Starring: Mia Wasikowska, Sacha Baron Cohen, Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne Hathaway, Lindsay Duncan, Michael Sheen, Alan Rickman, Matt Lucas, Stephen Fry and Paul Whitehouse
Running time: 113 Minutes
Directed by: James Bobin
Year of release: 2016
I’m not sure anyone is surprised that the not-quite-a-sequel to Tim Burton’s not-quite-an-adaptation of Alice in Wonderland basically represents more of the same. I wrestled mightily with its predecessor: Burton’s striking reimagining of classic characters; brilliant art direction and costume design; and one of the best scores Danny Elfman has yet produced, all in the service of… what, exactly? Some strange mishmash of the Hero’s Journey crammed into Lewis Carroll’s confines and staggering about as unwieldy as the Red Queen’s (Helena Bonham Carter) gigantic noggin. The second film brings back almost everyone except Burton, and the results feel like a victory lap that its predecessor never quite earned.
And that leaves me with an easier answer to the same dilemma, for while Alice Through the Looking Glass remains as sumptuous as the first film, it lacks the freshness that Burton brought. Director James Bobin deserves credit for adequately serving Burton’s vision, but he can’t improve on it… and a number of things dearly needed improvement.
Instead, it’s a dreadfully by-the-numbers affair, with Alice (Mia Wasikowska) returning from her voyage abroad to find her family’s house in peril and her status as female ship’s captain the cause of considerable social kerfuffles. Soon enough, however, those concerns vanish as she’s called back to Wonderland to aid her ailing friend the Hatter (Johnny Depp) find his family.
Already, you can see some of the fissures and contradictions that make the plot such a mess. It gets worse with the arrival of Time (Sacha Baron Cohen), who holds the key to the Hatter’s quest. He fits in with the general vibe of this Wonderland, but having to compete with the previous established threads makes for an awkward fit indeed. Add to that unresolved tensions between the Red Queen and her White sister (Anne Hathaway), a time-traveling subplot that echoes science fiction more than fantasy, the collection of Wonderland’s inhabitants relegated to Greek chorus stature, and you can see the whole thing sarts to leave the rails.
The source of that tension, I think, stems from Hollywood’s need to stick to narrative convention… and the source material dedication to stamping out convention at every turn. Lewis Carroll’s Alice books echo Marlon Brando’s famous sentiment from The Wild One. When someone asked him what he was rebelling against, he replied, “whadda ya got?” Narrative convention, social expectations, even nominal things like speech and cause-effect justification: if a rule existed, Carroll was going to break it. Hard.
Contrast that with Hollywood’s well-established game plan: eager to clarify exactly what’s happening at any given time, defining characters through goals and missions, and outlining stages of the action in ways that every audience member can instantly grasp. It’s not necessarily a criticism, though I think we all agree the formula should be shaken up more often. But it does present fundamental incongruities that this film – and frankly its predecessor – just weren’t set up to address. Carroll purists will go into fits watching a figure like the White Rabbit (voiced by Michael Sheen) perform dull plot expositionist duties, or Alice venturing into yet another castle on yet another generic quest that could have been pulled from any fantasy video game from the last fifteen years. These simply aren’t the characters to do that with.
And again, not all of that is Bobin’s fault. He inherited the issue from Burton and dutifully attempts to reconcile the two warring halves of the material as best he can. But it doesn’t work. Everything feels routine and pro forma, with logic straining to hold incompatible notions together even though they cleaerly can’t. The issue isn’t that such conflict is taking place. The issue is that an Alice story needs to embrace that chaos more forcefully and see what comes tumbling out. There’s too much money wrapped up here for that to happen.
Consider one scene, for instance, where Alice escapes Wonderland, only to wake up in an asylum where she’s been committed for “classic female hysteria.” There’s some potency to the notion – could it all be in her head, and would that even make a difference? – as well as a chance to enhance the film’s admirable pro-feminist message. But it’s quickly dropped, presented as just another generic obstacle between the heroine and her ultimate goals and vanishing as quickly as it appeared.
In the face of that, the presence of these beloved characters becomes a sham: a shell game that uses brand recognition to cover up for a mess of a story. Remove the comparative novelty value of it all, and it completely falls apart, despite Bobin’s efforts to the contrary and a few glimmers of joy from some of the performers. (Bonham Carter crushes it. Again.) Even a very game Wasikowska starts looking for the exit signs at the end.
This filmmaking team can do much better, as can Disney, which has set 2016 on fire with a trio of critical and commercial heavyweights. Alice just gets lost in the shuffle, a film that no one was crying out for and which got green-lit solely in an effort to turn a buck. Anger isn’t quite justified – we can’t say we weren’t warned – but the resigned nature of it all creeps in early and never leaves. There are worse sins to commit than being forgettable, but few are as toxic to source material like this. The deck was stacked from the beginning, the losing hand inevitable. And when you base such a project on a girl who dreams of the impossible, you shouldn’t be surprised by the response.