Every Monday with “Freeze Frame,” we break down our very favorite sci-fi/fantasy/adventure moments – the scenes that we look forward to, that remind us why we so love this job. As you might guess, such discussions are riddled with spoilers. So consider yourself warned. (See previous Freeze Frame features here.)
I was talking to a whole lot of people about Alice in Wonderland this weekend. And it was clear that a good many people are curious – as to whether Tim Burton’s darker vision can live up to the soaring expectations that accompany one of the greatest fantasy titles of all time.
Given all this, I’m sure it was hard for Burton to approach this film with completely fresh eyes. When you start talking about the blue caterpillar, the March Hare, the Mad Hatter, the Queen of Hearts… you’re dealing with some genuinely iconic figures. Surely he felt a little restricted and hampered, even as he went about having some fun with his limitless 3D Wonderland.
The more I think about it, my single favorite moment of the film was a far quieter aside – a scene that Burton could have easily edited out, without interrupting the flow of the story. I think he liked the moment as much as I did, and left it in there, dangling extraneously, because it was one of the most revealing moments of his career.
The Mad Hatter has made his way to the White Queen’s castle, and for a fleeting few fords, he finds himself standing on the outside balcony/terrace with Alice. Sadly I didn’t transcribe the dialogue immediately after hearing it, but the Mad Hatter says something along the lines of: “Let’s make the world right again.” Alice agrees. And then he says something totally unexpected: That he doesn’t want Alice to forget him, or Wonderland, when she wakes up.
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“I could never forget you,” she says. And then Burton cuts to a shot from behind, as she continues: “I don’t want to forget you when I wake up.”
By switching our point of view, Burton frames that last sentiment perfectly. Looking at the pair from behind, we see this little blonde girl standing next to this tall, gangly creature with a misshapen orange head of hair. It’s a powerful moment – a quintessential Burton snapshot. In this blasted out Wonderland, suffering under the tyranny of the Queen of Hearts, our crazy comic relief lets his guard down and we are suddenly confronted with the unexpected beauty of pure friendship. Alice sees past the surface, to everything that’s beautiful about her freakish, dysfunctional friend and this distorted universe.
And couldn’t that pretty much sum up what makes every Tim Burton film great? They aren’t about the pretty people in pretty situations. These aren’t shiny worlds and spick-and-span conflicts. My favorite moments in Burton’s canon are those where we learn to love someone we never expected to love, or where we see the underdog get a leg up. In something like Big Fish, we watch an ailing imagination get a booster shot. And in Alice in Wonderland we see a girl who always embraces the best aspects of a screwed-up underworld. From the cat to the hedgehog, from the Mad Hatter to even the Queen herself.
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But it’s on that terrace where, just for a moment, Burton allows us to hear Alice talking about how she could never forget about her beloved monsters. They are part of her, and that makes the Mad Hatter happy. And together they stand, the insecure freak and the accepting child, looking out over the rolling hills of Wonderland. Couldn’t it just as easily be Tim Burton standing next to Edward Scissorhands, or Beetlejuice, or the Joker? Looking out over Gotham City? I think it’s one of the most glorious asides of Burton’s career, and surely one of the most self-referential.
Consider this, from the set of Alice:
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