Carroll’s Dream Becomes a Nightmare in Alice Through the Looking Glass
Years after her last visit to a topsy-turvy world where Tweedles Dum and Dee (Matt Lucas) bumble about, a Cheshire Cat (voiced by Stephen Fry) vanishes into thin air, the butterfly Absolem (voiced by Alan Rickman) dispenses advice in cryptic rhyme and the ethereal Queen Mirana (Anne Hathaway) has tea with the March Hare (voiced by Paul Whitehouse), the mercurial Alice Kingsleigh (Mia Wasikowska) has returned to Wonderland. Her friend the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) is in trouble, the eccentric haberdasher slowly losing his marbles over a new obsession regarding his long-dead family.
But are they dead? In a search to discover the truth behind their demise, Alice journeys to the castle of Time (Sacha Baron Cohen) himself, in the process borrowing a small trinket that allows her to transport herself into the past. What she learns doesn’t just shine the light of truth upon the Hatter, but also on Mirana and her sister the wicked Queen of Hearts Iracebeth (Helena Bonham Carter). What Alice didn’t realize is that by stealing this item from Time she’s unwittingly put all of Wonderland in jeopardy, and if the young adventurer doesn’t return it to its proper place soon all residing within the domain will be frozen outside of existence for the rest of eternity.
Alice Through the Looking Glass has about as much to do with author Lewis Carroll’s immortal characters as 2010’s Alice in Wonderland did. In other words: precious little. Once again featuring a screenplay by scribe Linda Woolverton (Maleficent), with director James Bobin (Muppets Most Wanted) taking over for the departed Tim Burton (who stays on as a producer), the movie is every bit as messy, and also as instantly forgettable, as its predecessor. While the visuals astonish, while a handful of moments amuse, overall this is a frenetic, absurdly chaotic piece of nonsense, one that makes its points with a glib, moralistic superiority that’s as unfortunate as it is unappealing.
Even more so than the first film, most of the human characters are mercilessly overacted, Hathaway and Carter, the latter of who was arguably the best thing about Alice in Wonderland, strangely enough, the most egregious culprits on that front. Both of them are a chore to be around, almost from the first second they appear on the screen, while minor secondary characters portrayed by the likes of Ed Speleers and Andrew Scott are so incessantly cartoonish they’re instantly laughable. Oddly, Depp, caked in the same clownish makeup, clad in a variety of colorful, imaginatively bizarre costumes designed once again by the great Colleen Atwood (Into the Woods, Chicago), is subtly charming this go-around, and if only he’d been given more of interest to do, he might have made something worthwhile out of at least some of this obnoxious tedium.
But, even with the story essentially revolving around him, his family and their not-nearly-as-complex-as-you-might-surmise history of hat making in the world of Wonderland, there’s actually precious little for the Hatter to do. Even with Alice traipsing back through the years, he’s something of a non-presence, making his ultimate thrust to the center of all the chaos during the last act silly as it is unwarranted. Instead, it is Mirana and Iracebeth’s childhoods that stiff-arm their way to the center of the stage, the whole movie coming down to a did not-did too argument that’s every bit as infantile as it sounds.
It is visually stunning, and as amazing as the effects work and the CGI world-building in Alice in Wonderland was, it is even more impressive this time around. Watching Alice zip through the oceans of time, seeing her interact with the menagerie of colorful characters, it’s all pretty eye-popping. Best of all is Time’s castle, populated with a bunch of steampunk, Miyazaki-like minions all of whom are rather extraordinary. Topping it off, Cohen actually delivers a full-bodied, richly complex performance notable for, of all things, its emotional subtlety, bringing to life a character that’s so intriguing I’m slightly tempted to recommend the movie for him and him alone.
Only slightly. The script is a daffy, one-dimensional slog that does a disservice to its source material, and while the talented Wasikowska is as game as ever, throwing herself into this mess with all kinds of courageous gusto, truth be told her Alice, while as selfless as ever, is also something of an exasperating nincompoop. Her dimwittedness mixed with her bullheaded approach to things as they pertain to Hatter’s misfortunes grow increasingly tiresome, and even when the eventual epiphany for the heroine comes, it’s too little, too late as far as caring about the outcome for her, or anyone else involved with this story is concerned.
Look, I didn’t hate Alice in Wonderland, and I do not hate Alice Through the Looking Glass, either. I just find them both to be equally disposable, equally unremarkable. While little touches here and there can’t help but excite the senses, the lack of a nuanced story or intriguing characterizations makes maintaining interest for all two hours utterly ridiculous. In his book, Carroll coyly asks, “Life, what is it but a dream?” Sadly, in this adaptation, the dream has been transformed into a nightmare. And when I say nightmare, I mean it, because much like the author when I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more, nor less.
Review reprinted courtesy of the SGN in Seattle
Film Rating: 1½ (out of 4)