Directed by James Bobin
Starring Mia Wasikowska, Johnny Depp, Sacha Baron Cohen and Alan Rickman
Film Review by Jack Bottomley
“Eat Me, Drink Me, Watch Me?”
In 2010 Tim Burton’s adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland was among the most anticipated films of that year. The marriage of Burtonesque quirk and darkness with Carroll’s trippy wonderland and its barmy inhabitants was a project so tasty you didn’t need to be instructed to eat it. Lavishly casted and visually sumptuous, this incarnation of Carroll’s landmark literary fantasy was certainly a very important date, as cinemagoers shockingly flocked to Burton’s tea party en mass and made the billion-dollar movie club curiouser and curiouser in the process. Still critics were less tickled, as the film drew polarizing responses but financial success sparked talks of a sequel and in many ways Burton’s film was the starting point for the recent boom of live action fantasy adaptations (Snow White and The Huntsmen, Maleficent). So, as we return to Wonder…sorry…Underland, we ask was this trip through the looking glass worth taking?
Based very loosely- like very loosely- on Carroll’s 1871 novel Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There, this sequel will disappoint those expecting a straight adaptation. After the last film drew inspiration from both Carroll’s stories, Alice Through The Looking Glass is practically a new story entirely and if you hated Burton’s last film (he produces this time), this won’t change your mind. Contrariwise if you loved the 2010 film, this will be to your tastes.
The film catches up with Alice Kingsleigh (Mia Wasikowska) as she returns from captaining her father’s ship in a voyage across the world. However as she arrives home, her family’s estate is in question but before she can come to grips with that, the blue butterfly Absolem (the late great Alan Rickman- in his final film role) draws to a magic mirror that leads straight back to Underland, where she finds that all her friends are worried about the health of The Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp), who is maddened and haunted by thoughts that his deceased family may be alive. To find out whether he is delusional or not, Alice visits Time (Sacha Baron Cohen) in hopes of retrieving a device- the chronosphere- that will allow her to travel back to the past and uncover many secrets behind Underland and its inhabitants.
Falling into some of the same rabbit holes as the first film, Linda Woolverton’s story suffers from some overloaded plotting, and some uneasy transitions from fantasy to action persist. Though there are some funny lines, the film’s many time puns for instance- as knowingly corny as they are- did tickle this writer. And, despite earlier moments in Alice’s return to Underland going through the motions a bit, the story does pick up and try to do something interesting. Moving at a right ol’ lick, there is really not time (ahem) to dissect or criticize, as the film gallops through past and present with such ferocity, you kind of sit back eventually and nod along to the nutty narrative. It becomes chaotic, as it jumps about and it could well confuse many younger viewers or annoy some older audiences with its moments of retconning. Still, it is intriguing to see the origins of some of these iconic characters and the integration of worthwhile messages like the importance of family, consequences of our actions through life and gender empowerment, with some (forced and some neat) nods to the first film.
It is all pretty batty and while James Bobin’s (2011’s The Muppets) film may lose the plot at times, it does retain way more charm and affection than other unasked for follow-ups (say, The Huntsman: Winter’s War). Though, judging by early box office reports, this is likely the final trip to Underland that we will all be taking. The cast is all up for it and with the sheer amount of characters some emerge practically in cameo parts, whereas others are given more to do. Wasikowska’s return as Alice is even stronger here and provides a rather excellent role model female hero. Depp’s performance has more dep(p)th than last time too and his Madonna/Carrot Top/Elijah Wood love child The Hatter, is used to better effect in many ways.
The likes of Stephen Fry’s Cheshire Cat, Helena Bonham Carter’s Red Queen, Anne Hathaway’s White Queen, Matt Lucas’ Tweedledee and Tweedledum, Timothy Spall’s Bayard the Bloodhound, Barbara Windsor’s Mallymkun the Doormouse, Paul Whitehouse’s Thackary the March Hare and Michael Sheen’s McTwisp the White Rabbit, fit the parts really well but some served more substantial parts last time (though the two queens get a neat backstory). The biggest new faces are probably Sacha Baron Cohen’s steampunkish Time - who he plays with quirkish fun, Herzog-like accent and all - and his clockwork servant Wilkins (voiced by Toby Jones), who reminds a little of Tik Tok from Walter Murch’s infamously dark and disturbing cult classic Return to Oz (those darn Wheelers still roll round our nightmares). Also Rhys Ifans makes a nice appearance as The Hatter’s strict father Zanik Hightopp.
As a whole the cast all fit in place- be it a big part or small- and for the film’s many faults and cluttered plot, it is suitably eccentric- hell, a vegetable person gets their nose chomped off at one point. The real star of the film though, once again, is the visuals and while there are, at times, more special effects than necessary, the overall aesthetic is gorgeous and transportative, with Coleen Atwood’s costumes being good enough to eat. Danny Elfman’s score does its job, though is not as outstanding as his work on the first film. Overall, this is a hectic jumble of a film but, flaws notwithstanding, still captures the British bizarreness of Carroll’s world. It is sometimes scrappy, others unnecessary and every now and then features a splurge of effects but the charm remains intact and much like a tea party with the Hatter, this is a flawed but likable event and moves so fast that you barely have chance to overthink the madness. Oh and there is a very welcome and well-placed tribute to Alan Rickman at the close of the initial end credits too, just in case you were wondering.
Alice Through The Looking Glass is madly paced, aesthetically awing and narratively hectic but, for better and for worse, captures the eccentricity of Carroll's characters. Flawed but never boring!