Film Review: Alice Through the Looking Glass

Frenetic, visually overstuffed fantasy sequel has precious little to do with Lewis Carroll, but international audiences will likely succumb to the spectacle.
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With the $1 billion worldwide gross for Disney’s 2010 Alice in Wonderland, it was a no-brainer to proceed with a sequel, especially since there was already a celebrated property, Lewis Carroll’s 1871 follow-up novel Through the Looking Glass, waiting to be plumbed. But, apart from iconic characters like the Mad Hatter, the Red Queen, Tweedledum and Tweedledee, what audiences will find in this Looking Glass is pretty unrecognizable from Carroll’s madcap series of episodes. That’s no crime in itself—big-budget movies have their own narrative demands—but what screenwriter Linda Woolverton (whose Disney smashes include Maleficent, The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast) gets unconscionably wrong is the tone: Psychological analysis, origin stories and logical explanations are the antithesis of Carroll’s blithely surreal fantasy realm.

Woolverton took similar liberties with Alice in Wonderland, creating a framing device with the adult Alice fleeing a detested fiancé. But Alice’s trip down the rabbit hole that time had enough recognizable markers to make it an acceptable gloss on the original. Looking Glass, by contrast, is a crazy-quilt of influences that have no relation to Carroll, from swashbuckling sea adventures to time-travel sci-fi to a sibling rivalry straight out of Wicked, stitched together with an un-Carroll-like yen to spell things out.

As this very feminist-flavored movie begins, Alice (Mia Wasikowska) is the bold captain of a sea vessel whose pluck and ingenuity save her ship The Wonder from a fierce attack. Arriving home, she discovers that her ship is about to be foreclosed on, thanks to the nefarious financial dealings of Hamish (Leo Bill), the dolt whose marriage proposal she rejected. Alice soon escapes this unpleasant situation through the titular looking glass and reunites with her old friend the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp), who’s severely depressed now that he has evidence his family, presumed dead, may still be alive someplace unknown. Egged on by the White Queen (Anne Hathaway), Alice plots to steal a time-travel device called a chromosphere and save the Hatter’s family. Her journey takes her back to the childhoods of the White and Red Queens where, a la Wicked, she discovers the origins of the explosive fury of the swellheaded Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter). But she also learns that hoary lesson of all time-travel movies: Fiddling with fate can have unintended consequences.

All these new layers Woolverton devised might have sufficed if her script were wittier and less driven by messages of empowerment, forgiveness and family ties. One of her more successful additions is a wholly new character, the very embodiment of Time, an arrogant tyrant with a German accent flamboyantly played by Sacha Baron Cohen (reuniting here with his “Da Ali G Show” director, James Bobin). Time as a living being is something Carroll may well have dreamed up, and his presence (with minutes and seconds as loyal, uh, minions) lends a proper note of surrealism to the story.

Wasikowska is again appealingly feisty, but the Hatter’s moroseness here gives Depp little chance to entertain. (Despite his garish makeup and enormous pupils, it’s almost a dramatic turn.) As in the first film, Bonham Carter continues to be a riot as the outrageous, big-noggined Red Queen.

The true stars of Alice Through the Looking Glass are Colleen Atwood’s colorful costumes and the wildly imaginative visuals, though it’s hard to tell where production designer Dan Hennah’s craft ends and visual effects supervisors Ken Ralston and Jay Redd’s begins. Their eye-popping contributions will likely help foster another worldwide success, no matter what the Carroll purists say.

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