This article was originally published to The National Student on 11th May 2016
How do you make a sequel to one of the most successful, critically savaged films of the century?
2010’s Alice In Wonderland was a green screen, Tim Burton-fever nightmare, with few characters who actually resembled real people, personality or appearance-wise.
This sequel, more than half a decade later, obviously seeks to capitalise on the more than Billion-dollar grossing success of the original, and without Tim Burton behind the camera (he’s serving as a producer; the guy behind-the behind-the-camera guy), you’d hope it could indeed be an improvement.
And in a few ways you’d be right. But the problem with sequels to bad films is that, in all too many cases, everything bad about the first film comes along to wreck the second.
Alice Through The Looking Glass follows the return of Alice Kingsleigh (Mia Wasikowska) to Wonderland. After rediscovering that the high society she belonged to (before she left England for seaborne adventures) has no time for empowered women, she finds a magical mirror that transports her back to Wonderland. There she embarks on a desperate attempt to save her friend the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp), who is deathly ill. To do this she seeks out Time himself (Sacha Baron Cohen), so she may travel to the past and find the Hatter’s family, who everyone believed had perished long ago.
It feels like an unfair comparison with Disney’s recent success The Jungle Book (another live action adaptation of a beloved cartoon/Victorian children’s book), but it can’t be helped. While that film’s achievements with photo-real effects are not to be overlooked; what was really magical about it was how every one of its characters felt real.
However, James Bobin’s cast of CGI supporting characters, including the nightmarish Tweedledee/Tweedledum (Matt Lucas), the infuriatingly useless Dormouse (Barbara Windsor), and the fretting White Rabbit (Michael Sheen), are more like well-dressed mannerisms, standing around saying things which resemble jokes, but feel more like a specially engineered form of torture.
Even the White Queen, played in person by Anne Hathaway, simply drifts through scenes with a passive, detached serenity that should appear wise. Instead it’s moronic. All of these characters and more would fare better without their heads.
Speaking of which, the shrieking Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) also returns. Her scenes reveal one of the oddest origin stories ever, as her head literally inflates while she angrily ramps up towards delivering her signature line. She and her sister form part of the film’s most surprising quality: that it actually has seriously considered the themes and arcs for its characters. Grief, forgiveness, family, and the fact that you can only ever change the future, never the past – these ideas all manage to play a part in character journeys, and sometimes they work. The story of the Red and White Queens finds a sensible resolution (as in it functions on a basic story level, and makes sense), but because they’re both awful, unlikeable bores, there’s absolutely no emotional resonance to it.
Surprisingly it’s Sacha Baron Cohen’s performance that helps kick the film up several notches. His embodiment of Time is a *bit* narcissistic, very ridiculous, and possessed of a very strange Swiss-German accent. It does go nicely with the impeccable craftsmanship of his part clockwork body. He’s funny, a little cruel and impatient, and importantly, he’s also correct, throughout the film. Far from the villain being sold by the marketing, Time is impartial, and ultimately forgiving.
Of course Cohen’s performance is insane, but by the film’s low bar for characters, it’s Oscar gold. He also works well against Mia Wasikowska, who’ll probably inspire you to walk away wishing she had better films of this scale. Her Alice is so polite and mannered that she never feels like the roguish, fearless adventurer that the story and historical context positions her to be. It’s a shame, because it’s always good to see different interpretations of feminine heroism, where the woman doesn’t automatically default to scared or very masculine. This is just a case where the wrong actor was cast.
There’s very little in the way of actual awe to be felt in the visuals, apart from a memorable sequence about a third of the way in, through the ‘Ocean Of Time’. Your jaw may well drop at the lines, however. Linda Woolverton’s (who also wrote Maleficent) script is ham-handed, as people spout nonsense like ‘I don’t like the word impossible’, ‘Time is a thief’, and ‘You have a very nice head!’ They’re either unbearably quirky, or dropping themes like anvils on the head of a cartoon rabbit.
These may be excused as the stuff of “kids films” by many, but to return to the earlier comparison,The Jungle Book had its fair share of them. The difference is that you don’t notice nearly as much, since it also had more than enough characters that you can actually believe in.
No matter how pretty either of these films look, or their mechanical functionality, without strong characters there’d be no soul. There certainly isn’t here.
Alice Through The Looking Glass, directed by James Bobin, is distributed in the UK by Walt Disney Motion Pictures [International], and is released on 27th May 2016. Certificate PG.