Alice Through the Looking Glass

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won·der

noun

a feeling of surprise mingled with admiration, caused by something beautiful, unexpected, unfamiliar, or inexplicable.

If Disney and director James Bobin will not remember the particular verses hiding within this childlike word, which can only really be felt bouncing on a knee or lying under the stars, then at least we might. “Inexplicable” is the only one of those words that applies to Alice Through the Looking Glass, a film that rehashes Tim Burton’s rehash of Lewis Carroll to the point that the lack of wonder has become painful. I can explain how it makes me feel, after being forced to choke it down one previously amiable Saturday night, but not how it was made by people with all their lobes intact.

It makes a mockery of wonderment from the first seconds, in which Captain Alice (Mia Wasikowska) pilots her ship (the “Wonder”) through a storm, turning the mast parallel to the water to escape pirates through an encampment of rocks. “It’s impossible!” someone says. “You know my view of that word,” she replies. Even Burton’s lax standards would have nothing to do with this film and I’d like to think this opening vindicates his decision: before even the title card, Alice Through the Looking Glass makes the real world a cartoon. The chance to feel any surprise, any mingling of the unexpected, when she slips into Wonderland's playground of lush, green screens, is lost in the first artificial moments when she performs this outlandish maneuver without even wincing at it. Even among such absurdities as a time-travelling spaceship, it is one of the film’s more unbelievable sequences.

In Wonderland, there's little for the actors to do but stare into what must have been to them the most intimidating blankness, judging by their statuesque expressions. Occasionally, Wasikowska has Johnny Depp, Anne Hathaway, or Sacha Baron Cohen to stare at, but I’m not exaggerating when I say that nothing else seems to be in her spatial continuum. Here: a doorknob. There: a handrail. Beyond that, she is floating in an abyss, and looks it. Her expression is comatose, her performance, detached. She somehow populates every scene, and yet feels like she had no part in the film.

Since blaming her is inefficient (and probably untrue – Del Toro knew what to do with her in Crimson Peak and she was perfectly passable as Jane Eyre), I’ll take up my complaints with the management.

I struggle to think of one moment in which this film feels like it has a director. Alice Through the Looking Glass is flat in every crisp, artificial image, every gorgeously boring background and weightless character model. Bobin strains to capture even Burton’s hedonistic interpretation of Carroll’s world, and without one speck of effort in the position of the camera or the length of shot, in the lighting or in the grounding of the action, everything reads as equal.

This is how Bobin not only defies wonder but actually negates it. His images are more than boring: they are exciting things that mock excitement through their disinterested execution. It’s worse even than a film that looks completely fake, which may at least take its cartoonish fantasy as an excuse for a little whimsy. On some alien world or historical foolery, Avatar or 300 may take us to a foreign place with a little excitement, even if our belief is not so much suspended as abused. But at least they acknowledge us – Alice Through the Looking Glass plunders the potential of our computers for its amusement, but never once thinks of the humans that have to watch it.

How can Time’s (Cohen) serene chamber of souls, portrayed as clocks hanging by their chains from an ochre heavens, or Alice’s harrowing adventure to a town scorched by the dragon-like Jabberwock, both seem the same and both seem as blatantly constructed as a life insurance ad? It’s as though the computer hired to render the images was also put in charge of its views and timing, and strained to the best of its circuits’ ability to make what it believes humans must find wondrous. In a spaceship called the Chronosphere, Alice roams the ocean of time, blasting through the foam, seeing images of history in the waves. It has absolutely no power or wit or beauty. Alice is surprised at nothing. She admires nothing. She is an insertion of the audience if there ever was one, and seems to have as little ability to change history as we do.

The story is that the Hatter (Depp) suddenly remembers he has a family. He asks Alice to save them; to do so, she has to go back in time. The problem with this, if there's only one, is that we aren’t familiar with Wonderland. This means that going back into its past means nothing more than strolling down the block, since we have no baseline for comparison. Screenwriter Linda Woolverton (whose writing credits ludicrously include the stunning Disney animated feature Beauty and the Beast) must have realized this, since in every time period Alice somehow pops out right next to someone she knows, whose age tells us that she is indeed in a different time, as though Wonderland was populated with only the four or five people she’s met before.

This isn’t even my main contention with the time travel contrivance, just the itchy sweater of its logic I have to put on to talk about it. Its crowning inadequacy is in how it establishes one man’s emotions as the fulcrum of a universe, and yet does absolutely nothing to explore them. Even Depp’s ability to over-emphasize a character’s inner nature does nothing for him when faced with a cast of performers all desperately trying to ape his act. Wonderland becomes an asylum for loud-mouthed ingrates and loopy loons, where there is so much more potential in the super-sanity of crazy serious people that even the Disney cartoon version got partially right way back in 1951. None of them are present for their own lives. The one fulcrum of dependability here is not Alice but Time, whose clockwork neck may be the film’s single convincing effect, and whose rationale is the only one you can follow at all. He needs to stop Alice before she destroys the universe for her friend, and he’s never, despite being a manic parody of a German musician, wrong about the stakes.

This could have been interesting – a childlike protagonist bumbling through the airways of time, mussing up universal constants to help her friend, while the ostensive villain is actually an eternal blue-collar worker just trying to hold the fabric of things together. It collapses on itself, however, when viewed against the film’s simplistic female independence subtext. Alice is given tough and exertive things to do to prove that she can play with the big boys, in the service of some attempt to make her seem better than the way the character is usually portrayed -- a ditzy little girl. This seminal literary child is made, for instance, to confront a snivelish board of directors about being a female ship captain, a premise the film regurgitates whenever she steps out of Wonderland for even a few seconds. I would like to go off on a tangent about how the literary Alice is as likely a figure for headstrong independent womanhood as Oliver Twist is for savings and shares, but so long as a new context is internally consistent, it doens't really matter what came before it. The problem is that at the same time they grind the drill-bit inscribed with a point about ladies in the workforce into your skull, the plot continues to be about a girl whose naïve militarism and persistent unlikability constantly places the entire universe in jeopardy. The message isn’t wrong, but it self-defeats because she is so very wrong herself. Headstrong womanhood in a practical sense is the closest thing the film has to a villain, when even the bombastic Red Queen (Carter) is relegated to a somewhat sympathetic side role and a hasty, superficial reconciliation in favor of Alice’s ignorant, and much more destructive impulses.

When the Hatter asks Alice to believe him that his family is still alive, she says, “But it’s impossible.” Bobin does one thing right by getting us to Wonderland quickly, but it means that Alice scolding her first-mate about that word “impossible” that she doesn't believe in was less than ten minutes prior to her use of it to put down the hopes of her dearest friend for the sake of the plot. Even later she tells him she believes him, not because she resolves this contradiction and believes in the impossible, but because she has discovered through rational evidence that his family is indeed alive. She finds her way to wonderment with the coldest logic imaginable.

Perhaps I should be thankful that Alice Through the Looking Glass offers within itself such a precise description of its fallacy. As its wonders defy wonder, its protagonist believes in the impossible, only when it is proven. I would be thankful, but I’m still trying to resuscitate my corneas from all this wonderment. I didn’t see it in 3D but, since no one likes a braggart, that’s all I’ll say on the subject.

Image is a screenshot from the film.

Cast & Crew

James Bobin

Linda Woolverton

Alice Kingsleigh Mia Wasikowska
Tarrant Hightopp, the Mad Hatter Johnny Depp
Mirana of Marmoreal, the White Queen Anne Hathaway
Iracebeth of Crims, the Red Queen Helena Bonham Carter
Time Sacha Baron Cohen
Butterfly Alan Rickman (voice)
Cheshire, the Cheshire Cat Stephen Fry (voice)

Official Trailer

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