It’s quite rare that a CGI-infested 3D movie genuinely feasts your eyes, so first and foremost Alice Through The Looking Glass – the follow-on from Tim Burton’s $1bn grossing Alice In Wonderland – deserves praise for looking utterly stunning. Colleen Atwood’s costumes are gloriously over-the-top, and Disney’s finest VFX geniuses have blended their work in with surprising seamlessness to help convey some giant, attention-grabbing ideas as well as quirky background details.
This time, we open with Mia Wasikowska’s Alice out at sea and very much in the real world. She’s a boat captain now, instantly demanding your attention with her inventive problem solving skills and action prowess. One of the criticisms of Tim Burton’s Alice In Wonderland was that the Hatter and his chums overshadowed Alice somewhat, and it’s easy to read this scene as James Bobin (Burton’s successor in the director’s chair) attempting to remedy that right off the bat.
After this effective opening, its not long until Alice finds herself lured back to Wonderland (or Underland, as we’re meant to call it in this incarnation). An all-too-brief cameo from the late Alan Rickman’s Absolem will delight your eardrums around this stage, serving as a welcome reminder of how much the great man could achieve with just a few lines and his instantly recognisable vocal chords.
Linda Woolverton’s screenplay patiently rebuilds the wackiness of this big screen take on Lewis Carroll’s world, taking the time to nod to some iconic fairytales and lark around a bit before getting around to the small matters of villains and plotlines. This is a welcome decision, allowing us to enjoy the company of Alice for a bit before the serious stuff gets going.
The film really picks up when Sacha Baron Cohen arrives. He’s playing the physical manifestation of Time, a baddie who ‘waits for no man’ (amongst other puns) and dresses so ridiculously that he has to have the corridors of his evil lair especially made to allow space for his gargantuan shoulder pads. The Hatter and The White Queen have come up with a crackpot scheme to alter history, and Alice is sent off to nick a McGuffin from Time himself to make it happen.
The exact reasons for this timeline fiddling are perhaps the film’s biggest weakness (they seem a lot like a shoehorned-in excuse for more Johnny Depp, Anne Hathaway and Helena Bonham Carter scenes, even though their characters’ story is already finished), but it’s hard to mind too much when you look at what they enable.
After all, this is the funniest Sacha Baron Cohen performance in years. Time is one of the most inept screen villains in recent memory, and in barking orders at his minions (a troop of equally-naff-at-their-jobs robots called ‘seconds’) he raises a lot of big laughs. He’s so verbose that he carries a little dictionary around, and is so easily lampooned that he’s quickly established as the film’s MVP upon arrival.
Movies like Frozen, Inside Out and Zootropolis have reminded us recently that family films can carry important lessons for young people. And through its presentation of time, Alice Through The Looking Glass stakes a decent claim for a seat at this table. The film uses the zaniness of Sacha Baron Cohen (who gets a terrific manually-operated time machine to himself) and some eye-catching visuals to play with the idea that time cannot be stopped, and that it’s much easier to learn something from history than it is to change it.
Unfortunately, problems do hold the film back. The whole reason the narrative drive kicks off is highly questionable, and – in being shackled to Burton’s Alice In Wonderland by nature of being its sequel – Alice Through The Looking Glass also repeats the same issues that the last film had.
Seeing Johnny Depp pull funny faces and teeter around on his tip-toes isn’t as engaging as it was a decade or so ago, and the novelty factor of Helena Bonham Carter having a massive head has also worn off. Anne Hathaway spends much too much time waving limp fingers around in the air, too. If you weren’t a huge fan of the previous movie, these things seem likely to grate with you as they did with me. But that’s not to say that these characters don’t get a few interesting moments alongside the re-treaded material (the Hatter, for one, gets a great bit near the end).
But still, Alice Through The Looking Glass comes alive when it sticks with its own original ideas. Sacha Baron Cohen raises a chuckle nine times out of ten, the visuals are strong, and Mia Wasikowska is this time given plenty of opportunities to paint Alice as a headstrong protagonist well worth watching. The schtick of Burton’s take still lingers, but there’s plenty to enjoy here.