Girls who fall into mysterious magical other realms and emerge as better people when they finally return are some of my favourites. Let’s start with Alice in Wonderland.
Alice in Wonderland (2010), Alice Through the Looking Glass (2016)
Alice is weighed down by social convention. When life gets to be too much, she follows the rabbit or the butterfly into a different world. In Underland, Alice discovers what she’s really made of. Both films end with her returning to the ‘real world’ to challenge social norms and defy expectations. It’s not defiance for the sake of telling off ‘the man’.
Alice tells her mother to sign away The Wonder so that they can keep the house, because she finally realizes that the ship is just a ship, and she can always look for new symbols to represent everything that she loves.
Helen is reluctant to sign away The Wonder, because she knows what it means to Alice, who has her father’s spirit. Helen worries for her daughter’s future. She does not have faith in Alice’s dreams and ambitions of captaining a ship and setting up new trade routes. It is not until she witnesses Hamish’s smugness when Alice finally yields The Wonder that she realizes the price for security isn’t worth it. She would rather take her chances on Alice’s dreams. That Alice remains Alice still even when she gives up The Wonder is what finally convinces Helen to have faith for the future.
This story is about Alice growing up without meekly resigning herself to her lot in life. She is accepting responsibility, adapting to change and taking the bull by the horns. This is her truly embracing her sense of identity, which isn’t attached to a ship or a title. She doesn’t simper at Hamish, and she definitely does not cow before him. When Helen comes through, we end up with an overarching theme of reconciliation – between family members, ambitions, hopes and dreams. When Alice changes, her world changes with her.
Sarah starts off as the entitled child who will storm up to her room and close the door, express irritation when her father tries to talk to her, but feel hurt when he doesn’t try harder. She casts Karen as the evil stepmother and herself as the beautiful girl who suffers in silence.
When Sarah rushes home in the downpour, Karen is waiting for her at the porch, and chides her for being late. What does self-centered Sarah do? She doesn’t storm past Karen. She stops in front of her under the rain, and apologizes. But the moment of remorse quickly dissipates under Karen’s scolding. This is the part of Sarah that takes things for granted; she is convinced she’s being treated unfairly, and no one’s ire except her own is valid. She is quick to fall right back to petulance when she isn’t met with sympathy.
However vindicated she may feel, Sarah still carefully tucks Toby into bed before she says the right words. When it becomes clear that Toby is missing, Sarah is immediately remorseful.
Sarah’s convictions to do the right thing persists throughout her journey in the labyrinth. Her petulance and childish arrogance occasionally pops up – “It’s not fair!” “Piece of cake!” – and it may slow her down, but it doesn’t dissuade her from staying the course. Her main goal is to solve the labyrinth and win her brother back, yet she is also generous (Hoggle, Wiseman and the Hat), kind (Ludo), and patient (Sir Didymus). Guilt alone could hardly motivate her to be all those things. These qualities are innate to her character, and the challenges she faces in the labyrinth simply brings them out.
Otherwise known as the The Princess, The Damsel is primarily associated with romance, not distress, and ideas of romance vary. She could be looking out the window waiting for someone to arrive, or she could be wondering what else is out there. The spirit of adventure is a romantic ideal.
Alice starts off being led around the garden to speak to different people. She finds out this is her engagement party, and Hamish is going to propose. How romantic! But she’s not feeling it. The party is for her; she is the center of attention. She feels trapped by it all; if Alice is the princess in the illustration, she is looking for a way to escape.
She breaks away from this archetype momentarily when she makes the impetuous decision to follow the White Rabbit, before falling back into the same pattern of being led around, as the citizens of Wonderland tell her what to do and who she should be.
Sarah begins her story practicing her lines as the heroine who overcomes the villain from her favourite play. Her stance is neither fierce nor hostile. The romance is in the words.
Later when she is frustrated with her circumstances, she cries out for someone to save her. This is the princess who is waiting for someone to arrive.
At one point Jareth tries to seduce her with a masquerade ball. She is drawn into the romantic illusion of a beautiful gown and a charismatic man who notices her and dances only with her.
She’s the girl who makes the climb. It’s the transformative journey where the heroine overcomes her weaknesses.
In her conversation with Bayard the bloodhound, Alice decides she doesn’t care if other people believe she’s the right Alice or the wrong one. She’s going to save the Hatter because it’s the right thing to do. Stubborn Alice is still Alice.
And let’s not forget how she rides the Bandersnatch to the battleground and slays the Jabberwocky; she chooses to do this not because she was told, but because she finally believes in her dreams.
In both films, Alice returns from Underland grounded and more herself, no longer uncertain and inclined to run away.
In Labyrinth, Sarah transforms her weaknesses into her strengths. She says the same words, but they are no longer a means to escape her dull reality, but the power which would allow her to overcome the villain. Her lipstick, the symbol of her vanity, is used to mark her way around the maze. She gives away one of her possessions, when early on it’s established that she’s very particular about her things.
Sarah could have it all; the Goblin King offers her all her dreams, if she would only surrender. She does not, because she’s a girl on a mission, and no amount of seductive glitter is getting in the way of winning back her baby brother. Jareth tries to woo her with finery and masquerade balls, and she busts that bubble with a chair. She trades in her indulgent fantasy of playing the poor maiden to become the Champion of the Labyrinth, and makes some friends in the Underground along the way.