Editor’s Note: Alice Through the Looking Glass opens in wide theatrical release today.
One billion dollars. That’s how much Tim Burton’s (Edward Scissorhands, Batman Returns, Batman) CGI-drenched, 3D (post-converted) adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland made six years ago at the international box office. But for various reasons – Burton and star Johnny Depp’s respective schedules, script issues, among others – the long expected, if not exactly anticipated sequel, Alice Through the Looking Glass took an inordinate amount of time to reach multiplexes. And time – or rather Time – its inexorable, inevitable passage and the life lessons we learn or refuse to learn from said passage provides Alice Through the Looking Glass with its central, overarching theme. Unfortunately, director James Bobin (The Muppets: Most Wanted, The Muppets), uncritically mimicking Burton’s style-first, substance-last approach to filmmaking, and screenwriter Linda Woolverton (Maleficent, Alice in Wonderland) fail in practically every way possible: From theme (bungled) to story (also bungled), to character (likewise), making Alice Through the Looking Glass a tedious, inconsequential, ultimately hollow experience.
Alice’s time travel provides Alice Through the Looking Glass with the barest hint of inventiveness or originality: She literally travels across (CGI) seas of time. Everything else, however, evinces a paucity of imagination.
After returning from a three-year sojourn on the high and low seas aboard her father’s merchant ship, the aptly, if obviously named, “Wonder,” Alice (Mia Wasikowska) discover much has changed since she last saw England’s shores. Her former suitor, Hamish (Leo Bill), as cruel and vengeful as ever, has not only taken a wife, but has edged Alice and her mother from their 10% ownership in the shipping company bequeathed to them by Alice’s late father. Hamish has a plan for Alice too: If he can’t marry her – that would be bigamy even if she agreed – he’s going to do everything to stifle her independent-minded spirit and turn her into a lowly, low-paid clerk. He’s both a buffoonish, mockery-inviting figure and an exemplar of malignant white male privilege, Victorian England, 19th-century edition. Alice, of course, wants nothing to do with Hamish or his job offer, but she might not have a choice once she discovers Hamish manipulated her mother into purchasing a bond on the family home.
Alice Through the Looking Glass, however, tables Alice and her mother’s plight, saving the resolution for a bookend scene heavy on feel-good wish-fulfillment. Instead, a recalcitrant Alice steps through the looking glass of the title at the invitation of former caterpillar-turned-butterfly Absolem (voiced by the late Alan Rickman). He warns her of an imbalance in the Force – or something along those lines – centered on her one-time friend, the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp), aka Tarrant Hightopp. Bobin and Woolverton dispense with the minimal character or relationship building moviegoers require to marginally care about the characters onscreen. Instead, they ask the audience to take Alice’s friendship with the Hatter for granted. Like anything in Alice Through the Looking Glass not related to or involving the best CGI Disney’s bottomless coffers can buy, we’re simply told to accept Alice and Hatter’s relationship and Alice’s impetuous willingness to sacrifice everything, including Wonderland, to save the Mad Hatter from terminal depression.
You did, indeed, read the preceding sentence correctly. The Mad Hatter isn’t Mad in Alice Through the Looking Glass. He’s Sad. He’s the Sad Hatter, brought low by inadvertently finding the first hat he ever created, that his family (parents, siblings, uncles) lost their lives to the Red Queen/Iracebeth (Helena Bonham Carter) years or decades earlier (time moves differently in Wonderland). With the help of the White Queen/Mirana (Anne Hathaway), Alice decides to literally turn back time by stealing the steampunk-inspired, size-changing Chronosphere (c.f., H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine) from the Werner Herzog/Christoph Waltz-accented, semi-villainous embodiment of Time (Sacha Baron Cohen) who lives with his clockwork minions in an inter-dimensional castle. It’s accessible via a grandfather clock in the White Queen’s possession (a convenient contrivance, like so much else in Alice Through the Looking Glass), return to the fateful day and save the Hatter’s family from their collective demise at the claws of the Red Queen’s Jabberwocky (dragon). Of course, it’s not that easy. Once Alice discovers the cause of the Red Queen’s enmity toward the Hatter clan, she decides to travel even further back in time. But that’s enough, so she takes yet another trip.
From theme (bungled) to story (also bungled) to character (likewise), Alice Through the Looking Glass is a tedious, inconsequential, ultimately hollow experience.
That’s correct. Bobin and Woolverton give Red Queen and the White Queen an origin story. We learn the how and the why of the Red Queen’s temperament nature, her oversized cranium, and the White Queen’s unexpected role in both. Not surprisingly, it’s redundant and reductive. It also feels like an exercise in narrative wheel spinning (probably because it is), stretching out Alice’s under-motivated, underwritten journey until Alice Through the Looking Glass hits the obligatory feature-length mark. Alice’s time travel provides Alice Through the Looking Glass with the barest hint of inventiveness or originality: She literally travels across (CGI) seas of time. Everything else, however, evinces a paucity of imagination. Characters, human, non-human, or CGI-augmented, return from the first film, making little impression dialogue wise, functioning primarily to remind moviegoers of the marginally better, semi-memorable film they saw six years ago and likely never saw again.
In this followup to 2010's Alice in Wonderland, director James Bobin uncritically mimics Tim Burton’s style-first, substance-last approach to filmmaking, turning Alice Through the Looking Glass into a tedious, inconsequential, ultimately hollow experience.