Hey, remember when Alice in Wonderland made a billion dollars at the box office? The year 2010 were simpler days as Alice, riding on the 3-D coattails of Avatar just needed to be in that third dimension to make money, and that’s all the movie seemed to have going for it. It’s interesting considering the recent discussion of Avatar’s culture relevance, or lack thereof, that the movie that followed in its footsteps so closely seems all but forgotten in the conversation. A billion dollars doesn’t mean what you used to, but it’s siren song is hard shake. Thus we now have Alice Through the Looking Glass, a logical follow-up to Wonderland if anything that happened here could be called logical.
Walking into Looking Glass, I was trying to rack my brain to think of anything that stood out in Wonderland, and the only image I got were the two sickly-colored dead looking eyes of Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter. With pancake make-up and contacts the colour of pea soup, it wasn’t hard watching Depp in Looking Glass and be reminded of the demon Pazuzu in The Exorcist, especially when the plot details how Alice must save the Hatter from a self-imposed malaise after he finds a relic in the woods that indicates his long-dead family may be alive.
For about 10 minutes there, the movie had my attention when Alice (Mia Wasikowska), now an accomplished sea captain, must considering selling her beloved father’s vessel, The Wonder, in order to pay off her mother’s debts and save the family home. The debter is Hamish, the man that Alice refused to marry in order to live her own adventures, and from all appearances Alice dodged a bullet because he’s a snivelling snickering a-hole. Frustrated, Alice finds a mirror that leads her back to Wonderland, and a mission to save the Hatter by going back in time with the help, or hindrance, of the personification of Time (Sacha Baron Cohen).
I get the feeling that in producing the script the producers were of the opinion that this is Wonderland, and crazy sells. Thusly they don’t have to think anything through logically, nor are they compelled to supply the film with anything resembling sane motivations of narrative follow-through. You can have a whole scene were Time condemns the Hatter and pals to live eternally in one minute before tea time, and never revisit it. Through the course of the film we learn that the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) is a homicidal lunatic because of a childhood slight by her sister the White Queen (Anne Hathaway), which involves alleged cookie theft and traumatic brain injury. Time, for some reason, is in love with the Red Queen even though he’s a clock work robot man that lives in his own realm in castle at the centre of a clock guarding the timeline. I don’t know if drugs could have helped any of this, but they certainly couldn’t have hurt.
The vexing thing is that there was a kernel of a good idea in all the time travel shenanigans of Looking Glass. Must time travel stories, like the last Terminator movie for example, treat the plot device as if it were magic, which is why in a film about magical realms it was weird to see time travel dealt with in such a committed way. Alice launches into her mission to see if she can change time, but what she may have to learn over the course of the film is that one cannot change time; making a better future by changing the past is the easy way out, even in Wonderland. The harder and more righteous path is to make amends in the here and now. It’s a long way to go to learn that lesson, but the message part of Looking Glass is actually where it works best.
I was also surprised to see how much Time grew on me. I was ready to throw in the towel after 20 minutes with Alice arriving in Wonderland and hearing about the Hatter’s plight; only the noble task of seeing a movie through to the end to review it properly kept me in my seat. But between the Steampunk vibe of Time and his world, to the bizarrely effective Werner Herzog impression Cohen used for the character, if there were any scenes in this movie that made you sit up and get engaged, chances are they involved Time in some way. Fortunately, either screenwriter Linda Woolverton or director James Bobin realized quickly that the romance with the Red Queen was ridiculous, and Time’s motivations became all about stopping Alice from trying to screw with, well, himself.
It also helps too that Cohen is the only actor that feels like he’s engaged by this world. Depp was already testing patience with his first go-round as the Hatter, and between now and then Tonto in The Lone Ranger put the nail in the coffin of his wacky-for-wacky’s sake character schtick. Hathaway has the appearance of a woman that was kidnapped and drugged in order to make her compliant, undoubtedly spending most of her time reacting and talking to CG characters didn’t help either her acting chops or commitment. Alan Rickman meanwhile gets the Orson Welles “I Can’t Believe This is My Last Credit” Memorial Award for a brief appearance as the voice of Absolem. Carter isn’t married to Tim Burton anymore (he didn’t direct, but he’s still a producer), so she had to be wondering how she got roped into this again, but I’m sure that was the opinion of almost everyone in the cast.
Indeed, the rationale to move forward with this sequel in the first place is inexplicable. This wasn’t a director-driven effort where the original filmmaker felt like he had more to say, indeed I think “Burtonizing” Wonderland was on its own the singular point of the movie in the first place. More than that, Disney‘s maneuver lately has been to make faithful live-action adaptations of their old properties. The success of Cinderella and The Jungle Book, not to mention the new buzz around Beauty and the Beast, call to a sense of nostalgia, not a sense tearing down a charming bungalow and building a haunted mansion. The only constant thing between Wonderland – the 1951 animation and the 21st century remakes – is Alice’s capacity to just roll with the absurdity, and by the end of Looking Glass, she’s the only putting up with it.
Disney, which has set the new benchmark for franchise management took a rare misstep with Alice Through the Looking Glass because by the time the credits rolled I had no idea what it was supposed to say, or who it was talking to. It exists purely because Alice in Wonderland made a billion dollars, and while that feat is impressive, I think the weekend box office will prove that the old showbiz adage – “timing is everything” – is as true today as it was a hundred years ago. Even amongst the few that I shared a theatre with on a Friday night, no one laughed, no one clapped, just the stunned silence of “a sat through that for two hours?” That’s not reverence, that’s shell shock.