Oh Lordy, that sinking feeling when a movie rips out the heart and soul of a much-loved story and scrapes it bare in the search for profit…
Given the unreal success of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, it was inevitable, I suppose, that Disney would head straight to its sequel, Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There. But Alice Through the Looking Glass is a heartless adaptation. The poignancy of Lewis Carroll’s moral lesson on how precious time is becomes lost in a CGI-fest that’s all spectacle and no soul.
Set a few years after the first story, Alice (Mia Wasikowska) finds herself back in the mysterious, magical Wonderland – ostensibly to start time-travelling through the childhood lives of those characters we have already come to know so well, such as Helena Bonham Carter’s and Anne Hathaway’s feuding royal sisters – in order to save the wilting Mad Hatter (played once again by Johnny Depp).
But this story should be working on another level – that Alice must learn that time cannot be manipulated, that it is precious and valuable, and given that it is only temporary, we must celebrate and enjoy the time we have with those we love. It’s a tender, touching lesson to learn. Only that poignancy is lost in a film that tries to be a rip-roaring pedal-to-the-metal action adventure from director James Bobin (Tim Burton choosing to produce instead) and ends up being actually quite dull.
That’s not to say that this film is unendurable. It is saved by its stellar supporting cast. Helena Bonham Carter and Johnny Depp are as wildly wonderful and brilliant in their eccentricity as they were in the first film. (We’ll just gloss over Anne Hathaway here.) And new joiner Sacha Baron Cohen is terrific as the personification of Time, bringing out as much wit and tendresse as he can from the lines he was given. And even though Andrew Scott is only in it for a brief moment, well, that guy can do anything…
But here’s the thing. Even in those compliments, we’re having to acknowledge yet another problem with the film – the supporting cast have to be good because the main character is such a vacant, hollow shell.
Mia Wasikowska gives it her feisty best as Alice but there’s so little depth or complexity in the script from Linda Woolverton to work with. There’s no doubt in Alice, everything she does she seems to get right first time – no matter how impossible the task. Not that the ferocious pace of the film allows any time for Alice to have moments of anxiety or failure, which would give us something to work with. When Alice isn’t evading pirates in her storm-beaten ship, she’s dodging the fire-breathing Jabberwocky. And when she isn’t desperately trying to cling on for dear life to the moving hands of a giant clock, she’s rushing to back to the origin of time with the missing piece that will stop the whole of time caving in on itself.
If only this film had taken its foot of the pedal a bit, had given Alice space to breathe, we would have had a far more engaging central character. And a far, far better film.
So, where does this leave us?
Well, ultimately the criticisms probably won’t matter – such was the success of the first film that, no doubt, this will follow suit. And, to be fair, if it ain’t broke, why fix it? Despite a change in director, the film still looks and feels much like Alice in Wonderland.
But there’s always the hope of diminishing returns, that maybe a mix of a lower box office and the poor critical reception will get producers more willing to invest in the screenwriting as much as the visuals. In films generally, we’re still on shaky ground with producers being willing to front films with female leads. Please let’s not let them flounder in weak films. We don’t just need female lead characters; we need these characters to be fully fleshed out and believable.
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