is seemingly alone in her society because it frowns upon anything out of the ordinary, which of course Alice is. In her world, or ‘Overland’ (as it will be referred to when talking of Burton’s film), a place of normalcy and the mundane, Alice is the strange one. In Wonderland, or ‘Underland’ (as when discussing Burton’s film), Alice is in the same situation. In a world of absolute absurdity and nonsense, she is still the strange one because she is ‘normal.’ Alice as the normal, and then the reverse, as an outcast in Burton’s Alice in Wonderland will be explored in this paper. First, a link will be drawn between Disney’s 1951 animated version and Burton’s version to provide a background to Alice’s character and experience in Wonderland and Underland, and why it is important. Second, the worlds of Overland and Underland will be compared to provide a context for Alice as outcast in both worlds. Finally, the outcast character archetype will be examined with reference to Burton’s 1982 stop-motion animation film Vincent.
Walt Disney’s animated Alice in Wonderland from 1951 (hereby referred to as Wonderland) is the start of Alice’s adventures in Wonderland. Like any normal young girl (presumably), Alice’s imagination often runs wild. She declares, “If I had a world of my own, everything would be nonsense. Nothing would be what it is because everything would be what it isn’t. And contrariwise, what it is it wouldn’t be, and what it wouldn’t be it would.” But when it actually does happen, she doesn’t know what to make of it all and approaches this ‘Wonderland’ of hers with logic and reason. But as is well known, in Wonderland, logic and reason have no place. As she muddles through her time there, she comes to realize that she does not like the unusual and finds comfort in the familiar and ordinary. She then decides it was all a dream and simply wakes up.
It is unclear whether Burton was referring to the original novels by Lewis Carroll, or one of the many of the other adaptations over the years with his film. And though it is not a Burton work, Burton nonetheless tied Disney’s adaptation to his own, creating a sequel to Disney’s, and as such gave importance and meaning to it. After Burton’s opening credits, a young Alice tells her father of her recurring nightmare – one of falling down a dark hole and a white rabbit wearing a waistcoat. Near the end of the film, in a sequence of flashbacks meant as rediscovered memories she once dismissed as her nightmares, Alice remembers her previous visit to Underland. Throughout the film, characters’ specific dialogue mentions a previous visit to Underland by Alice. Dialogue between The Hatter and Chesshur (the Cheshire Cat) is an example that demonstrates the intent of such inclusions:
Chesshur: “All this talk of blood and slaying has put me off my tea.”
Hatter: “The entire world is falling to ruin, and Cheshire is off his tea.”
Chesshur: “What happened that day was not my fault.”
Chesshur is referring to the moments while in Wonderland when he pointed Alice in the direction of the Red Queen of Hearts and when he enticed Alice to speak in anger, thus causing the Red Queen’s subsequent hatred of Alice, which is carried through into Burton’s film. By utilizing the above mentioned, Burton provides the audience with a progression of the character. As they know a bit of her past, the advent of these tie-ins allows the audience to understand better the dilemma Alice faces – whether to cave to society’s expectations or to be her own person: a misfit and rebel. Disney’s 1951 film is important because it links the past Alice with the present Alice, as they are one and the same for Burton. This is significant because Alice’s first impressions and subsequent experience of Underland are a result of her first visit to Wonderland. It is not until she understands who she is that she realizes Underland is not a dream but is actually real. Therefore they should not be taken as separate individuals who happen to visit the same place, but as the same girl, in her younger and older self.
When one considers both Overland and Underland, two similarities can be seen that make the inhabitants of Underland and the place itself seem familiar to the audience. The first similarity is that of the inhabitants themselves. Both Overland and Underland feature the doppelgangers of each other (though with slight variations) and “their behavior reflects that of their opposite in the other world” (O’Hara, 2010, p. 15). For example, the Red Queen of Underland can be seen as Lady Ascot, Alice’s soon to be mother-in-law, of Overland. They are both the highest authority in their perspective worlds, overbearing, forceful, and misguided in their self-importance. She is the force behind the organized marriage to her son and one of the reasons Alice is so unhappy with her life. There are many other examples of character doppelgangers. The Hatter is Aunt Imogene, both having lost their minds. Bayard the Bloodhound is seen in Lord Ascot. Loyal to those he holds dear and used by his wife. Finally, Absolum the Caterpillar is Charles Kingsleigh, Alice’s father. Though very little of him is seen, it can be discerned that he was absolute in his ideas and beliefs, and very wise. This is one of the reasons why Alice feels out of place in both worlds. She leaves Overland, populated with people who misunderstand and don’t appreciate her, and enters Underland, a world populated by almost exact replicas of Overland people. She is utterly alone in both worlds, dismissed and exiled by everyone.
The second similarity between the worlds is that of the situation Alice is placed in. In Overland, she is being forced to marry a man she doesn’t want to. Everyone, her family and friends, is expecting her to say yes lest she be a burden on her mother or end up like her crazy Aunt Imogene. Her sister states that Alice “won’t do better than a lord and that her pretty face won’t last forever.” Everything has already been decided, much to Alice’s disapproval. The expectations of society weigh on her shoulders, pressuring her into something she does not believe in. As soon as she enters Underland, the same pressure is placed upon her. Everyone believes that she may be the Alice who will slay the Jabberwocky, the Alice that will free all from the Red Queen’s tyrannical reign. The plot adopts the narrative of the mythical hero as noted by Elliot, “in which an outsider comes from another world, rescues a community, and returns to the other world” (2010, p. 195). Noted is the term ‘outsider,’ which Alice embodies. She is being pushed into slaying this beast, even though she believes it has nothing to do with her and wants nothing to do with.
In his 1985 short stop-motion animation Vincent, Burton brought his first outcast to life in the form of Vincent. Vincent is a seven year-old boy. However, rather than wanting to be like any seven year-old, Vincent would rather be like Vincent Price. As opposed to the formatting of his later films, Burton describes Vincent using narration and continual contrast in the form of matching images of the two versions of Vincent right after each other. Vincent is an outcast because of the way in which he wishes his life was like and the resulting disruption it causes. In the opening lines of narration, Vincent is described as polite, considerate and nice, but wishes he were like Vincent Price. He doesn’t mind living with his family, but would rather be living with spiders and bats (Burton, 1985). This is the first portrayal of Vincent’s outcast status. He seems to view his life as mundane with no true pleasure in it. But he thinks if he were like Vincent Price then his life would be more interesting, though depressing and gruesome. He believes this so much that he actually feels that he is living the life of Vincent Price and carries out the motions of it, much to his mother’s dismay. Vincent becomes more of an outcast as his ‘Vincent Price life’ begins merging with his ‘Vincent life.’ His mother knows that Vincent is only pretending and tells him that he is only Vincent the boy. But Vincent does not believe this because he is in character. This is the main hallmark of Burton’s outcast characters – they are not understood by society, and therefore are not accepted and are exiled in a sense. They are misunderstood by society because of the way they behave, dress, or think. “They appear delusional to those without special understanding… the misunderstood outcast is an idealist among naysayers, but Burton’s duality of idealism and pessimism, deters the characters from success” (He, p.1). Their goal in his films is to find themselves, to rediscover who they are, subconscious though it may be. Whether they achieve it or not is their decision (guided by Burton, of course), but their happy ending depends on it. Vincent never reconciles with himself or his alter ego, and thus he ‘dies’ at the end of the short, still in character.
Both Vincent and Alice are outcasts in different forms while still retaining the basic structure of the outcast. Alice is an outcast because of how she thinks of herself and what she believes in, and the resulting unease it causes everyone surrounding her, in both Overland and Underland. In Overland she feels as if she does not belong and has felt alone since her father died. Alice does not want anything that society has to give or force upon her; she only wishes to live up to who her father was – a man unafraid of believing in “six impossible things before breakfast” and telling the world about it. It is when she is forced to enter the ‘normal’ world, in the form of an engagement party, that she doubts she will be able to disregard society’s expectations of her – including those of her sister, mother, etc. – and lead a life of her own choosing. A proposal from a man she does not want, nor will ever want, is against her beliefs but she does not want to let everyone down. In this way, Alice has lost herself – she is missing her backbone. This is illustrated in that she is already a strong, independent woman and yet she bows to the pressures of others because she is unwilling to stand up on behalf of herself. Her beliefs are unimportant in this situation because those of others are more important. As Hamish Ascot says, “When in doubt, remain silent.” Alice is willing to remain silent and not live up to her expectations in order to fit in with everyone else. But at what cost to herself and her beliefs?
When she enters Underland, Alice is confronted with the idea that she is “the wrong Alice,” that in someway she is wrong or incorrect in her being Alice. Though she has no idea how she can be anything other than Alice, she begins to believe it, referring to herself as ‘not that Alice.’ Once again she has bowed to the beliefs of others, disregarding her own sense of self and not accepting herself for who she is – a misfit. The Hatter is the only one who believes she is the right Alice, though she does not believe it herself. But the Hatter also comments that, “you are not the same as you were before. You were much more…much-ier. You’ve lost you muchness. In there [he points to her heart]. Something’s missing.” Alice is skeptical about the Hatter’s comments – she knows she is an Alice, just not the one they need. This is the basis for Alice’s outcast character (and that of Burton’s outcast theme) – she must realize that she is the Alice everyone has been talking about, and that she has had her ‘muchness’ all along. As Callen notes, “it is not a story of Alice’s finding her way back home as it is of her becoming a “self” through being with madness” and muchness (2012, p. 120). Alice does not realize this is what she is doing, but as she stumbles through her time in Underland, doing tasks for others in her own way, she slowly begins to find her muchness. On the day of battle with the Jabberwocky, Alice finally rediscovers herself. The White Queen tells Alice that she “cannot live her life to please others. The choice to fight must be yours. Because when you step out to face that creature, you will step out alone.” The White Queen, while possessing no physical doppelganger, can be taken as Alice’s sense of confidence and sense of self from Overland. Amongst everything, the queen is always sure of herself even if she is unsure of everything else. Alice seemed to have lost this and it is this comment that forces Alice to reflect on that fact. It causes her to pause and reflect on all that she is and all that she should be; it makes her realize that she is Alice, the one and only.
In the final scenes, Alice is shown fighting the Jabberwocky alone on a high tower. The Jabberwocky, while representing all of Alice’s doubts and fears from Overland, is also paralleled to Hamish proposing to Alice in the raised gazebo. They are one and the same. Alice must believe in the impossible before she can return home and ‘defeat’ Hamish – she must believe in herself. This is an important aspect of Burton’s outcast archetype. They are outcasts not only because they are strange and misunderstood by those around them, but also because they are strange to themselves. They have not accepted themselves for who they are – outcasts and misfits. Alice was no different. Her main problem was that she did not believe in herself, and thus stood out among those who did. She is no longer willing to remain silent and unnoticed. She is now able to stand up for herself and her beliefs, though they may set her apart. The previous connection to Wonderland, seen in the Disney version, allowed her to move past her preconceived notions of Underland as just a dream. In the end, the similarities between Overland and Underland gave Alice the confidence to slay the Jabberwockies in both worlds.
Absolum tells Alice that the Vorpel Sword knows what it wants, and she just has to hold onto it. Alice’s heart knew what it wanted from the beginning, but Alice was not willing to follow it because she did not know how, just as she was the wrong Alice before because she did not know how to be the right one. But Alice gets her happy ending, the one where she believes in six impossible things before breakfast, and is unafraid to share it with both worlds.
Alice in Wonderland. (Tim Burton, USA, 2010).
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. (Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson & Hamilton Luske, USA, 1951).
Vincent. (Tim Burton, USA, 1982).
Andac, B., (2003). Tim Burton. Great Directors, (25). Retrieved from http://sensesofcinema.com/2003/great-directors/burton/
Burton, T., (1985). Vincent. Retrieved from The Tim Burton Collective. http://www.timburtoncollective.com/vincent.html
Callen, J.C., (2012). Impossible things: An investigation of madness as resistance in Tim Burton’s Alice in wonderland. Administrative Theory & Praxis, 34(1), pp. 120-124.
Elliot, K., (2010). Adaptation as compendium: Tim Burton’s Alice in wonderland. Adaptation, 3(2), pp. 193-201.
He, J., (Year unknown). Inhabiting Tim Burton’s universe. pp. 1-6. (Curatorial assistant in the Department of Film at an unknown university.)
O’Hara, M., (2010). O Frabjous Day! Tim Burton’s Alice in wonderland. Screen Education, 59, p. 14-23.