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Three Views: Alice Through the Looking Glass

May 27, 2016

Alice Through the Looking Glass Review By John Corrado

★½ (out of 4)

Alice Through the Looking Glass PosterHere’s a conundrum for you.  Alice Through the Looking Glass is a film that expects us to care about things, without giving us any real reasons to actually care about them.  This is a film that is often so bafflingly undercooked in terms of narrative, yet garishly over the top on so many other levels, that very few of the choices it makes actually work.

A loose follow up to Tim Burton’s 2010 blockbuster Alice in Wonderland, which in itself served as both an adaptation and continuation of Lewis Carroll’s classic work, Alice Through the Looking Glass serves little purpose in terms of story and therefore struggles to even justify its purpose.  James Bobin takes over the director’s chair this time around, and it feels like he’s working from Tim Burton’s leftovers.

After years at sea captaining her deceased father’s ship, Alice (Mia Wasikowska) returns to England, expected to adopt the lifestyle of a woman in Victorian time.  But when she is visited by the blue caterpillar turned butterfly Absolem (Alan Rickman), Alice is guided through a mirror that takes her back to Underland.  As it turns out, the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) has grown sick with depression and started to literally lose his colour, and the clues to cure him lie in the past.  So Alice steps into a clock and steals the Chronosphere from Time (Sacha Baron Cohen), a character who is equal parts human and clockwork, which allows her to travel along the Ocean of Time.

Much of the story revolves around the first hat that the Mad Hatter ever made, and how he still seeks the acceptance of his more serious father (Rhys Ifans) and family who have all disappeared, a subplot that wasn’t even present in the first film.  The emotional arc of Alice Through the Looking Glass requires our investment in these characters, but the film doesn’t really give us enough reasons to actually be involved in their plight, and the stakes never feel high enough to justify telling this story.  Even the mechanics of the time travel plot are underdeveloped, beyond a few broad affectations on how changing the past can negatively impact the future, and by the end it all feels like a missed opportunity.  A scene where Alice wakes up in the mental hospital, and has to escape the clutches of a doctor (Andrew Scott) ready to gleefully cure her of female hysteria, feels woefully misguided.

There are some visually arresting images in the film, and also a few intriguing ideas that could have easily been fleshed out.  But for every little thing that does work, there is something else that comes up short, and this is perhaps most true within Time’s kingdom. For example, the sea of gold stop watches that dangle from chains, and can be taken down and snapped shut to end someone’s life, is a fascinating and darkly beautiful concept that makes for an impressive visual landscape.  But the little mechanical seconds and minutes that run around and can transform into hours, are actually kind of creepy and examples of digital garishness.  The entire colour palette of the film is a strange mix of murky and over the top, only made more so by the 3D, often lacking a much needed sense of whimsy.

Mia Wasikowska is serviceable in the leading role, but she also seems somewhat disinterested in her line readings, no doubt wanting to move on to more interesting projects.  There are hints of embarrassment and desperation behind Johnny Depp’s work here, with his white makeup, shock of red hair and lisping voice overshadowing any real acting choices, and it’s sad to think that his career has all but descended into prosthetics and broad caricature.  Anne Hathaway flatly reprises her role as the White Queen, and she approaches levels of self-parody with every wispy wave of her hands.  Helena Bonham Carter fairs slightly better as her sister the Red Queen, an almost thanklessly pitchy role that the actress nonetheless throws herself into.  Sacha Baron Cohen similarly does his best with what he’s given here, chewing up the scenery in a go for broke performance that is sometimes amusing.

There is a lot of artistry behind the film, from Colleen Atwood’s colourful costumes to everything that the visual effects team cooked up, but the plot rarely feels deserving of it.  This is essentially a feature length highlight reel of visual effects set pieces, moments of which are admittedly impressive, but it has no real soul beyond that.  The biggest fault of Alice Through the Looking Glass is that it bears few connections to Lewis Carroll’s original stories, instead using his characters to try and craft a franchise that isn’t really needed.  Although Alice in Wonderland was a huge box office hit six years ago, and a film that I liked well enough at the time despite its flaws, I don’t think anybody was really asking for a sequel.

There are a few moments of visual wizardry in Alice Through the Looking Glass that pop off the screen, and the designs of the Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry) and the rest of the tea party animals remain appealing and cute.  But the story just feels so inconsequential, that the film is barely able to register on anything other than a visual level, and for a second trip to Wonderland, it’s ironically lacking in wonder.  There’s really no need to get sucked down this rabbit hole.

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Alice Through the Looking Glass Picture 1

The White Queen (Anne Hathaway), the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) and Alice (Mia Wasikowska) in Alice Through the Looking Glass

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Alice Through the Looking Glass Review By Erin Corrado

★★ (out of 4)

There are films that seem destined to be sequalized and stories retold time and time again.  Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland is one of those.  Based on Carroll’s characters, and a sequel to the 2010 live-action Alice in Wonderland film, Alice Through the Looking Glass starring Mia Wasikowska in the title role is a prime example of that.  The problem is, it also feels like a needless capitalization on a popular property that while trying to tell a fresh story really feels disjointed and pointless.

When the film opens, Wasikowska’s Alice is the captain of a ship, leading her crew out of danger from pirates and back to port.  Upon arrival, she is stripped of her Captain’s title by a former suitor who owns the fleet, and is told that women should be clerks and not captains.  After this incident, the butterfly version of Absolam shows up, and leads Alice into the study of her former employer, where she enters the mirror (or looking glass) leading her back into the world of Wonderland.  Once there, she discovers that the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) desperately needs her help to save his family, and she ends up in a literal race against Time (Sacha Baron Cohen), stealing the Chronosphere from his master clock to travel back in time to try to change events in Wonderland’s history.

The whole thing contains so many elements, character stories and developments, that at times it really seems as though new revelations were placed in just to tick boxes on a screenwriting sheet or give a reason for character’s motivations without much logical lead up.  What entails is a very strange film that is confusing in execution while still leading a fairly predictable plot that lacks the whimsical freshness an ‘Alice’ story needs.

Feeling very much like an unneeded sequel made only because of the monumentous success of the first film, Alice Through the Looking Glass could – and should – have been a better film deserving of the budget a visual-effects powerhouse like this film warrants.  But sometimes, it seems the big-budget films do put the budget into the effects more than the story, so should we really be surprised at all?

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Alice Through the Looking Glass Picture 2

Time (Sacha Baron Cohen) in Alice Through the Looking Glass

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Alice Through the Looking Glass Review By Tony Corrado

★★ (out of 4)

Alice Through the Looking Glass is a sequel to Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland (2010), which itself was actually a sort of sequel to the book Alice in Wonderland and even went a bit beyond the Looking Glass story. Aside from the main characters then, this film directed by James Bobin contains a whole new back story and carries it beyond the previous one.

The film begins at sea where Alice (Mia Wasikowska) proves herself to be a brilliant ship captain, but when she returns home is expected to revert to a traditional Victorian role. Led by the blue butterfly Absolem (Alan Rickman) through a looking glass she finds herself back in an Underland threatened by Time (Sacha Baron Cohen) and the red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter), with the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) near death from depression. Only by borrowing the Chronosphere from Time can she go back in time to discover the origins of the Hatter and his father (Rhys Ifans) and what made the Red Queen so mean. Any attempt to alter the past can be disastrous but knowledge of it can lead to a good outcome.

I didn’t dislike Alice Through the Looking Glass as much as many others did, but if you found the original film over the top even for Tim Burton then this film will offer no relief. Johnny Depp is just as weird, even if some justification is given for his character’s behaviour. The Red Queen is just as obnoxious as the White Queen (Anne Hathaway) is sickly sweet. Time rivals them all for weirdness, a clockwork man in a strange suit with a wonky clock for a heart living in a clockwork castle with mechanical minions called Seconds that can join up like Transformers into huge Minutes and Hours. A British villain accent was not felt sinister enough for Baron Cohen who chose the latest gold standard for scary voices–Christoph Waltz. Meanwhile, back home Alice manages to escape from a leering psychiatrist (Andrew Scott) eager to apply the Victorian cure to her apparent hysteria.

Despite all these problems, I found the time travel story within its strange contexts made some sense and the outcome was satisfactory in an affirmative feminist way. Though admittedly a lot of the clockwork special effects didn’t work for me, I enjoyed the opening scenes at sea and later flying back over the “sea of time” in an ultralight steampunk time machine launched with a flushing sound by a loo chain. The mainly British supporting cast of various Underland critters was as charming as ever, especially Matt Lucas who was born to play the twin Tweedles. Finally, Mia Wasikowska manages to shine through all the weirdness in a performance that should do no harm to her career.

In summary, I wouldn’t really recommend this film to anyone who doesn’t appreciate Tim Burton at his most self-indulgent or who have not chemically prepared themselves for the trip. But given my own (chemical free) curiousity about this notorious film and the minimal time and financial commitment on my part, I don’t regret having seen it once.

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Consensus: A sequel to Tim Burton’s 2010 blockbuster, Alice Through the Looking Glass is a film that occasionally pops off the screen in terms of visuals, but is lacking in terms of narrative purpose and focuses more on effects than actual storytelling. ★★ (out of 4)

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