Well, it’s better than the first one but by no means is that an endorsement. Instead, it’s an acknowledgment that when it comes to mainstream Hollywood trauma, few scars run as deep as Alice In Wonderland. When Tim Burton gets to Hell, this is the film that will kick off the highlights reel they screen. A near-total refutation of what makes Lewis Carroll’s enduring classic endure, that first film tested my patience in a way few Hollywood films do. I’ve said it before… to be a film critic, you need to generally love movies. You need to love the very act of walking into a theater, sitting down among a crowd of strangers, and then taking that ride when the lights go out. I’ve written before about how it’s my church, and of course, I root for that experience to be great every time it happens. That is not the case, though, and I try to be honest and clear about what happens when that experience turns out to be a bust. It’s not enough to say, “I didn’t like this.”
When I wrote my fairly scathing review of Alice In Wonderland, we weren’t using letter grades, and I’m glad. It meant people had to actually read why I felt like it was a total failure instead of just looking at a “D” and moving on. I went back to read that review when I got home from Friday morning’s screening of Alice Through The Looking Glass, directed by James Bobin this time and once again credited to screenwriter Linda Woolverton. It is very much a sequel to the first film, and it shares some of that film’s fundamental flaws. It is, however, crippled in a whole new way that I found fascinating. While I can’t say I actually enjoyed the film, I think James Bobin is above reproach here in terms of his work. Speaking purely to the technical craft on display, I think it’s sort of astonishing how beautiful the 3D presentation was today, and how effortless Bobin makes it all look. I’ve written before about living in an age of casual magic, and this is a great example. The way Bobin has carved this fantasy landscape out of the raw materials of physical production and digital visual effects is gorgeous, even if everything is tied to the garish palette choices made by Tim Burton on the original. While I hated the first film, I did spend some time and energy writing about the work by Ken Ralston as the visual effects supervisor, and his work is even more dazzling here. It is overwhelming to see how many different things he’s got going on in some of these shots, and it feels like one big cohesive world in terms of how it all hangs together.
One of the things that stood out as a mistake the first time around was the last-minute conversion of the film from 2D to 3D to try to tap into the audience that was primed by the arrival of Avatar just a few months earlier. This time, Bobin’s been thinking about that from the start of the production, and it shows. There is a beauty to the way he pulls you into the various landscapes and environments that he creates here, and he’s very good at pulling off these effects-dependent performances like Time (Sacha Baron Cohen), The Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter), or Tweedledee and Tweedledum (Matt Lucas). In Burton’s film, the seams were visible, and it felt like they were straining at the limits of what was possible. Here, Ralston and his remarkable team have conquered any of the issues they had the first time around.
But what does any of that matter if the script is just a hodgepodge of generic fantasy tropes? As with the first film, there’s a framing device set in the “real” world, where Alice has spent several years at sea as a ship’s captain. She returns home and finds that her mother has been forced to sell off their stake in the company, placing Alice at the mercy of Hamish (Leo Bill), the pudding-chinned git who wanted to marry her in the first film. Alice goes to a fancy party at his house to confront him about the fate of her father’s ship, only to end up following Absolom (the late great Alan Rickman in a fairly brief vocal cameo) through a mirror into Underland, where she is once again given a hero’s quest she must complete to help save her friend, the Hatter (Johnny Depp).
Here’s the film’s biggest problem: the Hatter is an idiot, and the quest he sends her on means that Alice has to behave like a sociopathic asshole for most of the film’s running time. They’ve made the Hatter such a sad and passive shell of himself that whatever fun there is in the character is gone. This time, he’s sort of a grey crybaby who is suddenly heartbroken about a backstory that was conveniently far less important in the previous movie, even though the emotional wounds would have been fresher. Alice makes so many selfish choices in the film, and everything she does involving Time is wrong. At one point, she literally causes the destruction of everything and the death of everyone because of her selfish behavior. Nice. What a hero. Time’s not the villain of the film because he isn’t doing anything to Alice or to anyone else at the start of the film, other than his job. He is simply being Time, whose duties sort of intersect Death’s according to what we see here, and Alice causes every single problem in the film by stealing the thingy that makes his entire cosmic clock system work in the first place.
She steals it so she can time travel, and that allows us to learn unnecessary backstory for all of the characters of Underland, but particularly the Red Queen and her sister, the White Queen (Anne Hathaway). It turns out there’s an explanation for both the Red Queen’s gigantic freak show parade float of a head and her horrifying personality, and it all has to do with a lie told by the White Queen as a little girl. In fact, there seems to be a lot of unnecessary backstory this time, doubling down on the way Linda Woolverton seems to be almost infuriated by the underlying nature of Carroll’s original writing. I don’t mind if people want to play with characters who are as deeply ingrained in our collective culture as these are. A great example of someone who does it right is Bill Willingham. Toshi and I have been playing The Wolf Among Us, Telltale’s great adaptation of Willingham’s Fables comic series, and it started us reading the series together as well. Willingham knows that you can only bend or break a character if you understand the character to begin with, and there’s nothing in either of the Alice films that suggests an understanding of what makes Carroll’s work endure.
In some ways, the bigger disappointment here is that Tim Burton is willing to put his brand name all over something so crushingly pedestrian. For someone who has always self-identified as an outsider and whose art is so obsessed with being different, these films are almost mystifyingly formulaic. Forcing something as delightfully insane as Carroll’s work into the A-B-C structure of heroic fantasy fundamentally breaks the property. This is not Alice. This is not the Mad Hatter. These are not Carroll’s characters, no matter how you dress them and no matter what you call them. I don’t want to see where the Mad Hatter came from. I don’t want to see his tortured relationship with his father. I don’t want to learn the story of the first hat he made and whether or not his daddy liked it. Carroll wrote a landscape of lunatics, and this movie works overtime to render them mundane.
Finally, I think it is precisely because the technical work by everyone from James Bobin down is so good that I find myself infuriated by the film. So much muscle, so much effort, so much raw talent on display, and all in service of demographic-and-merchandise-driven garbage that sullies the name of the source material. I look at that cast and I imagine all the things they were asked to do in order to help create the astonishing imagery that Bobin offers up here, and it just makes me sad. What a waste. What a bloody pointless waste. It is a sort of singularity of opposing forces, a beautifully rendered corpse of a film, a magnificent frame filled by a blank.
If you even remotely like your children and value your free time, consider alternatives when Alice Through The Looking Glass descends on theaters everywhere May 27.