There will be a few people who will wholeheartedly enjoy Alice Through the Looking Glass, and despite my personal feelings about the film I envy them. Back in 2010, Alice in Wonderland was something of a surprise hit despite a decidedly mixed response among the public and being the source of controversy among both Disney fans and those of Lewis Carroll’s work. The unique Tim Burton style combined with quirky, memorable characters and a feminist tale all set in a familiar frame helped the movie pass the billion dollar mark at the box office and make it a staple of cable television. But on the other hand, it’s seeming lack of interest in being a straightforward adaptation of either the source material or the animated Disney classic alienated fans of both and helped kick off a slew of live-action Disney remakes that continue to cause debate. As someone who is a huge Disney fan and a fan of Carroll’s books, but who also unabashedly loves the 2010 film, for what it is rather than what I might have wished it to be, I really wanted to love Alice Through the Looking Glass. So many of the pieces are still there, and it definitely has some moments of worth, but as a whole it feels lazy, thrown together, and occasionally phoned in. No matter how much I might enjoy and appreciate this particular take on these familiar characters, and as visually impressive as the film might be, it’s almost impossible to not feel disappointed by this unnecessary sequel.
Alice Through the Looking Glass, which bears even less resemblance than its predecessor to the book from which it takes its title, picks up three years following Alice’s previous journey down the rabbit’s hole. Alice has been sailing the world as the captain of the Wonder, her late father’s ship, exploring the world in the hopes of opening new lines of trade for her father’s company. She returns to London where she discovers that her former fiancé has gained control of the company, and through extortion has convinced Alice’s mother to sell their share in the firm (and the Wonder) in exchange for keeping the family home, demoting Alice from ship’s captain to office clerk. Distraught at these revelations, Alice follows the call of the blue butterfly Absolem through a mirror and once more into Wonderland (technically Underland). But despite the cheerful, triumphant ending of her last adventure, things are not well with the Mad Hatter who is convinced despite all evidence to the contrary that his family is alive, and is withering away in the face of his friends’ doubts.
To cure the Hatter, Alice must travel back in time to save his family from the Jabberwocky, and to do so she’ll have to make use of the Chronosphere, a device at the center of Time’s fortress which powers time itself. But guarding over the passage of time is Time, the clockwork god-like personification of time, who tells Alice that the past cannot be changed and that her attempt to do so will unravel Underland. Alice, however, is willing to do anything to save the Hatter, and she steals the Chronosphere and sets off into history with Time on her heels, hoping that she can save the Hatter’s family and get back to the present before it’s too late. Her journey will take her into the youths of both her friends and her enemies, giving her a chance to learn a little about how they came to be as she tries to track down the correct moment to change which will set things on a new course and save the Hatter’s family.
Alice Through the Looking Glass could have chosen any of a million different directions to go as a sequel to Alice in Wonderland, but instead they lazily chose a worn out time travel story for the heart of the film. I can see the appeal of showing these familiar characters in their early days, but I can’t imagine anyone in the audience who has been losing sleep over the “questions” the film sets out to “answer”. Part of the charm of the characters in the first film was that their unique ways were unexplained. I personally didn’t need to know why the Red Queen’s head is so big, or why she has such an obsession with tarts and a hatred of her sister. Meanwhile the Hatter’s backstory is full of flavorless, overused tropes of fathers failing to understand sons that offers no insight into the Hatter himself. And while Alice’s journey in the previous film had a direct connection into her struggles in the real world, the message this time around is a convoluted, and often contradictory, mess, which at some points feels like it stands in direct opposition to the anti-establishment themes of individuality established in the first movie.
Director James Bobin shows a flair for unique visuals, and the film is often a treat to look at. It combines some gorgeous effects with a sense of the unexpected in a way that feels substantially different from what Tim Burton created without being so far from the other movie as to be disjointed. There are loads of production design choices that are amusing, beautiful (especially the costumes), or just downright strange, and those touches are often some of the best parts of the movie. For instance, the Red Queen has servants made of vegetables for no discernable reason, a fact that was confusing at first but which won me over with its whimsy by film’s end. But the script and some of the performances are where the bulk of the movie’s flaws lie. Linda Woolverton, who wrote the first Alice in Wonderland film, classics such as Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, and the somewhat-reviled (and somewhat misunderstood, I feel) Maleficent, never has a clear idea of what she wants to accomplish with the story this time around. The result is rarely more than a series of vignettes, the sort that might fill in the backgrounds of characters in a writer’s notebook, stitched together in a haphazard way. The result lacks meaning and emotion, and is on occasion downright boring. Of course, things aren’t helped by some of the lackadaisical performances of some of the cast, who seem to be here merely for the paycheck. Specifically, Johnny Depp seems not to care about the role in the slightest, failing to capture both the unpredictable energy that made the character such a hit, nor the crisis of faith that leaves the Hatter crushed and depressed at the film’s outset. There’s no commitment this time around, perhaps because he’s no longer working with longtime partner Tim Burton this time around.
Despite all of that, however, Alice Through the Looking Glass does have its moments for those of us inclined to find something to like beyond the visuals. Sacha Baron Cohen is obviously having a good time strutting through the movie as Time, straddling the line between villain and impassioned observer, who gets a kick out of time puns and has a bizarre relationship with the Red Queen. And Mia Wasikowska’s Alice is still a compelling figure to me, even if she’s caught up in a movie that feels beneath her. She’s a strong, determined woman, and Wasikowska grounds the film by connecting Alice’s adventures with her trials in the real world, drawing far more out of the role than the script would otherwise allow. But even the script has moments of cleverness, even latching onto the first film’s feminism occasionally, such as when Alice, upon returning briefly to our world, is diagnosed with hysteria and committed to an asylum. It may not be particularly original (so many version of Alice have used that trope), but it’s no less welcome. There are some genuine laughs to be found, as well one clever twist which gives an unneeded but fun explanation to a particular scene from the first film. (And honestly, I just get a kick out of Anne Hathaway as the White Queen, which is almost entirely a result of the way the actress has crafted the character, and as a result the White Queen is the only character whose flashbacks felt like they enriched the character.)
If you’re a big enough fan of 2010’s Alice in Wonderland, care little about faithfulness to Lewis Carroll’s books or to Disney history, and don’t mind overused plot devices, it’s possible to have a good time watching Alice Through the Looking Glass. There’s enough to it for you to be dazzled by the visuals, laugh a few times, and just enjoy spending 113 minutes in the company of characters you’ve come to love. But it’s impossible to deny that this return to Underland is a serious step backwards. Regardless of your feelings about the first film, Looking Glass by comparison feels lazy, sloppy, unenthusiastic, and rather pointless, and based on its box office performance thus far it’s certain to kill the franchise. It’s a shame that this will be the last time we hear Alan Rickman’s amazing voice onscreen, because he deserved so much better. (I much more highly recommend his final live-action performance in Eye in the Sky.) For those who hated the previous movie, Through the Looking Glass will feel like the ultimate vindication for their feelings, and will confirm their animosity towards the recent trend of Disney live-action remakes. But for those of us who both love Disney, love Carroll’s Alice, and loved Tim Burton’s version, Through The Looking Glass can only be a disappointment.