A film review by Craig J. Koban June 4, 2016


2016, PG, 118 mins.


Johnny Depp as Mad Hatter  /  Mia Wasikowska as Alice  /  Anne Hathaway as White Queen  /  Helena Bonham-Carter as Red Queen  /  Alan Rickman as Blue Caterpillar (voice)  /  Michael Sheen as White Rabbit (voice)  /  Sacha Baron Cohen as Time  /  Andrew Scott as Addison Bennett  /  Toby Jones as Wilkins (voice)  /  Rhys Ifans as Zanik Hightopp  /  Timothy Spall as Bayard (voice)  /  Ed Speleers as James Harcourt  /  Stephen Fry as Cheshire Cat  /  Lindsay Duncan as Helen Kingsleigh  /  Matt Lucas as Tweedledee / Tweedledum

Directed by James Bobin  /  Written by Linda Woolverton


I wasn't overly enthusiastic upon leaving my screening of Tim Burton’s 2010 adaptation of ALICE IN WONDERLAND, mostly because it failed to stay with me in any significant and lasting manner after I saw it.  The film was a gargantuan global box office success for the director and Disney, making over a billion (that’s a billion) dollars worldwide, which made the chances of a sequel a foregone conclusion.  Obviously, this left me feeling rather lukewarm, if not a bit resistant, to the notion of having to sit through a continuation of the first film that I admired in parts, but nevertheless found coldly antiseptic and lacking in a strong emotional follow-through. 

Oddly enough, I found myself being a bit more won over by ALICE THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS, the six years in the making follow-up (very, very loosely based on Lewis Carroll’s own work of the same name), mostly because it does what decent sequels should do.  It surprisingly segregates itself apart from its predecessor and takes the characters and storylines in new directions.  ALICE THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS, perhaps even more so than the first film, is an absolute triumph of art and production design.  Beyond that, the individual performers themselves seem more actively engaged and comfortable amidst all of the artificial fakery that surrounds them, which makes the underlining story of this film simmer with a bit more interest this go-around. 

This is especially true of the film’s titular heroine herself, and Mia Wasikowska seems considerably more at ease and substantially less stiff and mannered in playing her iconic character for round two.  The film opens with a wonderfully envisioned sequence set at sea, showing the slightly older and more mature Alice commanding a vessel of her own, much to the chagrin of her mostly male crew.  Apparently, she has spent her last post-Wonderland three years exploring the world on the ocean, only now to return back to London to make some rather disastrous discoveries.  He ex-fiancée Hamish (Leo Bill) has somehow gained financial control and a stake in her family’s property, and orders Alice to abandon her sea-faring days to take a lowly clerk job under him to keep her family estate intact.  Of course, this devastating turn of events has left Alice bitter and confused…if only she had some manner of escaping her harsh reality and into a vastly more inviting one? 



Rather conveniently, Alice is able to yet again make a magical pilgrimage back to Wonderland via a mirror that serves as a nifty teleportation device.  She quickly hooks up with the same strange menagerie of colorfully eclectic friends that she met during her first experience there, but all is not well upon her return.  It appears that the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) is dying and having great difficulty trying to come to grips with the fact that his estranged family has apparently been killed…or were they?  With the guidance and assistance of the White Queen (Anne Hathaway, acting…a lot…with…her…waving…hands), Alice realizes that the only way to solve the puzzle of the Hatter’s family’s disappearance and to get the former back on the right mental track is to time travel back to the past and set things right.  She must first secure a Chronosphere (time travel machine), but she has to take one without Time himself noticing (played by an unpredictably lively Sacha Baron Coen).  When Alice does make her temporal journey she discovers that dealing with the Hatter’s family is more complicated than she predicted, especially when new information about the evil Red Queen’s (Helena Bonham-Carter) upbringing in the past and team-up with Time in the present creates added barriers that impede Alice’s mission. 

ALICE THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS is inordinately inventive as far as its rich visual tapestry is concerned and has ample fun in envisioning its otherworldly sights.  Time himself is shown as a bizarrely macabre hybrid of human and steam punk-inspired machine, whose own inner workings resemble that of the immensely intricate inner workings of a clock.  The realm that Time resides over is a bravura series of awe inspiring set pieces, which taps into how Carroll’s own literary world felt both inviting and frightening at the same time.  Sacha Baron Coen brings the right level of mysterious peculiarity to his antagonist (who sounds an awful lot like a kookier version of director Werner Herzog), who controls everyone in Wonderland, which are represented in his dominion as a series of thousands upon thousands of golden pocket watches that he can pluck down and stop at any give moment.  If anything, Time is a creepy and dangerously powerful entity in ALICE THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS that holds every human life in his nefarious grip. 

Carroll’s topsy-turvy world has more moments of mischievous cleverness, especially with the design of the Chronosphere, which looks like a cross between a brightly illuminated Christmas tree ornament and something right of the mind of Jules Vern.  When Alice pilots it through the past itself, time takes the form of vast ocean ripples with each wave showing a visual preview of what era is contained within.  Now, when paradoxes are caused by any denizen of Wonderland (there’s a built in caveat that if anyone from it sees or comes across their younger selves in the past then it would destroy their universe altogether) their entire world and existence begins to eerily rust over like a massive and quick spreading virus, which is as unnerving as it appears in the film.  That’s not to say that ALICE THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS is aggressively glum, dark, and gothically imposing (like much of Burton’s realization of Wonderland in the first film).  New series director James Bobin (replacing Burton, having previously made the last two very enjoyable MUPPETS films) presents an Alice adventure that’s a bit more appealingly brighter, less violent, and more compellingly self-contained.  ALICE THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS is obviously trying to mimic the aesthetic that Burton established, but Bobin seems to have a better knack for infusing this new installment with a greater sense of visual dynamism and a more jovial spirit. 

Complimenting the overall preponderance of green-screened computer rendered imagery is the film’s added dimension that it gives individual characters this time.  Deep as the Hatter has more of an involving melancholic arc, succumbing to a deep depression due to old family emotional wounds.  Even side characters like the White Queen and the Red Queen have their back stories embellished more, as we see how some seemingly inconsequential events ended up having seismic impacts on their future psychological well being.  Most importantly, Alice herself seems more headstrong and determined now, and ALICE THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS finds interest in further exploring the notion of an 18th century woman that’s enslaved by the misogamy of her times, but uses her adventures in Wonderland to become a more assured being that emancipates herself from such societal shackles.  These are good and worthy themes for young female viewers, especially in a genre that’s been populated by male characters for decades. 

ALICE THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS will not convert die hard Carroll-ites into the fold (it takes a lot of liberties with the source material), not to mention that the film still has many of the same irritants of its antecedent (like the shrill nature of Bonham-Carter screaming every line of dialogue to audience numbing effect).  Still, this movie feels more actualized and intriguing than what came before it, and its BACK TO THE FUTURE styled time travel elements add new layers of exciting intrigue to this fantasy world, allowing for it to simultaneously serve as both a prequel and sequel.  That, and there’s a bit more actual wonder in this version of Wonderland.  The level of unbridled conceptual imagination on display here is too commendable to simply write the film off (as far too many other short sighted critics have done) as a completely worthless write-off.  

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