by Philip Price
For a movie wholly concentrated on time, time travel, and the essence of time it sure feels like this sequel to the 2010 “Alice in Wonderland” is a huge waste of it. Time that is. Of course, given that 2010 Tim Burton film made north of a billion dollars at the box office it was an inevitability that we'd be getting a sequel sooner or later, but it's still somewhat surprising it has come this late. Six years have passed, a handful of other live action adaptations of classic Disney animated films have been made and yet here we are, back in Wonderland. Having not read the Lewis Carroll stories on which these adventures of Alice have been based one has to imagine that to have made as big a cultural impact as they have they were more inventive and innovative than the film adaptations we're now receiving. To say that is to say that “Alice Through the Looking Glass” is no more interesting or compelling than its predecessor. It wasn't without hope that this viewer walked into this six year later sequel with optimism that new director James Bobin might bring something fresh and exciting to what otherwise felt like the jaded side of Tim Burton that was incarnated in his predecessor. Transforming the widely known Wonderland as perceived by the naiveté of a child Alice, Burton turned the fantasy world into Underland and gave us a darker film than expected. That was all well and good until the movie didn't really work, but Bobin has now come along to bring to life a brighter, more enticing time in the realm of Wonderland as our heroine must travel through space and time to try and save the dying of depression Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp). This brings to mind the biggest undoing of ‘Through the Looking Glass’ in that its narrative drive simply isn't compelling enough to sustain its nearly two-hour runtime. It becomes repetitive and as if it is searching for disparate plot strands to try and pull together a complete story. Linda Woolverton, who has made a career out of writing Disney films (including “The Lion King” and “Beauty and the Beast”), adapted Carroll's story here and while there are certainly moments of inspired humor, a few nice character moments, and grand majestic visuals by way of Bobin and the special effects team, there is no substance to the product as a whole. It is a wonder how forgettable the film turns out to be.
When we are first re-introduced to Mia Wasikowska's Alice she has been sailing the world as the Captain of a ship who returns to London in 1875 only to find family issues dealing with her mother (Lindsay Duncan) and her previous fiancé, Hamish (Leo Bill), who are more or less taking the ship Alice's father left for her from her and offering her a desk job that will keep her far away from her sea adventures. It seems Alice has stayed away from dry land in an attempt to cope with her father's death, but at this news she once again retreats to her dream world of Wonderland after following the blue butterfly Absolem (voice of the late Alan Rickman) through a mirror. Upon arriving in Wonderland, Alice is dropped into the ever present tea time where it is discovered that the Hatter has more or less gone even madder. Considering this eccentricity is part of the character this shouldn't seem too odd or out of place, but Mirana (Anne Hathaway), Tweedledee and Tweedledum (Matt Lucas) and a whole cast of animated animals including Bayard the Bloodhound (voice of Timothy Spall), Thackery AKA the March Hare (voice of Paul Whitehouse), McTwisp (voice of Michael Sheen), and of course the Cheshire Cat (voice of Stephen Fry) all believe something more unusual has stricken Depp's Hatter. As it turns out, the Hatter thinks his once believed to be deceased family is actually still alive due to the fact he came across the first hat he ever made that he thought was lost in the fire that killed his family. That no one believes this could be an actual possibility, including Alice, sends the Hatter into a deep depression. Because Alice claims to be best of friends with the Hatter, though we were never privy to this relationship being formed or given reason as to how such a bond exists other than quick lines of dialogue assuring us of as much, she says she would do anything to help the Hatter and thus we are off and running. Once it is explained to Alice how she might rescue Hatter's long lost family by traveling back in time to save them she quickly recaps a checklist of things she must do in order to accomplish this task in which we are essentially given a list of the beats the movie will hit from that point out. The bad thing about this other than the fact that it is lazy writing is the fact that by this point in the feature we're already dreading having to watch this long checklist play out as it's clear what's in store is little more than a series of inconsequential events that will undoubtedly look appealing, but carry no soul.
The more redeeming qualities of this cobbled together series of events are the illustrious cast attempting to make things work as well as the genuinely good looking quality of the film and of course Danny Elfman's score. I can only remember the previous ‘Alice’ having a world that felt dark and dim for reasons having to do as much with tone as they did the rendering of the special effects. Here, like with ‘Jungle Book,’ the fully CG environments aren't so much distracting as they are convincing, but they're nowhere near as immersive largely due to the quality of the content taking place within them. That said, there truly are some staggeringly beautiful production designs brought to life though, namely around Sacha Baron Cohen's character of Time. For instance, when Time walks out onto a long bridge that seems to be hanging amidst a plethora of golden-colored clouds with tiny pocket watches hanging down around him as if ornaments on a beautifully decorated tree one can appreciate the impact of the image on a purely aesthetic level. The double edged sword of offering little more than surface-level beauty is the fact ‘Through the Looking Glass’ is only really worth seeing if you're seeing it on the biggest screen possible. At least then one can appreciate one of the few positive factors present in this sequel whereas the effect of the world Bobin has built is likely lost on the small screen. That the film offers nothing in the way of story for these visuals to support is what causes such passive feelings toward the film. Sure, it's pretty to look at from time to time, but with nothing to stimulate the mind or more importantly, the imagination, the beauty only does so much for so long. Given the film is so centered around this concept of time and brings up conflicting ideas of time being a friend to no one or that time is many things, but isn't necessarily our enemy-it felt safe to assume the film might speak to viewers on a more perceptive level, but there is nothing here to contemplate, nothing to discuss. Rather, Bobin and his team seem to have viewed the film as simply as Alice views that aforementioned checklist she must follow to fix the Hatter. If only Bobin's list had been one telling him how to create a more enlightening and, dare I say it, riskier version of this story that wasn't afraid of possible audience alienation we might have had something interesting, but as ‘Through the Looking Glass’ sits now it's hard to remember why we even care if the Hatter is mad or not.
As for the cast, most are only here to pop in for a scene or two, but while Hathaway is more or less relegated to twirling her hands and feeling remorseful Helena Bonham Carter once again steals the show as the Red Queen as she is the only person who seems to be having a good time (audience included). Depp is still playing his whimsical shtick that now feels like more of a default no matter how strikingly different the make-up job with the Hatter's lisp only seeming to have gotten worse since last time. While the Hatter's arc is the catalyst for this new film it feels relatively old in terms of it being the same arc Depp has played for Burton numerous times before. Wasikowska is doing her bidding as she clearly signed a multi-picture deal and is required to participate, but given what she's done since her breakout in the first Alice this material feels inferior. The big question going into ‘Through the Looking Glass’ was how Cohen might factor into this world and what type of impression he might make. While the marketing made Time out to be something of the big villain of the piece he is actually little more than a guy trying to do his job with our protagonist giving him trouble. In order for Alice to be able to travel through time she must break into Time's Victorian clock-esque headquarters and steal a device called the "chronosphere" and so Time is more of an obstacle than a thief or villain. Cohen plays the master of the past, present, and future with his expected wiry charm (that doesn't always land), but he is still able to pull off an initial devious facade that ends in a convincingly vulnerable state. Also of note is Time's second in command, Wilkins (voice of Matt Vogel), who is a machine with a mustache and steam-powered design who may be the most memorable new character as he contributes to one of the best ideas the movie has in terms of both design and concept (if you're not sure what I'm referring to-minutes and hours should help). In the end, if there is one theme to be pulled from the film it is that of attempting to understand varying perspectives rather than simply painting things in black and white. A subplot concerning Mirana and Iracebeth's (Bonham Carter) backstory that links to Mad Hatter's family reinforces this idea of misinterpreted perspectives as it attempts to paint the Queen of Hearts in a different light than we saw her in the first film. Given this quarrel between sisters all starts due to a few tart crumbs on the floor though, only makes the squabble feel as incidental to the film as this movie does to Disney's slate this year. Near the end of the film Alice is asked to please not come back to Wonderland and we can only hope she honors that request.