Alice and the Imagination


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.


  1. Margret

    Thanks so much, Travis, for this wonderful post. Mr. Burton’s statement that this movie was made in the spirit of the book was spot on. If we could glimpse Alice as she embarks upon her adult life, she would be this person. And, yes, having the one person who most understood and affirmed her lost to her would definitely cause doubt even while she clung desperately to the mooring of his memory and their conversations.

    Over the course of the weekend (we saw the Saturday matinee), this lovely movie made for some very interesting conversations in our house. Your statement, “It’s a story that vindicates choice, faith, and imagination …” is absolutely correct. Those six things Alice was determined to accept? She was declaring what she understood, not what others in her life might believe or not believe. And isn’t that what life is about? In fact, isn’t that what we as followers of Jesus are about? We come into our own when we identify and declare our foundation, then move forward with those rock-solid beliefs helping guide our way.

    I loved Alice’s phenomenal compassion, as well as her decision to actively participate rather than just do as she’s told, and my husband believes the movie will empower girls (anyone, actually) who may not have anyone who believes in them.

    You concluded, “Alice’s experience 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.” Yes! What greater reality is there than the grace of God infusing everyone’s lives with love? And what greater cause can we have than to be true to whom we were made to be, using the gifts, strengths, and skills bequeathed us as we reach out in love to those around us?

    Thank you, Tim Burton, for a beautiful, fantastic film; and thank you, Travis, for a marvelous, insightful review.

    All of Heaven’s best to you and yours,

  2. Andrew Peterson


    Travis (and Margret),

    Great thoughts on the film. And this is another reason I value this community: I wasn’t crazy about the film until I read your thoughts on it. I guess I’m still not crazy about it, but now I know I want to experience it again, and will do so with better eyes.

    Tim Burton is a gifted filmmaker, but other than Big Fish, none of his movies have moved me. I’m caught up in the whimsy and the weird, gothic beauty of his vision, but there always seems to be a missing ingredient. I can’t tell what it is. But it’s missing. In this case, I guess the missing ingredient was Travis’s insight.

    I took my 10-year-old to see it, and he had a ball. So there’s that.


  3. Mike

    I thought that the film was a visual masterpiece. The only thing I’ve seen that’s better is Avatar. It will be one that you’ll buy on DVD and watch again several times. I wonder how it was in 3D.

  4. Travis Prinzi

    Now, I didn’t see it in 2D, but my suspicion is that 3D didn’t add a lot for this one – at least not as much as it did for Avatar. I’d have to see the 2D version to be sure, though.

  5. revgeorge

    The 3-D didn’t bother me, which I found pleasing. I don’t know if it added anything that you couldn’t get in 2-D, although there were bits that worked really well in 3-D.

    Another excellent review, Travis. I’ll only make one quibble. I find the word “choice” to be not helpful because in common parlance nowadays, “choice” seems to mean “I’ll do whatever I want & nobody can say a thing about it.” It’s a very selfish way we use “choice” these days, highly individualistic. But I thought Alice’s “choices” in the film were very self-sacrificial ones. As she came to understand more of who she was & her place in Underland, she stopped thinking of herself so much & started acting for others.

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