Alice Through the Looking Glass (2016) / Fantasy-Adventure
MPAA Rated: PG for fantasy action/peril and some language
Running Time: 113 min.
Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Johnny Depp, Sacha Baron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne Hathaway, Lindsay Duncan, Rhys Ifans, Matt Lucas, Leo Bill
Small role (voices): Alan Rickman, Timothy Spall, Stephen Fry, Michael Sheen, Toby Jones
Director: James Bobin
Screenplay: Linda Woolverton (based on characters created by Lewis Carroll)
Review published May 27, 2016
2010's Alice in Wonderland wasn't really a great film, but it did rake in a hefty billion dollars from the worldwide box office, so, naturally, that's going to green-light a sequel just about every time. Six years is a long time to wait by Hollywood standards for a follow-up to a movie that didn't build up cult status over the years -- in fact, it's mostly forgotten by most -- so now that it's here, most people, even those who were mildly entertained by the first effort, are likely adopting a wait-and-see approach. After seeing it, my advice: stop waiting, don't see it.
Alice Through the Looking Glass continues the mostly CG look into the realm of the beloved Lewis Carroll creations, only this time, the adventure that they're on is entirely new for the screen, trying to delve into the backstory of a few of the more notably eccentric characters, namely, the Mad Hatter (Depp, Black Mass), the Red Queen (Carter, Cinderella), and the White Queen (Hathaway, The Intern). The director of the previous film, Tim Burton, vacates the director's chair to concentrate on producer duties, allowing The Muppets director James Bobin to try to make sense of this convoluted script from longtime Disney screenwriter Linda Woolverton (Maleficent, The Lion King), who also wrote the 2010 release. The awfulness of Through the Looking Glass shouldn't be blamed on Bobin, however, as he's handcuffed by having to firmly adhere to the bizarre style and grotesque aesthetic of the original film, while also answerable to the film's original director throughout, which means that the vision of the movie is mostly out of his hands.
The story picks up as Alice (Wasikowska, Crimson Peak) has come home to London for a spell after traveling the world as the captain of her own ship. However, she comes to find that her ex, Hamish (Bill, Mr. Turner), is using financial leverage that pressures her to stop adventuring by handing over the ship and taking up a job as a clerk at his shipping company in order to pay for the family home that Alice's mother (Duncan, Birdman) had signed over to him. Unable to deal with the stress at hand, Alice finds a portal in the large mirror above her fireplace which returns her to Underland, where she's immediately greeted by her fantasy friends. It's not all a happy reunion, as she soon discovers that the Mad Hatter has taken ill, learning that his thought-deceased family may still be alive, but he's unable to locate them. To save her friend, Alice visits the realm where Time, in human form (played by Sacha Baron Cohen (The Brothers Grimsby) in a German accent that channels Werner Herzog if he were trying to do an impression of Christoph Waltz), has a free-floating vehicle called the Chronosphere, which will allow Alice to go back in time to make things right for Hatter and his kin. Along the way, she also discovers more information about the dreaded Red Queen's early years, who, once again, stands in the way of Alice's success.
The only thing that's really going for Alice Through the Looking Glass is its emphasis on eye-popping visuals. While I find nearly every one of the character designs to be unappealing or repugnant, there's no question that the makers of the film put a great deal of time and effort into the incredible costume designs and the eerie beauty of the Underland environs. Alas, it would have been nice to see these digital creations used more sparingly, as the film covers just about everything, from entire landscapes to the make-up on Johnny Depp's face, with the same kind of computer-generated coating that never truly allows us to feel like we're really being taken away to a place that Alice would take as real. That would still be fine if the so-called real-world scenes of Alice captaining a ship weren't also filled to the brim with computer effects just as obvious as those in Underland.
One of the major reasons why Alice through the Looking Glass fails to captivate is its insipid story, which requires us to learn more about a character that we neither care about nor relate to getting back together with his missing family. There's also a ridiculously silly subplot involving the origin of the Red Queen's madness, involving, of all things, who left tart crumbs on the floor under her bed (you read that right). As with more recent fairy tale efforts, from "Wicked" to Maleficent, there's an attempt here for us to sympathize with the main enemy as someone who is not evil, merely misunderstood and damaged to the point where she has no choice but to play the heavy. If anything, the acts committed because she can't get over misplaced blame for something nearly inconsequential makes the Red Queen seem even worse than if her heart were filled with pure malevolence from birth.
This brings up another problem, which is that of character irrelevancy. We end up never really caring about Alice as a person, seeing here merely as a vessel through which we meet a menagerie of odd people doing one or two absurd things to distinguish them. Characters this thin don't deserve back stories to explain them, or extended climaxes that have no real consequences to us because we never believe there are any real stakes at hand for characters we don't have much vested interest in, or for a fantastical and magical world where anything can and does happen, and we're not even sure really exists outside of Alice's imagination.
Whereas Lewis Carroll's work succeeded mostly because it didn't explain every single thing about it, offering a surreal experience for young and old alike who read it as a straightforward fantasy, rather than a political allegory. There's no satirical allegory here, and not a great deal is left up to the imagination, trying to offer up explanations for things that are better off just being characters borne of inspired lunacy. Besides, trying to bring logic to the realm of Underland only raises more substantive questions about its existence that the film hasn't the time nor inclination to elucidate, regardless of the origin stories of a few of its zanier residents.
In the film, the Chronosphere is not to change the past but to make things better in the present. If only the makers of Alice Through the Looking Glass had learned this valuable lesson on their own when they looked to the past for a billion-dollar property to exploit, learning the worst lessons from why they think it was successful, making their present production even more incomprehensible and entirely superfluous than the original.
©2016 Vince Leo