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Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, whatever else you might think about it, is a tale of the importance of imagination. (Beware spoilers below if you’ve not yet seen the film.)
Yes, there are many departures from Carroll’s tale; that is, in fact, much the point of what Burton is doing. The film opens with Alice having the dream that we’ve all come to know and love as Carroll’s stories. They are, however, “just dreams,” and with the way we think about truth and fiction these days, a “dream” = “not real.”
Burton’s story tells the opposite. Alice has grown up. She’s about to be engaged to a man her family has arranged her to marry. She doesn’t really know how to handle all the confusion relationships with people around her, especially now that her father has passed away. There in the gazebo, as the proposal is about to happen, she sees the rabbit and follows.
Her entire journey through Underland is taken up with one particular question: “Is this real, or is this only in my head?” (If you’re a Harry Potter fan, that dilemma should sound familiar, by the way.) The ultimate answer she has to come to terms with is: It’s both; there’s no dichotomy between the two. When she meets Absalom (brilliantly voiced by Alan Rickman), he tells her that she is “hardly Alice,” which everyone takes to mean that the white rabbit has brought the wrong Alice to Underland. This is not what Absalom meant at all. He meant that the Alice standing there was in need of understanding who she was as Alice and to embrace it.
Which she does. And the key to understanding reality is her imagination. Her final battle with the Jabberwock is not strength against strength, but imagination against power. The Jabberwock is by far the physically stronger champion in the battle, but Alice has finally chosen to believe in six impossible things. She counts the 5 that she has already come to believe, and embraces the 6th on the spot: “I can defeat the Jabberwock.”
In her return to the “real” world, she walks into the exact same situation she left: suitor, gazebo, large audience waiting for the engagement to happen. But this time, she’s in control of the situation, knowing who she is as a human being, and who she is as Alice.
It’s a story that vindicates choice, faith, and imagination, and it’s told with stunning visual artistry. Alice’s experience in Faerie (for that is precisely what Underland is) makes her more human and gives her a better grip on reality. This is what the best fairy tales do. They’re not an escape from reality, but an escape to greater reality.