Nutshell: Entertaining, fun, and surprisingly – refreshingly – deep. Alice packs a whole lot of glorious enchantment into just under two hours. Alice herself isn’t quite the same, nor are a few other characters…but overall that’s not overwhelmingly bad, and the film’s rainbow colored fever dream makes it worthwhile. Good thing; Time doesn’t like to be trifled with. Grade: B+
A sequel to 2010’s Alice in Wonderland was never really thought about…until the money started rolling in opening weekend. Then? Of course – bring forth the sequel! Hey, there’s a pre-fab story already written by Carroll, let’s do this! In the vast film library of unnecessary sequels, there are plenty so horrible as to give even the most kindhearted filmgoer pause. Luckily, Alice Through the Looking Glass isn’t horrible. Does it feel like a cash grab? A’yup. Absolutely. But it’s entertaining enough an pretty to look at, and the time flies by as the screen is filled with the same kind of ornate psychedelic beauty the original film gave us.
It’s years later, and Alice (Mia Wasikowska) is now a ship’s captain. Yes, that’s jaw-droppingly feminist for a time period flirting with the early 20th Century. But don’t worry, MRAs; as soon as she returns to London, she’s brought back down a peg or twelve. Her mother has sold Alice’s stock in the shipping company, and the only way to keep their house is if Alice signs the Wonder – Alice’s ship that she inherited from her father – over to the new Lord Ascot. (Or something like that. It’s tough to keep track with the rapid fire way we’re brought up to date on Alice.) Alice, naturally, walks away from the situation, and after seeing her Wonderland friend Absalom (voiced by Alan Rickman *sniff*) follows him into a study with a huge mirror. Absalom flies into the mirror, and when Alice hears people trying to break down the door, she follows. And while she’s happy to be back in Wonderland, all is not well; the Hatter (Johnny Depp, in his element) isn’t doing well. Nobody believes his family is still alive, but he’s just discovered something that makes it clear that they are. Well, clear to him. But to find the truth of what happened to them, Alice must visit Time himself (Sacha Baron Cohen) and borrow his Chronosphere. Problem? Time says no-one should touch the Chronosphere, or else Dire Consequences. Onward, to the Chronosphere!
Burton isn’t at the helm here, and it shows. No, that’s not a bad thing. It’s a different thing. Director James Bobin brings his happier, goofier sensibilities from The Muppets and Flight of the Conchords, making Alice an airier confection than Burton’s dark twisted fantasy. And while Alice is definitely a bouncier film than Wonderland, that’s not to say that the general bits and pieces don’t work well together. Alice is older, more seasoned, and surer of herself than she was before. That should color her view of the world, and this film echoes it. Was that intentional? Who knows? But for a story about a girl zipping around through time, a lighter touch with the madcap doesn’t feel out of place.
But there’s one thing that does. Wasikowska obviously enjoys playing Alice, and her love of the character is infectious. But there’s a fatal flow to the character this time around; Alice is incredibly, hugely selfish. I know; we’re supposed to cheer her on because she’s doing it to save a friend. Her time as a ships captain gives her a swashbuckling devil-may-care attitude that But Alice comes off as obstinate and bullheaded. And even after she realized what her actions have wrought, her apology feels tacked on. So I enjoyed the hell out of watching her do her thing, but the fact that she decides to go and do what she wants regardless of the problems it could cause others? That kept nagging at me, like a pea under the mattress. Not so much to bruise me – I’m no princess – but enough for me to wish it wasn’t there. I guess Bobin and screenwriter Linda Woolverton wanted to humanize her a bit, but instead it comes off crass and unfeeling.
One thing I was worried about was Sacha Baron Cohen as Time. I needn’t have worried. While I’ve never been a fan of Borat (yes, I know what he’s trying to do. I just don’t think he accomplishes his goal beyond shock humor), I’ve enjoyed his voice work in Madagascar, and thought he did a great job in Les Misérables. Here, as Time, he’s allowed to be larger than life, and meditative. And it works. I now want to see him take on other roles that demand more of him than sight gags and poop jokes. Because it’s obvious he can do a whole lot more, and I want someone to give him room to do that.
What about Johnny Depp? Well, he’s not as rabidly excited as he is in a Tim Burton joint, but he wears his heart on his sleeve where the Hatter is concerned. Granted, a good chunk of the film has him off camera, or deathly ill. But when he’s allowed to wind up, it’s glorious. And the lighter, happier tone of Alice allows him to show a different side of Hatter, one who misses his family and longs for connection. What, you thought this would be true to Carroll’s vision? Oh, you must have missed the eleventy-hundred clues that that’s nowhere near the case here. We’ve got the characters, and the general Wonderland-ery. Just sit back and let the movie be itself.
Have I mentioned the gorgeous? Alice Through the Looking Glass sure is. From the moment Alice walks into a London party in head-to-to “Chinese” multicolor, this film is absolutely bursting at the seams with over-the-top art direction, costuming and CGI. Definitely spring for IMAX 3D if you can with Alice; the scenery, costumes and overall over-the-top of Wonderland is meant for an over-the-top viewing experience. It’s a party in your eyeparts y’all.
Themes of family, regret, living with our choices and our pasts. Love, loss, and trying to move on with our lives. Sounds like a dreary indie sobfest, amirite? Alice touches on all these and more. Burton probably wouldn’t have had such a human touch with these ideas – his crazy is part of the reason we all dig his vibe – but Bobin, who could get serious in Conchords, brings the d’aww moments and makes them feel natural amid all the technicolor awesomeness of the fantasy.
Some viewers may not like the outcome of the climax here, because there are definitely a few unexpected spins on some well known characters. [More = SPOILERS DARLING. So I won’t.] But I felt it was a lovely way to send them off. And yeah, it’s a send-off. Things are wrapped up nicely, and moviegoers are left to come up with their own happily ever after for whatever characters they feel like happy-ing. Alice is a fun slice of whimsy, but it’s best to let things end here. I hope Hollywood listens. One needless sequel is all well and good, especially if it’s this fascinating. Best not tempt fate. I hear she’s a bitch.