Alice Through the Looking Glass (2016)

Above: Alice, played by Mia Wasikowska.

The night before last I watched a very strange film. Alice Through the Looking Glass, a 2016 adaption of Lewis Carroll's stories and a sequel to Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland (2010), was, like its predecessor, written by Linda Woolverton, and has a star-studded cast including Johnny Depp, Anne Hathaway, Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen. I had heard it got bad reviews but I wanted to watch it anyway, as I very much love the gothic and the surreal, enjoyed Lewis Carroll's books as a child, and while I can't very well remember what I thought of Burton's Alice in Wonderland, I remembered it was an admirable effort of the imagination nonetheless. Plus, I tend to avoid the advice of critics as I find them far from infallible.

But on this instance, the critics' opinion happened to be justifiable. Through the Looking Glass appeared to me to be a rushed, studio-driven, low-brow, corny piece of "fast food film" (a term I've just invented which I'm rather proud of) made to earn a quick buck through the name recognition of Burton's highly successful original. Not only this, it wasn't even an intelligent business decision. It was released six whole years after Alice in Wonderland when the hype for that film had very much died down, Burton did not return to direct (being replaced with the studio hack James Bobin. Burton did return in a producing role, but I reckon his creative influence would have been watered down by the three other producers on this project), and the film is stuffed with celebrity actor cameos (as all films that are in a dire state inevitably are).

As you can gather I wasn't impressed by Bobin's direction. I didn't mind the CGI-heaviness of Alice in Wonderland; I felt it worked within the context of this otherworldly dreamlike universe, and I was always interested in its creative use on Johnny Depp's and Helena Bonham Carter's characters, to enlarge body parts to make them look slightly inhuman. However, despite a $170 million budget the CGI in this sequel just looks cheap and nasty, like a cartoon. And without Burton's auteurist influence Through the Looking Glass lacks the gothicness of its predecessor, and in general feels more like a cheap, middle-of-the-road, corny Hollywood blockbuster (the last scrap of Burtonesque mystery is finally destroyed by the pop song over the end credits). One of the highlights of Alice in Wonderland was the creepy Cheshire Cat (played by Stephen Fry), but in this film everything is so cutesy, even the Cheshire Cat can't escape untarnished, as he loses all his mystery and power and is reduced to being little creepier than Bagpuss.

In case you're wondering, this isn't an actual adaption of Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass - apart from the mirrors which act as portals, and the brief tokenistic appearance of chess soldiers (as were in Carroll's book), this film follows its own unique narrative. By this point in Alice's life (Alice, by the way, played by Mia Wasikowska) she is depicted to have become the adventurous captain of her own ship in a trading company. However, after her vengeful ex-fiancé Lord Ascot effectively tries to blackmail her to sell her ship, Alice returns to Wonderland where she discovers her old friend the Mad Hatter (played by Depp, of course) is chronically depressed as he is missing his family, thinking that they are still alive but that nobody believes him. Thinking the Hatter is just deluded, Alice steals a time machine from the personification of Time (played by Sacha Baron Cohen) to go back in time to save the Hatter's family in the hope of making his apparent delusions come true, thereby saving him from his depression. This is how the sequel becomes a prequel, as Alice gets involved in the troubled history of the Red Queen (Bonham Carter) and the White Queen (Hathaway), all the while being pursued by Time and his minions.

It's quite convoluted but to be fair on the film I quite enjoyed its complexity. Too many family films follow mindnumbingly basic plots, gravely underestimating the intelligence of children and adults alike. I enjoyed the character of Time. I am a great fan and defender of Sacha Baron Cohen; it could be said I'm a Sacha Baron Cohen apologist. His performance was a bit strange in this film; I'm not quite sure what accent he was trying to put on, but it was distracting as I'm sure he used the very same accent for one of his outrageous characters in his new show Who is America?, which certainly isn't a family film. Israeli, perhaps? Or was he trying to give off the impression of some Central European prince? Regardless, I appreciated the character for being more interesting and multi-dimensional than your standard moustache-twiddling family film villain. Spoilers ahead. It gradually becomes more and more clear that Time is not a bad person at all; he was only pursuing Alice for the safety of the world, to stop her ruining history and even potentially destroying the universe itself. He has a nice little arc, at first being portrayed as a sadistic thief of men's lives (like Alice's late father's) to being a mere force of nature whom Alice rightly says gives before he takes. And more dimensions are added to the character of the Red Queen, who undergoes a satisfactory little arc with the White Queen and redeems herself by the end of the film. Alice's mother and Alice herself also go through satisfactory arcs. In many ways this isn't a badly written film.

But I can understand why critics dislike it so. It has what I call "Jar Jar Binks" humour; that is, humour which only 2-year olds will find funny, and which will subsequently alienate everybody else. The mistake of including this kind of humour in a film is, I believe, derived from a fundamental misunderstanding on the part of the creators on what a family film is supposed to be - it is a family film, not a children's film. It is supposed to be a film for the entire family, young and old; not just the kiddywinks.

It appears I have a dualistic interpretation of this motion picture - part of me praises it, the other condemns. But rather than making me confused on what I think of Through the Looking Glass, these two contradictory sides quite simply cancel one another out, so I am left with a very neutral opinion of it. I don't think objectively it was a good film, but it had its moments, and I wasn't bored while watching it - I was basically entertained. But that was all. Through the Looking Glass was, one might say, "meh". And the box office proved it when it was released - it lost Disney an estimated $70 million. All the renowned actors and actresses which were stuffed into it until it was bursting at the seams could not have saved it. Would I recommend? If you really like Lewis Carroll and liked the first film, then perhaps. If not, then don't bother.