"How did the dodo become distinct?" Ivan, my four-year-old, wanted to know. We had no idea, but once we grasped the meaning behind his malapropism, we realized this was something we'd like to know, too. Reading Lewis Carroll's classic Alice in Wonderland, with the hilariously odd John Tenniel illustrations, raises such questions.
Disney's Alice in Wonderland, directed by Tim Burton, does not inspire investigations of this kind.
No matter how subtle and cerebral – or in the case of Lewis Carroll's 1865 tale, wonderfully meandering and weird – the original story, these days, Hollywood will figure out how to transform it into an action movie. Market research on children, conducted by entertainment companies, shows that kids do almost always want more action. But most parents have also noticed that children want whatever they're accustomed to – if we stopped for a muffin after school yesterday, they want a muffin again today, and they want to eat it sitting in exactly the same spot. Since kids are increasingly used to movies that look and sound like video games, they expect movies to deliver that same noisy, chaotic experience and tend to "like" them more when they do.
More action means more violence, and Alice was no exception. It's remarkable that Carroll's brainy, plotless tale of fanciful wordplay could become a fiesta of bloodshed and mayhem. Violence in kids' media contributes significantly to violent behavior, especially in boys, so such objections are not prissy matters of taste.
Of course, there's a grisly undercurrent to Carroll's original story – with the Red Queen cavalierly ordering executions, and menacing creatures popping up everywhere. That nightmarish quality appeals to kids. (In the leisurely garden-party opening sequence to the movie, Ivan kept asking impatiently, "Where are the scary things? Where's the Red Queen?" He loves "bad guys and bad shes.") Helena Bonham Carter's lusciously evil Red Queen probably would have made the movie entertaining enough for kids, but Disney had to add warfare into the mix, plus a monster that needed to be decapitated.
And don't get me started on how dumb and unnecessary it was to make Alice in 3-D.
But the good news is that the movie is gorgeous, and Johnny Depp is totally bananas as the Mad Hatter. Also, in an era when kids are deluged with Princesses and other hyper-girly stereotypes, Alice (played by the winningly smart Mia Wasikowska, who was equally terrific as a messed-up teenager on HBO's shrink series In Treatment) is a wonderfully imaginative, independent character. She struggles with Victorian high society's expectations for young women, and ultimately bears a sword, slays a ferocious monster and returns home to take her father's business global.
Disney's is kind of a tepid liberal feminism, but that's far more badass and entertaining than no feminism at all. (Although, have I mentioned? Disney sucks?) Alice is not alone: There have been a number of other awesome girl characters in kids' movies recently. Take Susan, Dreamworks' computer-animated heroine of last year's Monsters vs. Aliens, for example, who is nobody's helpless princess, and, in a nice feminist allegory, has to deal with a douche of a boyfriend who breaks up with her when she turns into a giant.
Ivan doesn't want to see Alice again. But inspired by this dubious Hollywood product, we've been having a fine time reading the book. The 19th-century Alice is no swashbuckler, but her verbal skills are excellent. And now we know why the dodo became distinct.