The Transition from Wonderland to Underland

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In a lush world of make-believe, where the Red Queen rules with an iron fist and disappearing cats provide insight into the world of Underland, little Alice has returned, all grown up. Mindful of Lewis Carroll’s beloved Through the Looking Glass, Tim Burton extends the story beyond the original into a new tale that is darker and more dangerous than previously. While the visuals astound and engage the audience, the new spin of Alice Kingsley as a strong female hero is refreshing and a break from the traditional view of Alice in Wonderland, which was full of theoretical disagreements.

When creating the set and scenery for a fantastical world, directors of similar movies have struggled to make technology and visualization blend perfectly. However, Burton and his team of Computer Generated (CG) artists and directors have created a brilliant Underland that provides a seamless interaction between Alice and the environment and creatures she encounters. The level of mastery of the team and the attention to detail is what makes the live-action characters become a part of Underland. The visual effects are so impressive, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences took notice and awarded the film with a nomination in the category of Best Achievement in Visual Effects and awarded the film an Oscar for Best Achievement in Art Direction (IMDb). The viewer notices the mastery of Art Direction as well when Alice is rushing through CG plants, for example, the plants are brushed away by her moving form, the shadows of the leaves move across her shoulders, and when her direct interaction with the plants end, the stems and leaves are bent or tattered behind her, just as they would be if the plants were real. To ensure that the characters appeared to be a part of Underland, costume design for the characters was vital in creating the complete world. 

Designing the costumes to fit into Underland took a skillful eye and thought into each character’s personality. For Alice, she is returning to the fantasy land as a young woman and the original knee-length frock would represent her girlishness instead of her growth. Since her age borders on adulthood, the costume designers wisely chose a longer dress length, an intricate black design on the hem of her skirt and the bodice style on the torso to show her level of maturity. One of the biggest transformations of costume and design is, of course, the Red Queen, who has a flowing multi-fabric gown that suits the royalty she is. Colleen Atwood, the costume designer for Alice in Wonderland, stated that the biggest challenge she faced when designing the Red Queen’s costume was the character’s computer-enhanced giant head. Of the challenge Atwood described the issue she faced to Vanity Fair, “If you make a head too big, you lose your neck. Your head ends up right on your chest,” and continues her explanation of the increases in the size of the collar and a cinched waist to solve the illusion. One of the biggest changes in character styles is the Mad Hatter, a once dapper and impeccable dresser, he seems to have fallen into a strange combination of design and disrepair, he has obviously been through much since Alice left but he has maintained a quirkiness that suits his personality. There are many small changes apparent in Underland, similar to this, which promote the themes of the film.

The difficulty of change and transition is a theme that began in Carroll’s novel and continues in Burton’s Alice in Wonderland as well. When young Alice in Through the Looking Glass went through Wonderland the first time she faced the struggle of growing through the process of cakes that made her grow and shrink, an uncomfortable and painful process. In the modern Alice in Wonderland, Alice is again facing the transition into the world as an adult. In the real world, her mother wants her to marry and she runs away instead of facing the engagement, but in Wonderland she faces transitions as well, Alice must step into the role of hero. There are symbols in the film that support this theme, including the changes that her dress takes; as she progresses through Wonderland her clothing changes as well, growing wilder as her journey continues, and finally ending in a highly stylized armor reminiscent of Joan of Arc. Alice is not the only character who is evolving, however, she also interacts with Absolem who tells her she “must become who she is” (Alice in Wonderland, 2010) while he encases himself in a cocoon, only to appear briefly at the end of the film as a butterfly. After Alice returns to the real world, she has her moment of “emerging” as well, she decides to go against what society expects of her and seeks her own happiness; traveling the world for spice trade routes, proving that this hero’s journey has whetted her thirst for more adventures.

The theme of transitioning and the struggle on the journey for growth is one of the most celebrated aspects of Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. In Joseph Campbell’s hero cycle, the hero follows a generalized path to enlightenment or happiness, which (in the history of Disney films) has been followed largely by male characters or female characters whose end goal is “getting the man” (Aikens, 30). However, Alice follows the traditional hero cycle in this adventure through Underland and ends the story as a victorious woman who has led the war for freedom for an oppressed people. In fact, even Alice becomes aware of her independence, saying of the initial adventure, “I’ll decide where it [the dream] goes from here,” and, at the end of the film where she has decided to reject the marriage proposal and tells her aunt, “There is no prince” (Alice in Wonderland, 2010) This individuality shows Alice’s true growth as she rejected the stereotypes and socialization of gender roles that the society has placed upon her, she has rejected the control that society attempts to place on her and leads her life with confidence and self-sufficiency. 

When viewing the film, audiences feel immersed in the world of Wonderland and leave thinking about how Alice has changed in Lewis Carroll first introduced her to readers. The CG graphics ensure that the viewer appreciates the richness and vivid nature of Wonderland, lending the film an artistic quality that is beautiful and surreal. The characters fit into the world perfectly, their costuming giving commentary about their characters and their evolution since Alice visited their world last. All of these details combine together to give Alice Kingsley an epic and hero-worthy place to have her adventure, where she grows and evolves from childhood to authentic adulthood.

Works Cited

Aikens, Kristina. "How Wanderer Alice Became Warrior Alice, And Why." Bitch Magazine: Feminist Response to Pop Culture 48 (2010): 26-31. Academic Search Premier. Web. 3 May 2013. 

"Alice in Wonderland (2010) - IMDb." IMDb - Movies, TV and Celebrities. IMDb, n.d. Web. 3 May 2013. <>.

Alice in Wonderland. Dir. Tim Burton. Perf. Johnny Depp, Mia Wasikowska, Helena Bonham Carter. Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment: 2010. DVD.

Hanel, Marnie. "From Sketch to Still, a Visual History of Alice in Wonderland’s Costumes | Vanity Fair." Vanity Fair. Vanity Fair Online, n.d. Web. 3 May 2013. <>.