The strangest thing about Alice Through the Looking Glass is how long it took Disney to go ahead and make it. It's been six years after Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland surprised everyone (including Disney) by becoming a massive hit with over a billion in box office by delighting audiences with a return to form for 3D filmmaking, helped along by the success of Avatar.
Weirdly, everything else about Through the Looking Glass is almost painfully normal, at least when you measure it against the first film. Aside from an early, imaginative scene, Wonderland itself (or Underland as it's frequently called) has become a retread of been-there-done-that characters and locations as we further flesh out their backstories.
Unraveling some of the origin stories for these characters shouldn't necessarily be such a boring, unimaginative thing. But the film executes these stories like bad fan fiction, rather than a unique interpretation of Lewis Carroll's story, which we can all admit was more a product of its time than something that can be easily adapted into a series of movies.
The main problem is that the love we have for characters like the Mad Hatter, played again by a bored-looking Johnny Depp, has little to do with a structured motivation or character arc that humanizes him. That's part of the reason why the first Wonderland fell short for so many viewers, even huge fans of the animated film and original stories. What we love about the original conceit and even the less-than-stellar sequel by Carroll also named Through the Looking Glass, is the clever wordplay posing itself as absurdity for the sense of mystery and wonder in a world that feels huge.
In Looking Glass, everything feels bizarrely...small.
Like what came before it, Through the Looking Glass rips these characters from what birthed their conceit and shoehorns them into another hero's journey narrative that is now pulling more from young adult book movies, rather than how the last movie borrowed so much from action fantasies. Mia Wasikowska's Alice is purported to be a strong and independent hero, but really, she is quite reactionary and relegated to dumb luck scenarios, including one where the guards keeping her captive simply let her go for no reason beyond, "Eh, why not?"
There's almost no reason to find any of these recognizable characters endearing or memorable. There's no tension for their plights and motivations because we all know at this point that these Wonderland movies now boil down to family friendly PSAs about friendship and family, with just a sprinkle of "you can do the impossible" to help hide these generic, simplistic themes.
That's not to say Through the Looking Glass doesn't at least try to pull off some clever storytelling. Some of its only sparks of life are carried by a character named Time, played by Sacha Baron Cohen, who is allowed at least half of a performance that echoes the actual wonder of Wonderland (less so for his evil robot servants, which look like henchmen straight out of Ratchet and Clank).
And there's a lingering message about how Alice needs to part with the past and move on with her life, which the film goes out of its way to supplant as her main arc. Yet the arc of the Mad Hatter blatantly contradicts and contrasts this theme because he refuses to believe that his past (his family in this case) is truly gone. This kind of sloppy storytelling really is the like reserved for hastily written fan scripts, not a movie that's taken six years to release.
There are ample other issues that might cause more of a debate between fans, like how the visuals and lighting mixed with 3D were anything but immersive for me because it looked like a soundstage for most of the running time. And like with any film, there's plenty to nitpick or find small compliments for, especially with some of the funnier wordplay lines they insert throughout and the excellent costume design.
But when it comes to narrative and an actual purpose, it's hard not see this film as anything but a cynical, even forced money printer only green-lit because the last one was so financially successful, and they "might as well" keep it going. Obviously, fans of the books and movies deserve much better than that.
- I have to admit that much of my frustration with this film comes with the expectations set by Favreau's Jungle Book this year, which is a movie that also has somewhat simplistic themes, yet coupled with incredibly interesting characters that feel evolved from the source material, not ripped from it.
- This film is better than last year's Pan from WB, in that it's not exactly offensive to fans. It's just a disappointment.
- With this film out of the way, I'm hoping the potential Depp renaissance sparked by Black Mass continues with films like these far behind him.
- Another reason my expectations might have been a little too high has to do with the decision to bring on James Bobin, from Flight of the Concords and both Muppets films. He's an artist well-known for skilled practical visual effects and surreal humor that has some heart. But Looking Glass has no trace of Bobin throughout. It really just feels like more Burton, who did produce this film.
- The best thing about this movie is that there is no Mad Hatter dance this time.
- Ah, I forgot to mention Alice's unremarkable life outside of Wonderland. It's essentially a carbon copy of the first film though, down to the same set pieces of Alice taking a bunch of crap from Hamish and then throwing it back in his face very publicly.
- No points for Danny Elfman's soundtrack, simply because it reuses the excellent theme from the last film without end, to the point where I almost started to dislike it.
- There is no one who looks more done with these movies than Anne Hathaway playing Mirana.