For a studio experiencing an impressive dream-run lately, Disney takes its first major misstep in months with Alice Through the Looking Glass; a film that improves on the previous chapter, but given that chapter was an insufferable bore, that’s not really saying a whole lot.
Following the well-worn “nobody really asked for this sequel, but the original made too much money not to make one” path, similarly paved earlier this year by Huntsman: Winter’s War, James Bobin’s Alice Through the Looking Glass unfortunately suffers from the same disappointing problem as Tim Burton’s original film – visually impressive but narratively dull.
As we re-join our heroine Alice (a determined and impressive Mia Wasikowska), we find her content in her new role as brave sea captain (yeah, just go with it…), in an opening naval sequence so ridiculously far-fetched, you’d be remiss for thinking she’s already found herself back in Underland…or in one of the Pirates of the Caribbean films.
Upon her return to dry land, Alice soon discovers all is not well. Her mother (Lindsay Duncan) has mortgaged the family estate to the oafish Lord Ascot (Leo Bill), the man Alice jilted at the alter in the first film. Hell-bent on petty revenge, Ascot delivers Alice an ultimatum; sign away the deed to her late father’s ship and relinquish her captaincy or risk losing the family home altogether.
Right on cue, Alice spots the familiar blue butterfly, Absolem (voiced by the late great Alan Rickman), and escapes her real-life problems by following him through the looking glass (evidently we’re not allowed to call it a mirror) back to Underland, where, alas, all is also not well. Alice’s old pal Mirana the White Queen (Anne Hathaway, chewing every piece of scenery around her) desperately needs her help, yet again.
It seems Alice’s beloved Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp in all his Johnny Depp-ness) is now in-fact Sad Hatter (sorry, that had to be done), and can’t shake the impossible notion his entire family is actually still alive, despite the first film clearly stating they were all slaughtered by the Jabberwocky. When our heroine decrees the notion simply to be too impossible to be true, Hatter enters a black hole of depression and down a path to certain death.
So, what’s a girl to do? Jump inside a grandfather clock and set about journeying back in time to change the past and save Hatter’s family from the clutches of doom, of course! This convoluted plot, made all the more ridiculous by several characters bluntly stating several times that you cannot change the past, involves Alice stealing the mythical
Time Turner Chronosphere from the hands of the human-personification of Time (Sasha Baron-Cohen, in a marvelous return-to-form), and sailing across the literal oceans of the past. See because she’s a sea captain, remember?
Along the way, we discover the film’s far more enjoyable subplot involving the familial drama of warring sisters Mirana and Iracebeth (Helena Botham Carter, once again stealing the whole film). It seems a mysterious event from the sisters’ childhood evidently set Iracebeth’s evil ways into motion, so she too has her own plans for the Chronosphere. Plus she’s also enjoying a rather bizarre sadomasochistic relationship with Time, and their scenes together are one of the film’s few highlights.
Unfortunately this “let’s unnecessarily fill in a character’s backstory” sidestep falls into the same idiocy as Maleficent, with its incessant need to prove Disney’s most evil of villains are not in-fact evil, but rather merely misunderstood victims, suffering from unresolved childhood traumas. Perhaps it’s just me, but I’m satisfied with my Disney villains being evil purely for the sake of evil. Clearly that’s not the intent of these live-action remakes. Lord knows what they’ll make of Cruella de Vil…
Ultimately, it’s hard not to be impressed by the visual world surrounded the frustrating narrative mess. Much like the previous chapter, the stand-out here is the costuming, crafted expertly by Colleen Atwood (who will no doubt be up for her 12th Oscar nom), and Dan Hennah’s production design, which utilises every possible tool of technology to create the vast and dazzling lands of Underworld.
If nothing else, the entire piece is a glorious feast for the eyes, even if it is slightly missing some of Burton’s distinctive quirky charm and colour. Time’s spectacular Gothic-style castle is a particular triumph, as is Iracebeth’s vine-covered manor. If you go into this film expecting to see lots of pretty things and nothing more, you’ll likely be satisfied.
But when compared to the triumphs that were The Jungle Book and Cinderella, Alice Through the Looking Glass is sadly another disappointing example of stunning visual design doing everything it can to mask a film without the narrative and characters to back it up.