Friday, June 3, 2016

Alice Through the Looking Glass movie review.

Within the last three years, we've seen Disney consecutively tackle their animated classics such as Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, and The Jungle Book, reinventing those classic films as live-action reimaginings. It's a trend that looks geared to indefinitely run, with August's Pete's Dragon, and Beauty and the Beast in March being the first of possibly many more. While it may end up fatiguing audiences soon, their great box office success and enthusiastic word of mouth signal that Disney is clearly hitting its marks in all the right areas.

But all that wouldn't be were it not for one film with both great successes and great mistakes to inform their future output: Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland. While a mixed bag for critics that was as much criticized for being dull as it was praised for its visuals, it was a film that benefited from a perfect release date, winning over a sizable audience while also making impressive figures thanks in large part to the post-Avatar 3D boom. That being said, I doubt that even fans of the first film were starving for it to receive a sequel, but leave it to Disney to milk their Johnny Depp cash cow for all it was worth, at a time when the actor is not the once bankable draw he used to be.

So it shouldn't be surprising that with the 3D novelty dying down, opening alongside X-Men, and sour aftertaste of the original lingering that Alice Through the Looking Glass has failed to find the same success, both fixing original flaws while adding onto them with brand new ones.

Three years since ridding Wonderland (sorry, *Underland*) of the Jabberwocky, Alice Kingsleigh (Mia Wasikowska) is now a respected captain within the wealthy business her late father once worked in close partnership with. However, faced with her mother's financial crisis and her former undesirable suitor's bitter vendetta, she soon grapples with the fact that she'll have to turn over her father's ship if she's to keep a stable living situation. However, when a mysterious mirror leads her back to Underland, the whole world is thrown for a loop when the ill Hatter (Johnny Depp) is rocked by demons stirred up by memories of the death of his family, and time is not on his side. Hoping to save the Hatter, Alice will have to travel to the kingdom of Time himself (Sacha Baron Cohen), take an ancient device known as the Chronosphere to the past, but despite her good intentions, may ultimately end up driving Underland to its destruction.

Much like the first film, the main issue with Alice Through the Looking Glass is how it projects the mood and logic of *Wonderland*. With Burton having stepped down to take on Miss Peregrinne's Home for Peculiar Children, directing duties now pass over to The Muppets director James Bobin, who does manage to supply the film with a bit more vibrancy and whimsy than the original, but still suffers from the same inconsistent tone and dull self-seriousness. Much like the first film, Alice Through the Looking Glass struggles to find a proper balance between Wonderland's insanity, and trying to form a certain level of rational thinking. The entire point of Wonderland is that is has no point, and yet it does at the same time, and it's continuously tipped on its head and back again, but Wonderland in these movies are robbed of their unique qualities because they feel so personality free. The whole time the film *wants* to embrace the pure madness and absurdity of the land, but because the film is so predominantly trying to supply the world with some form of consistent logic, it almost feels too high brow and dull to let that be the case, essentially punishing the viewer for wanting to enjoy the oddities. Then again, even when the film does get those shining moments to let Wonderland's madness loose, that's still no guarantee that all of them will be hits, with brilliant touches like Time's army of Seconds and Minutes, yet low points like seeing all of the central denizens as children.

All of your favorite characters (Hahahaha...) are back for the second installment, minus Crispin Glover's superimposed head, so the film is constantly trying to find ways to be able to integrate them all without feeling like space filler. Yet while that's going on, it also has the task of introducing brand new characters, new environments, and new subplots into the mix as well. Time is represented as a half-man/half-clock demigod overlooking all of Underland (man, switching between Wonder and Under is really confusing), and while carefully built up not as a villain but as a neutral and unbiased overseer of the countless inhabitants' lives, the character's general kookiness and sinister touches feel like well-trodden ground for Sacha Baron Cohen, showing shades of his Thenardier from Les Miserables in brief spots, and donning a thick Dr. Strangelove impression (still, it's more subtle than Muppeteer Matt Vogel's accent as Time's lacky, Wilkins). Still, at least Cohen has some actual meat to his character, as opposed to Rhys Ifans in a thankless supporting role as the Hatter's father, or seeing prominent UK talent such as Richard Armitage, Ed Speleers, and Andrew Scott as glorified background cameos.

Even many of the returning characters get a lot more exposure given to them, adding onto their personalities with glimpses into their origins, yet rarely ever for the better. Johnny Depp's incarnation of the Hatter in the first film was a very inconsistent turn for the man, admittedly admirable for the character's fantastic art design, but lacking anything in compelling investment. Somehow, his turn here turns out to actually be worse, which grows especially irritating with the character's thicker lisp, and the man struggling to nail down the character's pathos and humor. Helena Bonham Carter returns simply because the film needed a villain, and while her manic and selfish antics do get a good chuckle from time to time, the film's diversion to The Red Queen's origins are deeply uninteresting stuff, and her reunions with her Les Miserables co-star Cohen prove insufferable wastes of their abilities. Anne Hathaway veers even more into fairy-like melodrama, Matt Lucas struggles to make the Dee/Dum Siblings Jokes' work, and the other voice over actors (including Stephen Fry, Michael Sheen, and Timothy Spall) are shoehorned into various scenes, tagging along for no good reason. Also, despite his name having been prominent in marketing, the late Alan Rickman is unforgivably limited to all of five lines near the beginning of the film, after which he exits the movie entirely.

Sure, on the one hand, it is a highly flawed film with interesting concepts (including the very idea of embracing the gift of time rather than challenging it or fruitlessly trying to alter it) that sadly don't pan out in execution, but on the other, I do find myself enjoying this movie slightly more than the first, and that's mainly because the shackles have finally come off of Mia Wasikowska. If you remember the first film, Alice spent most of her time in Wonderland passively wandering around the world looking bored (perhaps due to obvious uncertainty on Wasikowska's part), amnesiac to the fact that she had ever been there before, making her feel like an overly serious stick in the mud. Now with the character given her previous knowledge back and armed with the experience she had with the first film, Wasikowska is allowed to have much more fun with the role, appropriately letting her headstrong tendencies out in full force, and brimming with infectious enthusiasm and intelligent thinking that gives the film a dosage of severely needed stability, and manages to take your mind off of the admittedly dodgy effects integration.

Not only that, but now freed from the Red Queen's oppression, Wonderland finally adopts more color in comparison to the grey-tinted "grittiness" of the first film, making the already impressive designs feel even more appealing. Just like the first movie, while poorly mishandled in story and themes, it's undeniably impressive in the realm of concept design. The film is a marvel of art-direction, adding more scope to Wonderland with the gorgeous new additions to the production design, applying more varied use of the personality defining makeup, allowing the artists more creative freedom for the new creature and character designs, and giving Danny Elfman another chance to develop and add onto his already majestic main melodies. But like the first film, the movie owes huge thanks to costume designer Colleen Atwood, whose already lavish original stylings are added upon with imaginative and seamlessly matched attention to detail.

I also saw the movie in IMAX 3D, and while it is very effective in the Chronosphere segments, and thankfully doesn't suffer from any noticeable color loss, the rest of the film nevertheless wouldn't lose any visual dazzle if you were to see it conventionally.

While I did enjoy Alice Through the Looking Glass to an extent, and as always the film looks lovely (if a serious step down from Disney's prior The Jungle Book), that still doesn't change the fact that the film is objectively a dud. All arguments over whether or not the film can even justify its own existence aside, in taking great steps to restore actual vibrancy, its attempts at more deeply exploring its characters' psyches are misplayed and underwritten, squandering the numerous talented actors both behind and in front of the camera, but above all, both Alice films have made the most fatal mistake that any adaptation of the Lewis Carroll stories can do: They've made a trip through Wonderland boring.

Not that Disney can't afford two or even three bombs in any given year, but I highly doubt they'll ever be giving this series another glance after the film's box office fizzle. Hopefully their future takes on animated classics don't share the same underwhelming fate...

** / *****

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