IN CINEMAS NOW
RUNNING TIME: 113 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Alice Kingsleigh has spent the past three years following in her father’s footsteps and sailing the high seas. Upon her return to London from China, she finds out that her ex-fiancé, Hamish Ascot, has taken over his father’s company and plans to have Alice sell him over her father’s ship in exchange for her family home. After a fight with her mother on the matter, Alice follows a butterfly she recognizes as Absolem and returns through a mirror to Underland where she’s greeted by the White Queen, the White Rabbit, Tweedledum and Tweedledee, the Dormouse, Bayard and the Cheshire Cat. They inform her that Tarrant Hightopp the Mad Hatter is acting madder than usual because he believes his family is still alive. Thinking that finding the Hatter’s family is the only way to stop his deteriorating health, the White Queen decides for Alice to consult Time himself….
I remember like yesterday my excitement when I heard that Tim Burton was making a version of Alice In Wonderland. I also remember like yesterday coming out of the cinema feeling thoroughly let down by what I had seen, which was a film that was easily the weakest Lewis Carroll [yes, I’m a fan] adaptation [even if you take into consideration that Burton’s film was actually a sequel] that I’d watched, with little of the required charm, wit and god honest insanity. It even seemed, incredibly, somewhat unimaginative and generic. On successive viewings the film holds up a little better but it still remains Burton’s weakest film, and a film that in my experience isn’t much liked but which was a huge box office hit nonetheless. The latter meant that a sequel was almost inevitable, especially as Carroll herself wrote one [bits and pieces of which are sometimes merged with the first book in movie and TV versions]. I doubt many were disappointed when it was announced that Burton wasn’t returning, to be replaced by the director of the last two Muppet movies, though I was surprised when screenwriter Linda Wolverton was also returning, considering what a hash she’d made of the first one, and how much she’d misunderstood Carroll in trying to construct something resembling a coherent plot out of material which is supposed to proceed in a deliberately dreamlike, random manner.
This sequel is basically more of the same, though I liked it a little more than the first film. It gets off to a fine start with a tremendous, if extremely daft, set piece taking place at sea which I wished Disney had saved and used as the opening to the next Pirates Of The Caribbean flick, with Alice’s craft basically doing a nautical version of a car doing wheelies to evade some pirate ships as it tries to not hit some rocks. Then we get a bit of fashionable sub-feminist stuff, with Alice struggling to do what she wants to do in a man’s world, and experience a bit of sadness in hearing the unmistakable voice of the brilliant Alan Rickman as Absolem the butterfly, before we find ourselves back in Underland. There’s actually a real sense of Carroll’s surrealism and energy as the tiny Alice finds herself on a chess board and the pieces move and talk, something which is just as well because Humpty Dumpty has another great fall and needs to be put back together again. However, once Alive arrives at the house of the Mad Hatter, the film’s plot has to be introduced and it’s rather laboured, though at least done with some economy, and it’s not long before Alice sets off on a quest to help her friend, a quest that takes her to Time himself.
The film almost begins to soar when Alice is in Time’s magnificently detailed castle and the comic genius that is Sasha Baron Cohen is allowed to take centre stage. His both pantomime-ish [though he sounds just like Christoph Waltz] and otherworldly character is a fascinating one, a God-like figure who monitors both an individual’s and the universe’s time, yet a character who also has just a bit of sadness and vulnerability about him despite taking the role of principal villain for much of the time. Cohen doesn’t go totally over the top too, unlike a certain Mr. Depp who is all over the place, though a tea party sequence is a highlight of the film because Depp and Cohen are allowed to take over and be insane together, and it’s a shame that the two don’t share more scenes. The story soon moves into Back To The Future/The Time Machine territory as Alice goes back in time to try to change the past, though most people watching would probably already feel that she’s an idiot as we’ve already been told stuff about using time wisely, a message that is preached to us throughout the film in an infuriatingly unsubtle way. There’s lots of dashing about through time, a sense that huge chunks of the film or script are missing, and total CGI overkill in a film that eventually becomes rather wearing despite the sometimes interesting back stories that are explored and some attempts at emotion which partly do come off.
In a film which showcases quite a few influences [Time’s mechanical helpers being distinctly Minion-like being another], Frozen yet again rears its head as much of the story hinges on the fraught relationship of two sisters, while Burton himself seems to be an influence on the daddy issues which are part of the Mad Hatter’s subplot. Unfortunately the screenplay constantly has characters explaining plot developments in great detail, or heavily foreshadowing what is to come. Woolverton really does treat the audience like idiots, though this is common in such films today so it’s not entirely her fault I suppose. This is a film where Alice is able to point out a machine [the ‘chronosphere’ time travelling device] despite never having laid eyes on it before and not having been told what it looks like. And why on earth does the Cheshire Cat now have the appearance of a kitten? The film is not trying to be like the Carroll books, so something like this should have been explained. They might have even got away with having one character remark on the animal’s changed appearance. But no. This sounds like an unimportant detail, but it’s emblematic of the film as a whole, a film which in many respects seems to have been put together with little care or thought. For example there’s even a brief bit in a mental instutution, but you could kae the whole scene out and the film wouldn’t be affected at all!
Of course much of the CGI is magnificent, but us old schoolers like to see something real once in a while even in a film called Alice Through The Looking Glass [which bears almost no resemblance to the book at all], and this particular film just ends up drowning amidst all the computer graphics. A few of them are, quite frankly, awful, an increasingly common flaw when virtually everything is done this way. There’s much footage of Alice travelling through the ‘waves of time’, and, even if you appreciate that the waves may not be intended to be waves that actually consist of water [though it sure looks like they’re supposed to be], they looks so bad that you half expect Pierce Brosnan to appear over the horizon surfing with his parachute. Overall this is a more colourful film to look at than the first one, and a more visually diverse one too, while director James Bobin gives us the odd nice visual moment, like a slow pan up the Red Queen’s fortress which reveals different characters having reached different floors. This one is a little more genuinely funny as well, even if it generally lacks the necessary light touch.
One thing that has to be emphasised is that the performances are always fun to watch even if they sometimes go off the rails a bit. Take Anne Hathaway; she constantly waves her arms about really slowly. It’s bizarre and unwarranted by the script but seems to fit into the film. Danny Elfman’s score, more densely orchestrated than his one for the first film, is hugely impressive with some of his best action scoring in some time plus more emotional stuff than he seems to do these days. The downside of this is that he sometimes seems to be scoring a better film than Alice Through The Looking Glass, which at the time of writing seems to be a film that folk are staying away from. I cannot deny that there is some meagre enjoyment to be had watching it, but it’s also faintly irritating for much of its running time and gets increasingly tiring in the wrong way. if you fancy dipping your toes into the wonderful world of Alice, than you’re much better off staying away too and checking out one of the Alice films which really do evoke the original material or do interesting stuff with it and not try to turn into a typical Hollywood blockbuster, like the evergreen and astonishingly trippy 1951 Disney animated version, the Python-esqe, yet also wistful, 1972 musical version, or the nightmarish stop motion-filled Czech effort from 1988.