Six years after Tim Burton adapted Lewis Carroll’s children’s tale of Alice in Wonderland, the Walt Disney Studios brings Burton back as a producer, teamed again with screenwriter Linda Woolverton (Maleficent) and the same cast, in a sequel directed by James Bobin. The result, Alice Through the Looking Glass, is entertaining if underwhelming.
Seen in IMAX 3D at Comcast’s Universal CityWalk in Universal City, California, the movie pops off the screen with wildly colorful characters, settings and situations. When plot points converge and gain steam, however, things go limp. Lead actress Mia Wasikowska as Alice has less to do because the character goes from serious young woman with something to learn to heroic captain of her own ship (in Victorian England), which modernizes yet mixes the story’s context and raises the bar for whatever lesson Alice has yet to learn. The lesson, it turns out, is acting within limits.
This idea has marvelous potential, which is partially redeemed in the main conflict involving Time (absurdist Sacha Baron Cohen of Hugo and Borat), a character that controls life and death in Underland with a source called the Chronosphere. Alice, facing another difficult life decision and led back to Underland through the “looking glass” by the late Alan Rickman-voiced blue butterfly, encounters Time, seizes the metallic Chronosphere and darts into a new adventure. Alice seeks to revive the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp), known here as Hatter, by going back in time to right presumed wrongs.
Instead, Alice discovers other wrongs. The same characters, including Anne Hathaway’s White Queen and Helena Bonham Carter’s exiled Red Queen, appear throughout Alice Through the Looking Glass. Once again, Carter (Cinderella, Suffragette), in cahoots with Time, is the big-headed villainess.
If it sounds convoluted, that’s because it is. The film skates on visual appeal with Jules Verne and Gothic influences and the promise of unbundling character backstories contained in Woolverton’s script. At best, Depp’s Mad Hatter refusing to be like his father (Rhys Ifans) and Wasikowska’s Alice refusing to be like her mother echoes nicely as both characters discover similarity and difference and strive to remain friends in a test of unresolved conflicts.
Problems arise with the climax.
With Underland in danger of crumbling, and symbolic scenes of escaping a madhouse, Alice Through the Looking Glass employs an already well-worn tread of revising a villain’s past (i.e., Maleficent) to explain and rationalize certain behavior. Good is bad and bad is good, or some such approximation and, here, none of it is reasonably addressed or resolved. Indeed, some of it contradicts what happened in Alice in Wonderland. Worse, in a movie for children, Woolverton leaves multiple loose ethical ends and ties Alice, once a warrior challenging tradition for her own sake, down to an act of altruism, making her a conformist after all. Other notions—the Mad Hatter’s intuition, for instance—are tossed in at the last minute.
The moving pictures of Time’s clock parts, such as the Seconds and Minutes, and costumes, including Alice’s embroidered Chinese getup for the party, by Colleen Atwood (Chicago, Into the Woods) are brilliant and Alice Through the Looking Glass is at times stunning to look at and behold. A closer look reveals its flaws.