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Review: Alice Through the Looking Glass (2016)

Alice Through the Looking Glass (2016)

Directed by: James Bobin

Premise: A sequel to 2010’s Alice in Wonderland. Alice (Mia Wasikowska) returns to Wonderland to find that the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) is fallen ill. She must travel through time in order to save him.

What Works: Alice Through the Looking Glass is an improvement over its predecessor in virtually every way. This is most obvious in the story. The narrative of Alice Through the Looking Glass is much more focused. The 2010 film was a mess of disconnected set pieces but the new movie sets Alice on a specific mission and all of the action is relevant to that purpose. The new movie also puts Alice through a more interesting character arc; where the first film was ostensibly about Alice learning to stand up for herself, Through the Looking Glass is a little more complex. Alice confronts a sexist world that wants to restrain her and she rebels against it but in Wonderland she also learns the limits of control. As Alice, actress Mia Wasikowska is considerably better in Through the Looking Glass than she was in the previous film. Wasikowska has much more presence and energy and she interacts with the computer generated characters and locations more convincingly. The special effects and visual style of Alice Through the Looking Glass is also improved. The digital characters look less cartoonish than they did in Alice in Wonderland and they are visualized with more texture and detail. Especially notable is the world of Time and the way that this story crosscuts action in different planes of existence. Alice Through the Looking Glass introduces a new character: Time, played by Sacha Baron Cohen. The character fits Cohen’s broad style and he is frequently the best thing in the movie. Especially notable is the way Cohen and the filmmakers allow Time to be a morally ambiguous character. Alice steals a device known as the Chronosphere in order to travel into the past and he pursues her to get it back. If the device isn’t returned quickly the metaphysics of Wonderland will collapse and destroy the universe and so Time has a reasonable motivation to thwart Alice’s mission. That’s a more nuanced conflict than is usually provided in a big budget fantasy film.

What Doesn’t: Although Alice Through the Looking Glass fixes many of the flaws of the 2010 film, a few of the same problems remain. Johnny Depp and Anne Hathaway return as The Mad Hatter and the White Queen and their performances are still aloof and off key. Depp’s performance as the Mad Hatter is indistinguishable from his turns in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Dark Shadows, and the later Pirates of the Caribbean movies; he isn’t really playing a character so much as he is mugging for the camera. Anne Hathaway isn’t much better as the White Queen. She carries herself in a strange ethereal way that never feels authentic. Fortunately, neither Depp nor Hathaway are in the film very much. Alice Through the Looking Glass also reintroduces the Red Queen, played by Helena Bonham Carter in a digitally enhanced performance. Carter is again among the best things in this movie and Alice discovers the root of the rivalry between the two queens. The backstory simultaneously complicates the conflict while also dumbing it down. It’s revealed that as children the White Queen pulled a cruel trick on the Red Queen and their relationship has never been the same. This attempt to add depth to the characters trivializes the conflict; we’re to accept that all of this chaos is a result of a childhood spat. The storytelling also suffers from inconsistencies. At one point in the middle of the picture, Alice awakens in her home world to discover that she has been institutionalized. That’s a neat idea but it doesn’t make sense and it is never commented upon every again.

Bottom Line: Alice Through the Looking Glass is not a great film but it is competently made and a significant improvement from its 2010 forerunner. The movie is an enjoyable if unremarkable diversion.

Episode: #597 (June 5, 2016)