Starring: Mia Wasikowska (Crimson Peak), Johnny Depp (Black Mass), Helena Bonham Carter (Les Miserables), Sacha Baron Cohen (The Dictator), Anne Hathaway (Interstellar), Rhys Ifans (The Amazing Spider-Man), Stephen Fry (Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows), Alan Rickman (Die Hard)
Director: James Bobin (Muppets Most Wanted)
Writer: Linda Woolverton (Maleficent)
Runtime: 1 hour 53 minutes
Release Date: 27 May (US, UK)
Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland has a very peculiar place in film history in retrospect. Hitting cinemas right in the wake of the success of Avatar, its similar extensive use of CGI and 3-D led to it grossing over a billion dollars worldwide despite an incredibly divisive reception from critics and audiences; some were dazzled by its visuals, whilst others called it Hollywood nonsense that completely misunderstood Lewis Carroll’s work. Whilst it does certainly have fervent fans to this day, for a movie that did so well at the box office it has faded from public perception quite quickly; then again, so has our fascination with CGI and 3-D. But a highly profitable movie, no matter how bad, is practically guaranteed a sequel and so now we have Alice Through the Looking Glass. Six years later, will everyone who loved the first one come back to Wonderland, or has any love for that film already been lost to the passage of time?
One of the many problems with Burton’s Alice is that it took a book that didn’t really have a story and gave it elements like a heroic prophecy and a good vs. evil conflict. It treated Carroll’s world as if it had some deep mythology in the vein of Lord of the Rings when really it was just a series of bizarre non-sequiturs with adult undertones; in other words, it missed the bloody point and ended up being a generic fantasy film. This sequel continues heading even further away from the source material to create an entirely new story with concepts never even touched upon in the books. Like a science fiction show that’s jumped the shark after running out of ideas, Alice Through the Looking Glass puts time travel at the forefront of its story as our heroine jumps through the history of Wonderland to save the life of the Mad Hatter. Now, barring a few pointless detours like Alice finding herself in an insane asylum in a PG-rated rip-off of American McGee’s Alice, from a structural perspective the film is at least competently crafted. The pacing never drags, the tension is constantly rising, and it at least has a good heart with its message about how we can’t change the past and that the present should be cherished whilst it can. It’s all perfectly fine, but again the point must be made: this doesn’t belong in Alice in Wonderland. If this were its own fantasy world with the same story but different characters, it would be a perfectly acceptable movie. But because it bears the Alice name but uses none of the source material beyond characters and locations, it only further proves how little respect the filmmakers have for the original work.
The original version of Alice is somewhat of a blank slate; she’s a normal person like us lost in this peculiar world, and we relate to her because she’s just as confused by what she sees as we are. In yet another example of not getting it, Burton’s Alice was forced into a chosen one archetype but given no real agency in the plot or a personality beyond a strong determination to be kind of weird and awkward. Here, Alice is at least more of a proactive presence in her own story but she’s still about as fascinating a character as a teacup (and not even a decorated one). The film tries to convince us she’s this go-getting ship captain who wants to break the gender barrier, but we’re still not given much reason why and Mia Wasikowska again doesn’t help much with her vacant, uninspiring delivery; she’s like a female Keanu Reeves. Johnny Depp thankfully doesn’t get as much chance to chew the scenery as the Mad Hatter like last time (probably because his buddy Burton is now in the back seat), but he’s still the bizarre mix of gaudy design and inconsistent accents he was last time. Most of the rest of the supporting cast is also relegated to a mere sideshow, with Anne Hathaway’s White Queen being the only other one with any relevance to the plot; to see greats like Stephen Fry, Michael Sheen and the late Alan Rickman relegated to mere footnotes is quite disappointing. But on the bright side, the film does at least have decent antagonists with the return of Helena Bonham Carter as the Red Queen and the introduction of Sacha Baron Cohen as the physical manifestation of Time. Baron Cohen is easily the most interesting aspect of the movie, stealing every scene he’s in with his erratic personality and his Werner Herzog-inspired accent. He’s also not painted as an obvious villain; like the construct he represents, he’s a good thing or a bad thing depending on the situation at hand. Sure, this does open the floodgates for a metric ton of time puns, but the fact that Time himself is as perturbed by them as we are does create some levity. Meanwhile, Bonham Carter was one of the few bright spots of the first film and here she’s just as loud and spoilt as ever, but they’ve gone through the effort of giving her an actual character arc and surprisingly ends up being the emotional core of the story; it’s perhaps a little haphazardly done, but the thought is still appreciated.
From a visual perspective, Alice Through the Looking Glass is a bit of a mixed bag. There’s a lot of great work from a design perspective and there are really imaginative visual ideas like literally travelling through the seas of time or the world being eaten up by rust; well done to whoever came up with all the time travel concepts. However, not only is there a lot recycled from the first film, it suffers from the same overreliance on CGI as its predecessor. After seeing how Disney could so amazingly render photorealistic environments and seamlessly integrate human elements into them with The Jungle Book, to watch this film and be constantly so aware that I’m really watching two actors on a green screen just doesn’t cut it anymore. For the most part, I felt less like I was witnessing an imaginatively-realised world like Pandora and more like I was watching The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lava Girl; it’s not that bad, but in comparison to its peers it looks really outdated.
I don’t hate Alice Through the Looking Glass. I don’t even question why it exists (easy answer: money), nor am I really surprised by its quality given the first film. I’m just kind of saddened that this is what’s deemed acceptable. The works of Lewis Carroll have been better adapted before, Disney themselves have better adapted them before, and yet what is offered to us in his name is something that with a few basic rewrites could be made to be something completely different. Beyond the continued sullying of classic literature into generic glop for the masses, this is still a pretty meh excuse for a fantasy film, and even the new elements I did appreciate about it I think would have been far more interesting if used as the basis of a new story rather than bolting them onto a world they never belonged in. I think at this point it’s unrealistic to think this film will go over as well commercially as the first, but if it makes even half as much as Alice in Wonderland it will still be deemed a success. Sigh. What a sad world we live in.
FINAL VERDICT: 4/10