Movie Review: ‘ALICE THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS’ is time well spent

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Jared McMillan // Film Critic

ALICE THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS | 112 min | PG
Director: James Bobin
Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Johnny Depp, Helena BonhamAnne Hathaway and Sacha Baron Cohen

Disney has always been about its princesses. The creation of narratives, mainly from previous works, that centered around this premise gave a connection to girls everywhere. However, as much as she is lumped into the princess archetype, Alice is not actually a princess. In fact, she differs from any other “princess” in that she remains independent all throughout her narrative: she is who she is, and her happily ever after isn’t weighted by a relationship.

Her story is about keeping creativity and personality in a stifled world, coming to grips with how to achieve that balance as she transitions from childhood/adolescence to womanhood.

Every adaptation, from Disney’s animated classic to the live-action TV movies to Miyazaki’s SPIRITED AWAY, has kept this essence. Alice’s originality is threatened by the grown-ups trying to force her into their world, therefore she escapes into a world stripped away of reality and responsibility. In this madness however, she finds that she must grow up and face the unknown of her future.

Tim Burton’s version of ALICE IN WONDERLAND was an amalgamous mess when it was released five years ago, leaving everyone confused at what the end game was after the credits rolled. It was whimsical without guidance, beautiful and ugly, and so kinetic in its presentation that none of the story connected well.

Featuring one of the oldest versions of Alice, it took an adult approach to the outer narrative, making the inner narrative of Wonderland seem wholly out of place. Needless to say, the movie made over $1 billion worldwide and jump-started Disney’s mission to create live-adaptations of its animated classics.

Because of its predecessor’s success, something like ALICE THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS was inevitable, as were the collective groans from the online community. The only thing detractors could hope for was that, in the hands of new director James Tobin (MUPPETS MOST WANTED), there would be some semblance of the connection that has happened with previous adaptations before getting the Burton treatment. And, while it makes some mistakes in its storytelling, it’s safe to say that this is a great improvement.

The audience is reintroduced to Alice (Mia Wasikowska), now captain of her deceased father’s trade ship The Wonder (context clue!). After being gone for a year, she comes home to find that her mother sold off their home to the man she rejected, and must sell the ship back to him; this would give them their home back, but Alice would lose her freedom. Cue the trip back to Wonderland, via the looking glass.

Here, she learns that The Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) is fading away: he believes his family is alive, even though they’ve been killed by the Jabberwocky. Alice wants to make him better, so The White Queen (Anne Hathaway) points out that she needs to steal the Chronosphere from Time (Sasha Baron Cohen), and go back to save Hatter’s family, regardless of the possible consequences.

Johnny Depp and Mia Wasikowska return as the Hatter and Alice in ALICE THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS. Photo courtesy of Disney.

Johnny Depp and Mia Wasikowska return as the Hatter and Alice in ALICE THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS. Photo courtesy of Disney.

As evidenced, the core of ALICE THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS is realizing that time is inevitable and cannot be avoided. It’s obvious that some of the same mistakes are there that harpooned the first movie. For one, the weird White Queen/Red Queen arc is something that has to go. There is an obvious representation of how Alice looks at her relationship with her mother, but it does nothing but derail the story.

Also, Bobin and screenwriter Linda Woolverton still have problems with how to converge the outer narrative’s reality with the inner narrative’s imagination, so far as unnecessarily bringing Alice out of Wonderland and into an asylum. And, to be honest, there is so much allegory regarding time that it becomes both ad nauseum and nauseating.

That being said, however, the movie is visually arresting, with a more polished 3D presentation than the previous entry. The set design is completely mesmerizing, especially when the story involves Time’s realm as the interior/setting. The costume design does well to keep an intricacy without going overboard into steampunk. The characters all serve their entertaining purpose, Baron Cohen stealing the show as the essence of maturity and passing.

Furthermore, they did well to beef up Alice’s character and tone down Hatter, painting Wonderland as more to do with her than being its own entity. It’s really impossible to categorize Alice as incomplete or shallow, since all of the characters in Wonderland make up the whole character of Alice. As such, Hatter’s incapability to cope with death mirrors Alice’s incapability to realize the passing of her father.

While the flaws can be a little grating, it never distracts from the whole of ALICE THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS, which is that Alice must cope with the intricacies of life rather than run from them. Both The Wonder and Wonderland are a means of escape, which she can’t do forever. It’s also important to note that she never wavers from the person she is, giving those same children that Disney caters to something to connect with as a viewer.

As an adult, it’s hard not to nitpick when it comes to kids’ movies or family movies, especially with every corny expression or lesson. We’ve become more rooted in reality than our imagination for the most part. Sometimes though, you have to let go of reality and just escape with the wonder.

ALICE THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS opens in 2D and 3D nationwide tomorrow.

About author

Preston Barta

I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.

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