Alice in Wonderland stands as the progenitor of one of the great storytelling traditions where regular humans find themselves stumbling into weird and wonderful fantasy worlds. Sometimes this happens for entirely superflous reasons but frequently these jaunts into the fantasy world help illuminate our own world in profoundly tangential ways. As this list will show, following in Alice’s footsteps has led to some of most creatively imaginative films out there.
But before we dive into this list, because I am a stickler for unnecessary things, let’s make sure we define what a “Down-the-Rabbit-Hole” movie is first:
- The movie must be set primarily in a parallel world in which the rules of the world. It cannot merely be a movie about a secret underground world brought to light. Mostly this rule eliminates conspiracy thrillers like the Jason Bourne movies where there are secret organizations who operate out of the public eye and the job of the protagonist is in some way to uncover the truth.
- This parallel world must be in some sense a “real” world and not just something imagined reality taking place in our Protagonist’s mind. Obviously the actual adaptations of Alice in Wonderland will be exempt from this rule.
- The Protagonist must be someone who is not well-versed in this parallel world. The disorientation that they feel as they encounter it is a key feature of the movie as the protagonist acts as our eyes into the world. So under this rule the first Harry Potter movie qualifies because Harry is a normal person like ours who suddenly finds out he’s a wizard and has to navigate wizard life at Hogwarts. But every Harry Potter sequel is disqualified.
- Our Protagonist(s) cannot have gained access to this parallel world because they have recently become deceased. Sorry Ghost.
- The journey to the movie’s wonderland cannot be an intentional expedition. Sorry Avatar.
- Finally while this is an unwritten rule for every list, it bears mentioning here given the presence of some prolific fantasy directors: Only one film per director is allowed.
Now onto the list (and the rule breaking!):
10. (TIE) BEETLEJUICE (1988) dir. Tim Burton; DARK CITY (1998) dir. Alex Proyas; INCEPTION (2010) dir. Christopher Nolan; SHUTTER ISLAND (2010) dir. Martin Scorsese
These movies sit in a four way tie because each of them violates one of the rules I set up above. With Beetlejuice, the parallel world is a ghostly world. In Dark City, it adheres to every rule except that (spoiler) it turns out that the parallel world the protagonist stumbles into is in fact reality. Inception would be a great candidate but the main hero Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is not someone disoriented in navigating the world of dreams and is instead the closest thing to an expert in the movie. Meanwhile to reveal why Shutter Island (starring DiCaprio again) violates the above rules would also spoil this fantastic movie. But in each of these cases, the violations they commit are so small and the movies so good that I figured I could give them a pass at the number 10 slot.
9. TOTAL RECALL (1990) dir. Paul Verhoeven
In Total Recall the “Rabbit Hole” that Douglas Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger) goes down is less a literal alternate reality as it is one that might be happening entirely in his mind. When he agrees to become a secret agent “memory trip” – a virtual vacation in which vivid memories are implanted – the machine malfunctions and later on suppressed memories of being a secret agent start to surface in his regular life and he starts getting chased and attacked by armed goons wherever he goes. The fact that neither he nor the viewer is ever clear if this is merely Quaid living out his “memory trip” or reality only adds to the general disorientation in this captivatingly entertaining and prescient sci-fi action flick.
8. TIME BANDITS (1981) dir. Terry Gilliam
While initially I desperately wanted to shove Gilliam’s Brazil on this list (and into a much higher position) I realized in didn’t pass the stupid rules I set out for myself because though it is set in a strangely imaginative world Jonathan Pryce plays a well-versed participant in that world. The appearance of Gilliam’s Time Bandits is no mere consolation prize however because is a fantastic movie in its own right. When eleven-year-old Kevin finds his bedroom suddenly invaded by six boisterous dwarves who possess a time-travel map he is quickly plunged into their world of time-travelling banditry where he inevitably finds himself on the run not just from a Supreme Being who wants to recover his stolen map but by a malevolent force that wants to take it to redesign the universe to his own liking. And in typical Gilliam fashion, Kevin’s journey is nothing but an extremely bizarre one.
7. THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939) dir. Victor Fleming & George Cukor
After Alice, Dorothy is perhaps the most famous fictional person to have travelled to a strange fantasy world. Unlike Alice however her journey was not voluntary as she is famously flung to Oz by a tornado and has to journey to the centre of Oz with little more than a yellow brick road to guide her way. Fortunately helping her is a Cowardly Lion, a Tin Man, and a Scarecrow who together form one of the best travelling troupes in all of cinema as the fight off witches, flying monkeys, and deceitful wizards in their quest to become better versions of themselves and to return Dorothy home.
6. ALICE IN WONDERLAND (1951) dir. Clyde Geronimi & Wilfred Jackson
Unsurprisingly the progenitor of this sub-genre makes the list. While Disney’s Alice in Wonderland eschewed most of the charming and biting satire of Lewis Carroll’s work in favour of zany madness, it is still the best adaptation of the novel. For 75 relentless minutes Alice chases a White Rabbit through a mysterious wonderland that gets stranger and stranger the deeper down she goes. And while Alice herself is easily the most dull character in this movie she is surrounded by a cavalcade of iconic supporting characters from the Cheshire Cat to the Queen of Hearts who through sheer force of will have forced their way into our collective consciousness.
5. CORALINE (2009) dir. Henry Selick
There is a strong argument to be made that Neil Gaiman is the spiritual heir of Lewis Carroll and nowhere is the argument made stronger than in his twisted fairy-tale Coraline. Instead of a rabbit-hole, Coraline finds a small painted-over door that leads to a bizarro Other World inhabited by doppelgängers of her parents and residents of her apartment complex. Much like Alice in Wonderland this Other World is splendiferous initially but in typical Gaiman fashion it also houses much darker and terrifying secrets to be uncovered. The fantastic stop-motion animation by Laika studios only enhances the uncanny eeriness of this fantastic story.
4. BLUE VELVET (1986) dir. David Lynch
One could safely categorize just about all of David Lynch’s filmography as “down-the-rabbit-hole” movies but I picked Blue Velvet because the movie starts from the seemingly complete normalcy of suburbia. Even when Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle McLachlan) discovers a mysterious severed ear in a vacant lot and he decides to investigate its appearance the movie seems to initially have more a traditional film-noir bent to it. But as is the genius of Lynch’s work at some point the movie ceases to be a conventional crime movie and instead has veered into a strange, disturbing, and twisty underground world that resembles reality but is most decidedly not. And the great thing is that it isn’t immediately clear when exactly that shift happens – we like Jeff are sucked into Lynch’s strange world without even knowing it.
3. THE MATRIX (1999) dir. Lana and Lilly Wachowski
From the moment computer-hacker Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves), better known as Neo, is asked to follow a girl with a white rabbit tattoo to a cyber-punk nightclub we know exactly what kind of movie this is going to be. Indeed The Matrix is probably best described as an action-packed combination of Alice in Wonderland and Plato’s Cave in which Neo’s path to the truth literally upends what is reality and what is wonderland. Of course it is also inarguably the coolest allusion to that story ever put to film and is an iconic start to a trilogy that is much, much better than you remember.
2. PAN’S LABYRINTH (2006) dir. Guillermo Del Toro
To be honest it was a coin flip that decided the top two movies on this list. Coming in second is Guillermo Del Toro’s best film and a twisted horror fairytale in which it is an open question if the true horror lies in the fantasy world Ofelia discovers or the real world she tries to escape from. Lovingly created by one of the masters of modern fairytales, Pan’s Labyrinth is a feast of beauty in which Del Toro expertly dismantles the ugliness of fascism as not just a cruel, despotic, and failed political system held tightly by incompetent and petty people but also as an utter failure of the imagination.
1. SPIRITED AWAY (2001) dir. Hayao Miyazaki
In all my years watching movies I have yet to come across a director who creates worlds of fantasy better than the animation master Hayao Miyazaki. While he arguably has some movies that have better storytelling, Spirited Away represents the pinnacle of his imaginative powers. The spirit world that Chichiro stumbles into where she unwittingly becomes a servant in a towering bath house is so fully-realized – every frame looks breathed-in and filled with minute wondrous details. Of course it might be hard to notice these little details when the movie is also filled to the brim with a multi-armed boiler room operators, a boy who turn into dragon, a shape-shifting witch, a river spirit, and a crowd of other intriguing spirits and creatures. And like the best of all of these wonderlands, Spirited Away’s fantastic world is one you don’t really want to leave.