Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland made $1 billion back in 2010. Billion. With a B.
Disney saw that success as a license to print money by remaking more of their animated classics into surprisingly excellent live-action spectacles. And because one insanely profitable eyesore deserves another, Disney has graced us with another Wonderland adventure in Alice Through the Looking Glass. With Muppets director James Bobin filling in for Tim Burton, Alice 2 is still the visual dumpster fire you remember, but returning screenwriter Linda Woolverton delivers a much more palatable story this time.
This reviewer found Burton’s original the cinematic equivalent of a protracted migraine, so for the prospect of a sequel, there was nowhere to go but up. Then again, I suppose it’s entirely possible it could have been exactly as bad. Given Disney’s full backing and the entire Alice production team returning (with Burton producing), Bobin has created a follow-up every bit as disposable as the first, but one that feels more cohesive and emotionally honest than Burton’s Jackson Pollock painting of a film.
Returning from the sea voyage she embarked upon at the end of the first film, Alice Kingsleigh (Mia Wasikowska) discovers that her ex-fiancé Hamish (Leo Bill) has taken over his father’s company and plans to force Alice into the life of an office clerk. Ever the rebel, Alice follows the butterfly Absolem (Alan Rickman, in his final role) through the titular looking glass and tumbles back into Underland.
There, she discovers the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) is dying. We learn that his family was killed many years ago by the Jabberwocky, but now the Hatter believes they’re still alive, and he’s slowly dying because no one believes him. The White Queen (Anne Hathaway) sends Alice on a mission to the castle of Time; not the concept of time, but rather a clockwork timekeeper named Time (Sacha Baron Cohen) dressed like a rejected Power Rangers villain. There, she must steal his Chronosphere, a time machine that also serves as the master clock for the whole universe. Alice must use the device to travel back in time and discover the truth about the Hatter’s family.
It’s easier to settle into this sequel’s groove if you just accept that most of Lewis Carroll’s work has been crammed into a shredder. Inventing new characters and scenarios wholesale, Linda Woolverton’s script puts Alice on a magical journey through the world of needless backstory, but still manages to land on a few lovely character beats all the same. In her quest to find out what happened to the Hatter’s family, Alice is chased by the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter), whose inflated CGI head is one of those eyesores that instantly turns me off from these films. The fact that she’s a shrieking banshee with a decapitation fetish who forces her way into practically every scene doesn’t make it any easier.
At any rate, as Alice journeys through time witnessing various moments in the history of Underland, she comes to realize that the Jabberwocky attacking the Hatter’s family is not an isolated incident. Actions have consequences, and those consequences beget other actions, and so Alice’s quest sends her further and further back to discover the incident that turned the Red Queen into the bulbous monstrosity she is today. Turning the plot into a series of time-travel vignettes feels like an act of utter laziness, but Alice 2 makes it work by constantly reminding us that nothing happens by accident, and no one exists in a vacuum. It turns out even the tiniest bit of emotional honesty goes a long way in this movie.
This setup also allows us to witness the bad blood between the Hatter and his father (Rhys Ifans), a hatter himself who disapproves of his son’s silly hats. “The function of a hat is to follow the proper dictum of society. Not to be fun,” he sternly tells the boy in one of the film’s hundred flashbacks. (Tell that to the people working in Disney’s mouse ear factory.) The existence of a whole flock of orange-haired hatters at first may seem like a waking nightmare, but it turns out Johnny Depp’s Hatter is the weird one of the bunch. How a whole family of relatively normal people wound up in Underland in the first place, and why the runt of the litter turned out to be the only one who actually fits into their goofy surroundings, is one of the film’s many unanswered questions. (The answer is, “Because.”)
The best thing Alice 2 has going for it is the character of Time.
He’s the official who regulates time throughout all of Underland, including how much time we have, and what happens when our time runs out. It’s a fascinating little metaphor for life and death, and one that the film never explores as fully as it could. His castle is like a steampunk funhouse, filled with gears, cogs, and neat little robots called seconds. These robots combine to form minutes, which combine to form even larger robots (hours, natch). Time isn’t an outright villain, though Alice thinks he is. Sacha Baron Cohen plays him as a put-upon soldier carrying out the order of the universe, and he makes for a fun yet imposing figure. His disdain for time puns is delightful, especially considering this film features more time puns than Andrew Niccol’s In Time.
It’s easy to look at all of these elements and call them unnecessary, but then that’s kind of the buzzword for this whole movie. Ask Disney and their billion dollars how unnecessary they think an Alice sequel is. As unnecessary as this all may well be, James Bobin and Linda Woolverton have made what feels like an attempt to correct what was broken about the first film. It may be six years too late, but the fact that they tried at all is admirable. Alice Through the Looking Glass may not convert anyone turned off by the first film, but if you actually enjoyed that one, this one has plenty to offer.Liked This? Share It!