The story of a kid visiting a magical world is nothing new to storytelling. With such classics as A Wrinkle in Time and The Chronicles of Narina the idea of children going back and forth between two dimensions is nothing new. But what happens when the line between the two is blurred? What if the waking world and the fantasy world are constantly vying for the same space, both grasping at the fabric of your mind?
This is the problem of Phoebe (Elle Fanning), a child who keeps imagining that the world of the writer Lewis Carroll has come to life. And while this place makes sense to her, it makes the real world that much harder to live in. Her mother (Felicity Huffman) is constantly preoccupied with other work and she simply doesn’t fit in at school. But things change when Miss Dodger (Patricia Clarkson) arrives to school and has the children put on a play adaptation of Alice in Wonderland.
In a way this film is vying for the same space as Where the Wild Things Are. Both feature these troubled kids with less than ideal mothers and practically nonexistent fathers. Both retreat to this fantasy world to cope with their problems. Both are about the power of imagination, seeing the world through a kids eyes and the child coming to a dark revelation about themselves.
But where the two films differ is that in Phoebe in Wonderland most of the film is grounded in the reality of Phoebe’s life in school while Where the Wild Things Are takes place almost entirely in this other world. This difference is actually a strong divided between the two and the key reason why I think Where the Wild Things Are is a much, much better film as being grounded in reality causes Phoebe in Wonderland to suffer in a number of ways.
For one it’s a less magical film. There’s something about that feeling of being taken to another world that makes it more in tune with the wonders of being a child. By just giving us glimpses here and there the film becomes wishy-washy in its convictions. In fact, a lot of times the use of Wonderland is more of a means to an end than a well thought out and developed part of the film narrative.
The implications of the world also become much more blatantly psychological. In Where the Wild Things Are we are able to infer the psychological state of Max through this world he has imagined and how he interacts with it. In Phoebe in Wonderland, the film has to label her and provide exposition on her mental state. It’s not enough for this child to have this complex and intricate personality that is built around a number of things, her character and mental state must be psychologically explained instead of letting the audience read into her actions and behaviors.
This means that most of the Wonderland scenes are more about creating a disturbed and distorted mental state. These scenes are visually striking and show how beautiful the film could have been throughout if it had taken the plunge and immersed itself in this world. It’s this colorful and beautiful world but also has this surreal edge to it that does a much better job of expressing Phoebe’s physiological state than exposition on her condition.
All this is just a way of saying that Phoebe in Wonderland suffers from being a children’s film made with adult sensibilities. The attempt at drama, the need to safely categorize the child’s mental state and the restraint on the imaginative world shows the people making the film were much more interested in a film about kids through the sensibilities of parents. There’s nothing wrong with this idea but when you make the child the protagonist you’ve undercut that idea and made something that ends is caught between two extremes.
© 2009 James Blake Ewing