Film Torments: Alice Through the Looking Glass (2016)
THIS WEEK, Rich brings a conclusion to his look at Tim Burton’s horrific Alice universe with the most recent entry in the history of Torments.
This has been a summer of sequels. Some have been fantastic (Captain America: Civil War), others have been terrible (Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice), some have been adequate retreads (Bad Neighbours 2), some have been tired retreads (London Has Fallen), some have been hotly anticipated (Finding Dory) and some don’t seem to have been demanded at all (The Huntsman: Winter’s War). Amongst all these, we had the flop that is Alice Through the Looking Glass.
Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, which I previously covered in Film Torments, blew its potential creatively but made over a billion dollars, which guarantees everything a sequel these days: James Cameron will probably throw out Avatar sequels until the day he dies. And even though the film was already a pseudo-sequel to a book-loyal film which was never made, because there was a less-frequently-adapted second book under the name Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There, they decided to gratuitously give this new film that title. If you thought the Hobbit trilogy was a bloated in-name-only “adaptation”, get a load of this shit!
Comparing this second film to the similarly-named second book will only waste words in this review, because the script doesn’t so much as tickle the idea of adapting the book. Alice does indeed enter Wonderland through a mirror in the film, but it could have just as easily been another rabbit hole. The looking glass is here to justify using the title, and the mirror motif isn’t explored in the slightest. The chessboard which dominates the book’s internal logic is there as a throwaway visual reference early on, and Humpty Dumpty is given a single cameo the moment Alice enters “Underland”.
The Red King and White Knight are absent, as are the Lion and the Unicorn. Most of the surviving characters from the first film reappear (minus the Dodo, as Michael Gough has since passed away, and the Knave of Hearts, who died between films despite petulant hipster Crispin Glover continuing to exist) while Sacha Baron-Cohen and Rhys Ifans have been added to the roster of wasted talent.
Sacha Baron Cohen plays a personification of Time, the being in Wonderland who oversees the passage of time and keeps a pocketwatch which measures each person’s lifetime. There’s actually plenty of potential to this idea, and the visual metaphors and puns fit comfortably into a Carroll-esque world. His first couple of scenes are genuinely interesting and Cohen gives an enjoyable performance, so count me as a defender of this character. The concept of time is actually referenced quite a bit in the Alice books; the White Rabbit is always late, the Tea Party is frozen at teatime… having Time be a living metaphor works just fine. Sadly, he falls out of focus when the Red Queen barges in.
The Red Queen/Queen of Hearts hybrid played by Helena Bonham Carter (who I swear to God used to be a nuanced actress) was already divisive in the first film. Some people liked her look and performance, though I wasn’t one of them, so fair enough if you dug what she was doing there. But in this film an effort is made to give her a tragic backstory and motivation, which just doesn’t belong in a nonsense land like Wonderland (sorry, UNDERland… fuck’s sake…). I won’t spoil the details, but let’s just say that Disney’s efforts to imitate the smash musical Wicked (see Oz the Great and Powerful, Maleficent and Frozen) are becoming desperate at this point.
Another highly divisive character from the first film, Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter, is also given a tacked-on backstory and emotional arc. If you enjoyed Depp’s antics in the first film, then that’s all well and good, but some characters just don’t open themselves up to being the emotional core of the story. His shifting accents, his Snagglepuss lisp, his multi-coloured bug-eyes and his uncanny valley make-up are all dialled up even further in this film, yet we’re supposed to be emotionally invested in the Hatter’s mission to find his presumably-obliterated family.
So, we have a time-travelling adventure in which Time is literally a character and cheesy backstories for the Red Queen and Mad Hatter (characters who never WERE children… may I remind you that Alice in Wonderland is canonically a dream!)… you know what that means… everybody was a child together! Yeah, like the Muppet Babies. They show the Cheshire Cat as a kitten at the same time that the Red and White Queens were children, which is ludicrous when you think of the entire concept of the Cat. Even with Stephen Fry’s voice, the physics-defying Cheshire Cat just doesn’t fit into either of these films; a character with such infinite power can’t intervene AT ALL if you want the story to flow, but they make the constant mistake of involving him in the team of emotionally invested but physically impotent supporting characters.
As for Alice herself, the weird feminist pandering continues in even greater force. Alice’s character development was pretty much done at the end of the first film when she went off to exploit China in her father’s ship. In this film, Hamish (the goofy ginger chap she rejected in the first film) is out for revenge, so he tries to absorb her father’s business with the seeming support of Alice’s mother. The arc of this whole film was apparently Alice’s mother growing a pair and joining her empowered daughter, but unlike Alice her mother is off-screen while all this is supposed to matter.
The book-ends of this film couldn’t have less to do with the Wonderland story, and I’m struggling to remember any of the attempts to tie them into each other. You know the book-ends of the book? Alice falls asleep, Alice wakes up. There’s no need for any of this business bullshit, yet this film wastes even more time outside Wonderland than the first film did – at least that one was establishing a character we’d spend the whole film with and not just the first and last few minutes.
This film has the occasional funny line and some nice eye candy, and the cast is filled with talent. Anne Hathaway continues to try her hardest and Mia Wasikowska is marginally more enjoyable in the lead, while the likes of Michael Sheen and the dearly departed Alan Rickman lend a bit of gravitas to their sporadic dialogue. But despite a fairly promising first half, the film is a long drag which attempts to give weight to the fluff but doesn’t deliver on any of its potential.
It’s a sad reminder that Walt Disney wasn’t pleased with the 1951 animated version of Alice in Wonderland and decided not to make a Through the Looking Glass sequel at the time. Now that classic is widely regarded as a masterpiece, but we’re stuck with an undeservedly profitable Alice in Wonderland and the deservedly unprofitable Alice Through the Looking Glass as well, to dilute what “Disney’s Alice in Wonderland” means to people. I never thought I’d say this, but thank God Lewis Carroll never wrote a third Alice book!