Critics must be living in a topsy-turvy world befitting of Lewis Carroll’s imagination, because James Bobin’s Alice Through the Looking Glass is the rare blockbuster sequel that recognizes the shortcomings of its predecessor and makes damn sure to avoid repeat offense. Tim Burton’s heinous Alice in Wonderland is a meandering, CGI saturated wallop of a sucker punch that features more of Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter than its titular heroine, played resplendently by actress Mia Wasikowska. Here, Wasikowska’s Alice is center-stage, fully invested in what matters most to her: her career as captain of her late father’s ship as she paves oceanic trade routes for England in the Far East. Alice Through the Looking Glass is a full-fledged feminist adventure that features nuanced villains and heroes all seeking some form of penance and reconciliation. The plot contains character repercussions that are as emotionally affecting as they are critical to the progression of this series. With a pinch of Pirates of the Caribbean’s spirited energy, Alice Through the Looking Glass is a rollicking time at the movies that I find difficult – and frankly troublesome – to be viewed as anything less than carefree fun.
The film takes place three years after Alice journey’s back to London following her conquests in “Wonderland” – now corrected as the hidden realm of “Underland.” We find our headstrong protagonist returning home after a successful voyage to China only to be heartbroken upon arrival. Her mother (the immeasurable Lindsay Duncan) has sold her shares of the trading company to save the Kingsleigh estate, putting Alice out of a job while leaving her father’s legacy and prized ship in the greedy hands of her rapacious former suitor, Hamish (Leo Bill). Devastated by the prospect of abandoning her dreams and being reassigned a vocation more “suitable” to her gender, Alice locks herself away in an empty room to grieve in solitude. As fate would have it, Alice has stumbled into a bedchamber coated with magic. After spotting a lurking Absolem (the late Alan Rickman) in post-chrysalis phase, Alice notices a distorted, liquid-like mirror hanging above the bed that’s clearly a portal to Underland. With nothing to lose, Alice sees no reason to forgo an opportunity to reunite with her fantastical friends, and thus the tale takes off!
Underland has transformed into a garden paradise now that the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) is no longer the evil ruler at large. With waterfalls and lush forests extending for miles, surely this upside-down world is as peaceful as it appears. Not so, say Chesire (Stephen Fry), Mirana the White Queen (Anne Hathaway, once again hilariously spoofing pretentious nobility), Nivens McTwisp/The White Rabbit (Michael Sheen), Dormouse Mallymkun (Barbara Windsor) and Thackery Earwicket/The White Hare (Paul Whitehouse). Apparently, Tarrant Hightopp, a.k.a the Mad Hatter, has secluded himself inside his house indefinitely after his friends refuted his claims that the Hightopp family was still alive. Thought to have been engulfed in flames by the Red Queen’s pet dragon, Jabberwock, Hatter believes he has stumbled upon evidence of their survival among the brush fire remains. Depp’s tear-filled performance as Hatter is beyond heartbreaking – you witness his optimism slowly evaporate each time one of his companions responds with skepticism, the light in his eyes gradually dimming to nothingness while his hair rapidly grays by the minute. A wounded heart is affecting Hatter’s health, and soon Alice finds her most trusted friend on the brink of death, with time being the only thing keeping his life intact. Vowing to find evidence of the Hightopp’s fate, Alice tasks herself with confronting the Time Master (Sacha Baron Cohen) for the answer she requires.
Baron Cohen’s Time is less mustache-twirling venomous than you’d expect from someone whose base of operations is a gothic clock tower fortress. Cohen’s buffoonery isn’t quite at the level of his similarly drawn antagonists from Hugo and Les Misérables. This turns out to be a blessing since we’re finally privy to the vulnerability buried deep beneath Cohen’s facade of absurdity. Time is burdened with the most difficult filing job in the known universe, though organizing the passage of singular moments proves near impossible when Alice steals the Chronosphere, a device used to travel to any point of time at one’s choosing. Sure, it sounds like a silly MCU contraption with cataclysmic ramifications if used irresponsibly, but in this case the Chronsphere holds valuable character significance. Traveling back through time and turning back the pages of history soberly demonstrates that pure evil doesn’t exist — it’s sprung about by a multitude of factors that climaxes via trauma. The Red Queen’s origin story is what I’m referring to, and the impact of such discovery completely reformulates all assumptions made regarding her “absolute” maliciousness. Helena Bonham Carter provides texture to a formerly one-dimensional laughing stock of a villain. Moreover, the character’s complex relationship with Hathaway’s White Queen churns out a compelling family dysfunction subplot that enriches the world-building of Underland.
I was an ardent defender of Linda Woolverton’s progressive Maleficent screenplay, and the same is true for this script. Passing the Bechdel test with flying colors and prioritizing female-female bonds above fairy tale heteronormative romances (of which there are no definitive ones in the film) separates Through the Looking Glass from both its predecessors and peers. Wasikowska and Depp cast an even deeper spell of affection since they’re no longer beholden to the tourist/tour guide dynamic of the first film. It’s been a fantastic year for the “mouse house” already, so please don’t let anyone fool you into believing James Bobin’s Through the Looking Glass is the first stain in the royal gown. Humming with visual inventiveness and reformist storytelling, this latest trip down the rabbit hole is just what spring ordered.
Walt Disney Studios’ Alice Throu