In 2009, something unexpected happened: Tim Burton’s film Alice in Wonderland made over a billion box office dollars. Across the entire Disney world, business types likely cheered, celebrated, and tripped all of over themselves to green light a sequel. And that film’s screenwriter, Linda Woolverton, was almost certainly thrilled. But I have to assume there was also a part of Woolverton that greeted the news of a sequel with an “oh shit.”
You see, as the writer for the sequel, she was a little bit screwed. Way back in 2008 or so, Woolverton used the characters and major plot points from both Lewis Carroll’s book Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and its sequel, Through the Looking Glass. Go big or go home, after all, and in the short term, the decision paid off to the tune of $1 billion. Unfortunately, once it was time to write the sequel, there was almost none of Carroll’s original Wonderland-based work to mine. Turns out there’s a reason Carroll’s stories are considered classic, and creating a Carroll-like story is a lot harder than adapting one he actually wrote. Carroll’s tone can seem haphazard, and his characters are bizarre, but his storytelling is intentional and unique. There is a method to his madness, and even in the same world and with ostensibly the same characters, Woolverton cannot find a way to replicate Carroll’s style in Alice Through the Looking Glass. Her saving grace is that the movie was never about the story to begin with.
The premise of the brand new Wonderland story goes like this: as Alice Through the Looking Glass opens, we find that Alice has spent her three years since leaving Wonderland as a successful sea captain. As sometimes happens with young adults, she returns home to find that her ex is causing career and family problems for her. As almost never happens with young adults, she escapes her sticky social situation by traveling back to Wonderland through a mirror after being beckoned by a fantastical blue caterpillar (voiced by the late Alan Rickman). Once there, she’s called upon by her old friends – the White Queen (Anne Hathaway), the White Rabbit (Michael Sheen), the Tweedles Dee and Dum (Matt Lucas), etc. – to help the Hatter (Johnny Depp) save his family. Since Hatter’s own accounts have indicated that his family has perished, Alice has to battle Time (Sacha Baron Cohen) so that she can travel into the past to keep them alive. And adventures ensue.
Visually, the movie is riveting, which is good because the story is not. Cobbled together out of a variety of minor plots and strange back-stories, it lacks cohesion and consistency. It’s almost as if Woolverton knew that her storyline and dialogue were nothing but conduits to bring viewers to the bright and beautiful Wonderland, the special effects of Time’s steampunk realm, and the remarkable makeup, costuming, and CGI that creates characters like Helena Bonham Carter’s Red Queen, the Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry), and the Hatter. The jury is out on whether Hatter’s cheekbones are really Depps’s own. Either way, they’re awfully impressive.
Since the look of Alice in Wonderland was the film’s most significant legacy, maybe it’s alright that that’s all there really is to Alice Through the Looking Glass. For all of the weaknesses in the story, there is enough to it to keep viewers mostly engaged. The attempts in the film to trade in sentiment seem shallow, but perhaps director James Bobin decided to play to the strength of the franchise, such as it is. It might be enough. I’m not traditionally a big fan of 3D or IMAX, but having seen Alice Through the Looking Glass at a 3D IMAX theater, I can honestly say I think it significantly improved my experience. Because the look of the movie is its greatest strength by far, the enhanced visual experience kept me connected to the film in a way that I don’t think the traditional viewing would have. If enough people agree, Disney will once again make a crazy amount of money.
I was struck partway through Alice Through the Looking Glass by how much it reminded me of the kids shows that were on during the 1990s: bright colors, talking animals, both live action and animated elements, and simplistic lessons about family, forgiveness, and friendship. The movie has three hours worth visual appeal and 45 minutes worth of script and story. The average of the two is the end result: two hours of a visually enchanting and singularly expensive children’s program.