Film Review: ALICE THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS
ALICE THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS
Starring Mia Wasikowska, Sacha Baron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman, Anne Hathaway, Rhys Ifans, Stephen Fry, Michael Sheen, Timothy Spall, Johnny Depp
Directed by James Bobin
Produced by Tim Burton, Joe Roth, Suzanne Todd, Jennifer Todd
Screenplay by Linda Woolverton
Based on characters created by Lewis Carroll
Cinematography by Stewart Dryburgh
Edited by Andrew Weisblum
Music by Danny Elfman
Disney’s most thoroughly engaging, enjoyable and entertaining fantasy-science-fiction funfest “Alice Through the Looking Glass,” based on author Lewis Carroll’s memorable, zany and lovable characters, may indeed be that rare fantasy-sci-fi movie that ends up actually being better than its predecessor, in this case 2010’s befuddlingly, crazily successful “Alice in Wonderland.” Filled with dazzling, spectacular visual, special, computer and make-up effects that, for once, actually co-exist peacefully, directly and intelligently with the story at hand, instead of being simple set pieces without much context, which occurs too often in fantasy, sci-fic, superhero and comic book movies, “Alice” also contains a fun, inventive and swiftly-moving story that manages to combine equal elements of fantasy, science fiction, human drama, comedy, pathos and even tragedy; skilled, able direction that keeps everything grounded firmly in its concurrent genre worlds, keeps everything flowing at a brisk, swift but not rushed pace and remembers to have fun and entertain from start to finish; and a cast that seems to be having so much fun and enjoying themselves in every frame, not to mention acting at a high level. Thus, “Alice Through the Looking Glass” manages to be enthralling in every scene.
This “Alice” also manages to be that great, fun film that can reach across genre divides and satisfyingly entertain fantasy fans, science-fiction fans (the story is firmly planted in as much sci-fi as fanstasy), and even those folks who say they don’t enjoy fantasy and sci-fi—it’s that good. “Alice” also achieves the goal of being entertaining for all ages and demographics—yes, including teenage boys and grown men—really. And, additionally, “Alice” appeals to all ages and demographics—from little kids on up to the grandfolks. There is absolutely nothing controversial, polarizing, negative, downbeat (aside from some dark elements in the story that exist in every quality fantasy and sci-fic film, folk tale and nursery rhyme), violent, offensive, repulsive or even remotely inappropriate in the movie, and, in this case, that’s a good thing.
In other words, “Alice Through the Looking Glass,” even more so than Disney’s Marvel superhero and comic book movies and even more than “Star Wars—The Force Awakens,” is a classic Disney family movie in Disney’s very best old-fashioned tradition. But the film is in every way the model of a very modern movie, too. The film achieves that unique balance of being old-fashioned and modern–and appropriately high-tech modern–all at the same time, something that many current films strive to do, but fail miserably to achieve.
Besides the amazing, breathtaking effects, production design, costume design, make-up and illustrations—all of which are excellent in the film—credit must start with “Alice” with the original, unique and inventive story from screenwriter Linda Woolverton. And it should be zero surprise that Woolverton has turned in yet another exceptional story and screenplay—it was Woolverton who wrote the equally-excellent screenplays for Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” film; the movie version of “The Lion King” (as a co-writer); and the book for the stage adaptation of “Beauty and the Beast.” Woolverton also wrote Disney’s 2010 “Alice in Wonderland,” which earned a billion dollars—literally—worldwide, and “Maleficent.” She also co-wrote the book for the successful stage musical “Aida.”
With “Alice Through the Looking Glass,” Woolverton applied, yes, a familiar formula, but she applied it in an inventive manner. Yes, there are cute, cuddly creatures; there is an evil, witch-like villain; there is family drama and angst and tragedy (but no romance, which is a positive here—not every film needs a drippy, tacky, awkward romance), there are likeable characters, there are smart-alecky, comic-relief characters, and there are some very inventive fantasy-sci-fi characters that, again, are quite modern in their presentation, while managing to fit in an old-fashioned yarn. But more than that, the main story is interesting, original, it holds your attention, it’s suspenseful, there are layers of plots and subplots that weave together seamlessly and without any lingering questions, and the overall imaginative story is fun to follow, watch—and care about. Credit Woolverton with yet another success.
But Woolverton needed a strong director to pull off her story, and director James Bobin—a gifted director, screenwriter and comedian with a bizarro list of comedy, film and television credits on his resume—seems to have melded with Woolverton’s vision perfectly, creating this fantasy and sci-fi world that is consistently colorful, dazzling, full of creative visions, and full of images that roll, spin, twist, twirl, wave, weave and move all over the screen, providing a visual feast in every shot, scene and act. The camera is constantly moving—but not annoyingly like so many other modern-day films; the characters are constantly funny, engaging, likeable and lovable—and well-acted; and, again, the production values and production design are thoroughly excellent. Victorian fantasy costumes, special effects, set design, production design, props, paintings, illustrations, mattes, set construction, visual and computer effects and make-up are all a high-priority, and there is never a doubt that Alice and her fellow characters inhabit a fantasy world all their own. Bobin, who previously directed “The Muppets” and “Muppets Most Wanted,” co-created “The Flight of the Conchords” and helped create Sasha Baron Cohen’s characters Ali G, Borat and Bruno, also remembers to keep things funny—the film does have a great sense of humor!
The story starts with the plucky, tough, quite individualistic and even progressive Alice (a wonderful, plucky, tough and independent Mia Wasikowska, who returns from 2010’s “Alice) caught in a particularly uncomfortable and difficult family situation in the real world—her former fiancée, Hamish Ascot, who, as it turns out, is quite the unlikeable and villainous sort, has managed to take power over Alice’s family’s ship and house, to the point where the family could lose both. Alice, not wanting to give up her father’s great ship, eludes Ascot’s henchmen at a perilous moment and disappears into the alternate universe of Underland.
Back in Underland, Alice is reacquainted with her menagerie of lovable, goofy—and, again, original—characters: the Hatter (a perplexingly strange and awkward Johnny Depp, the only real weak aspect of the movie, in an oddly unsatisfying performance); the White Queen (an appropriately understated Anne Hathaway, who, at times, seems to be channeling, or trying to channel, Billy Burke, or the Elf Queen from “The Lord of the Rings,” in a good way); the Tweedles, a pair of strangely likeable rolly-polly things that somehow resemble a trippy version of Charles Addams’ Pugsley, times two; and the White Rabbit, the Dormouse, Bayard and the Cheshire Cat. Watching these goofball, funny creatures is constantly entertaining and fun. You just want to sit, have some tea with them—and laugh.
However, all is not fun in Underland. The Hatter is depressed to the point of near-death due to the loss of his family, who he believes has survived a previous attack from dark forces—but he cannot find them, and he is on his deathbed, depressed and agonized to the point of nearly-no-return. The White Queen suggests that Alice visit Time himself and seek to go back in time, save the Hatter’s family, and save Hatter and Underland. She does not suggest to steal a magical device known as the chronosphere (this could be a marketing bonanza for Disney, if the company suddenly decided to start selling little gold chromosphere toys—KA-CHING, but in a good way here). Alice, believing she has to travel back in time to save her friend and her group of friends—and to save Hatter’s family—visits Time, disregards Time’s advice not to disrupt time–and promptly steals the chromosphere. Meanwhile, for various story and plot and subplot reasons, the Red Queen is getting more and more power-hungry, battles Alice at every step, and plots to steal the chromosphere and control time and the universe herself!
Thus, it’s a literal race of time and space, as Alice, the Hatter, the Underland gang, Time, the White Queen and the Red Queen battle each other through, well, time and space, to save the Hatter, save Alice’s fate in the real world, save the Queens, and, ultimately, to save the universe.
The addition of the time element in this film is a plus, as Woolverton has somehow found a most unique time travel story to tell—which can be difficult, as there are hundreds, thousands, of time travel stories in books, television shows and movies, many of which repeat the same stories over and over. Alice’s time travel story remains, to the story’s credit, wrapped inside of an overall tale that remembers to focus on what matters in life—life, friends, love, family, relationships, loyalty, courage, and bonds that mean more than money, fame, riches or possessions. It’s that grounding and foundation in very real, very human emotions and elements that lifts up Woolverton’s time travel adventures—throughout the story, it all remains based in basic human feelings. So even if the characters tend to slip up and make mistakes, the viewer has sympathy for them, because their motives remain based in, and lodged in, basic human emotion, feelings and love.
Sasha Baron Cohen as Time is kept in check, is kept grounded, is kept in control, and delivers, along with Wasikowska and Helena Bonham Carter in grandly full-on craziness and psychoness as the Red Queen, a great performance. These three stars are the center of the film, and each handles their characters in their own positive, effective, differing ways. Wiakowska’s Alice is the personification of human heroism, loyalty and independence—she’s a hero, but a grounded, likeable hero. Bonham Carter’s Red Queen represents the type of evil that grows out of being outcast, cast aside, ignored and ostracized due to different looks, appearances and attitudes—she could be a symbol of every unfortunate outcast and picked-upon outcast who fights back through evil, deception and insanity.
But it’s Baron Cohen’s character of Time that, in a subtle manner—yes, subtle—steals the movie. Baron Cohen’s Time is wondrous and breathtaking in its presentation—a wizard-like, mystical, half-clock, half-human being that is Time, controls Time, manages Time, and who oversees a dazzling, dark, imposing castle, empire and compound of widgets, gidgets, robots, assistants, creatures that are Seconds and Minutes, machinery, gizmos, contraptions, magical watches and whirling clocks and timepieces—a strange, otherwordly empire that brings to mind Rube Goldberg, M. C. Escher, J. R. R. Tolkien and H. R. Giger all at once. Baron Cohen can often run amok inside his characters in movies, but Bobin keeps Time grounded, insightful, important—and a solid piece of machinery that works well throughout the film.
The only weak link—and some will likely argue this—is Depp’s uneven, awkward, strange—but strange in a bad way, not a good way—and, at times, even poorly-acted–Hatter. For more than a decade now, Depp in his films seems to be losing his focus and control through a series of similar characters that, eventually, turn annoying and irritating and even embarrassing, and, yes, that includes his Jack Sparrow in the “Pirates” sequels, his awful turn in the awful “The Lone Ranger,” his not-intentionally scary and embarrassing mistake as a moronic Willy Wonka in Tim Burton’s wholly disappointing—and unneeded–“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” and even in 2010’s “Alice in Wonderland.” That’s a lot of bad performances in a lot of bad movies. It’s far past the time for Depp to leave the fantasy world and get back to some serious, non-fantasy, non-genre dramatic roles. He certainly needs it in his career.
Fortunately, Depp’s strange performance does not sink “Alice Through the Looking Glass,” and the movie is solid, good and entertaining enough that Depp’s silliness is buried by all of the quality elements overpowering him, in the story, in the scenes and in the movie. His silliness even somehow fits with the character and the film well enough, still, that it’s never horribly distracting. But, still, something there still remains just a bit, well, off, in the characterization.
On the flip side, “Alice Through the Looking Glass,” contains a solid, quality performance from an actor who managed to successfully find a niche late in life playing dark, imposing, scary villains well—Alan Rickman. However, and unfortunately, Rickman recently left this world all too soon when he died on Jan. 14, 2016, at the age of 69, from pancreatic cancer. Rickman’s great voice work as Absolem the Caterpillar in “Alice Through the Looking Glass,” alas, marks one of Rickman’s last roles, and the film, in a nice, grand gesture, is dedicated to him. Rickman shines in a supporting role, and it’s great to hear his grand, eloquent, classic voice up on the big screen one more time.
“Alice Through the Looking Glass” itself is dedicated to the art of pure joy in a film, taking its fans to authentically original and unique worlds that, yes, are worth visiting once again. In the end, though, despite all of the fantasy and science-fiction, despite all of the great special effects and production design, Woolverton and Bobin are wise enough to bring everything back to what matters—those basic elements of life that form the building blocks that life is based upon: Family, friends, relationships, life itself, and love.
“One of the secrets of life is that all that is really worth the doing is what we do for others,” Lewis Carroll, who started it all with Alice, said himself. And that seems a great place to end regarding “Alice Through the Looking Glass.” For, as Carroll himself also said, “Begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end; then stop.”