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Alice Through the Looking Glass

May 27, 2016
Alice Through the Looking Glass

Alice in Wonderland was such an irredeemably awful movie that it’s kind of stupefying to realize that they’ve made a sequel. As a follow-up to one of the worst movies of Tim Burton’s entire career, there is no reason that Alice Through the Looking Glass should exist. And, with no reason to exist, there also seems to have been no reason for anyone involved to care about it.

The crew are not by any means terrible at their jobs. Tim Burton does not return to direct, but James Bobin did a passable job helming The Muppets and Muppets Most Wanted. Linda Woolverton also penned the previous movie, but she counts animated Disney classics like Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King among her credits, along with the more recent Maleficent. I can’t find reason to complain about any of the cast. And yet the result is ghastly, soulless, and cynical.

Alice Through the Looking Glass feigns even less connection than Alice in Wonderland did with Lewis Carroll’s writing. I might give it credit for dropping the pretense, but then it’s even more infuriating that it pretends at all. It smacks of the impulse to do something — anything — that Disney can slap a name on and pretend to continue their copyright. And there’s that “pretend” word again, since Disney actually doesn’t hold any rights to Carroll’s stories. They can lay claim only to the elements introduced in their own movies, and who in their right mind wants to steal anything original to Burton’s ill-fated outing?

I suppose in these days of ever more expansive IP laws we should count ourselves lucky to have unfettered access to Carroll’s delightful, absurdist prose. We can remember that “nonsense” doesn’t simply mean “silliness”, and that to be absurd there must be expectations to break. Merely setting a boring MacGuffin-chase in a fanciful fantasy landscape shows none of the wit or humor that marked Carroll’s tales.

In fact, the only significant new character to join Alice (Mia Wasikowska), the Hatter (Johnny Depp), the White Queen (Anne Hathaway), and the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) — who Woolverton again confounds with the Queen of Hearts — is a personified version of Time (Sacha Baron Cohen). This gives license to run through nearly every single English-language idiom involving “time” — most of them in a tedious scene which does little else but run through the list — with the notable exception of the one that Carroll actually used in his own writings. Bonus points if you can remember what that one is.

We’ve seen the sort of desperation that drives a studio to use a property in a movie just because they can, in last year’s debacle of Fant4stic, or in the previous year’s Amazing Spider-Man 2. You remember: the movie so bad that Sony decided it could make more money off of the character by just letting Marvel (that is, Disney) make the movies themselves and taking a royalty payment. With nothing to say, a directive to produce any crap that happens to vaguely resemble the necessary title will produce exactly that.

Most of the story is built around another swashbuckling adventure with Alice in the leading role. Again escaping the grimy sexism of Victorian England, where she is in danger of losing the captaincy and ownership of her late father’s ship — literally losing The Wonder — she ducks into Underland — yes, I know — to find the Hatter in a funk, convinced that his family must have somehow survived the attack of the Jabberwock. Except that just like last time they call it “the Jabberwocky”, because they can’t be bothered to actually read their sources.

The only solution is, naturally, time travel, which is about the least Carrollian idea imaginable. And it’s achieved by using the “chronosphere”, which is about the least Carrollian name imaginable. The dissonance grately resembles the Kingdom Hearts video games which mashed up classic Disney characters and Square Enix’s Final Fantasy series, but without the sense of playfulness.

And yes, I know that “chronosphere” sounds like just as self-serious a MacGuffin as “infinity stone” does in Marvel superhero movies. At least in those cases the story built around the chase manages to be fun, with characters developed beyond “Depp goofs around with something weird on his head again”. A kick-ass, girl-power action heroine is all well and good, but Carroll’s Alice is more like a dandelion seed, blown from one vignette to the next, pausing just long enough for an episode of nonsense before heading on to the next. His supporting cast needed no development because he wasn’t trying to tell the same old hero’s journey story that dominates the CGI blockbuster era, and shoehorning his characters into one can never and will never work, no matter how many tries Disney offers to Woolverton.

Speaking of the CGI, we come to the other slight improvement that Alice Through the Looking Glass makes on its predecessor. Like last time, the movie looks like a clown threw up all over it, with bright, garish colors everywhere. But Alice in Wonderland had easily the worst, most eye-gouging stereography in the modern 3-D era, its successor is not completely terrible on this count.

It is, however, at least partly terrible. Cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh has some gorgeous films to his credit, but he doesn’t seem to have had any experience with 3-D. That probably explains why so many shots feature stereo depth cues and focus depth cues working at cross purposes, leading to muddled, confusing images. If you absolutely must watch this empty husk of a movie, you should only do so in a 2-D screening.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: pass.

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