Film Review: Alice Through the Looking Glass (USA, 2016)

Tim Burton’s saturated interpretation of Lewis Carroll’s famed wonderland was nothing short of impressive when it illustrated 2010’s hugely successful Alice in Wonderland, laying out a strong case for cutting-edge 3D tech in cinema – a relatively new phenomenon six years ago. Dubbed “Underland”, the ostentatious gothic fantasy land reiterated Burton’s unrivaled imaginative flair, and with the artist in the Director’s chair we were able to spend a great deal of time gaping at his creation despite a story that was, at best, average.

Things are a bit different for Alice Through the Looking Glass; Burton stepped down as Director and served as a Producer for this one, leaving the chair open for James Bobin, who is best known for his work on Flight of the Conchords and with Sacha Baron Cohen, who joins the cast here as the film’s most interesting antagonist.

Bobin’s appointment adds some much needed heft to the storytelling side of Alice Through the Looking Glass, a very welcome change from the lethargic narrative of it’s predecessor, but how he handles the dazzling visuals feels like a sacrifice – annoyingly rushed, without Burton’s grand focus on immersion. The result is just as unbalanced as the first film, although there are benefits from a stronger focus on more cohesive storytelling, slightly tipping the scales from style-over-substance to substance-over-style.

Australian actress Mia Wasikowska reprises her lead role as Alice, who is much more headstrong as a result of her time already spent in Underland, navigating the oppressive air of aristocracy to head her father’s business on the high seas. An unfair development back in London stops Alice in her tracks and threatens her autonomy, making a return to Underland – facilitated by the caterpillar-cum-butterfly Absolem (voiced by the late, great Alan Rickman) – all the more tempting, setting her off on a mission to save the Hatter (Johnny Depp) who seems to be under a spell of depression stemming from the loss of his family.

Alice’s return to underland has intention behind it this time; she chooses to walk through that mirror, as opposed to accidentally tumbling down a rabbit hole. Her welcome re-entry into this world of eye-candy and impressively fleshy characters is emblematic of the confidence with which she approaches this new challenge, speaking to her growth and also giving Wasikowska some better material to work with this time.

The excessively child-like mannerisms Depp brings to Hatter are still awkward to watch, as is the thinly drawn grace of Anne Hathaway’s White Queen, but the shortcomings of these human characters are balanced with the arresting performances of Helena Bonham-Carter (the Red Queen) and the aforementioned Baron Cohen (who joins the film as Time, a half-man, half-machine overlord of time itself with an inexplicable but well executed German accent).

Time’s importance, both as a character and a concept, anchors the story and provides a platform for poignant muses on memory, loss, and acceptance, diving in far deeper to the meaning of Carroll’s masterworks and proving Bobin’s worth to the franchise. Granted, Alice in Wonderland cribbed much of the material from Carroll’s second book already, so writer Linda Woolverton gets to flex her creativity here as she strings together a story flows despite the source material’s inconsistency.

Baron Cohen’s eccentric Time is a joy to watch and he brings out some much needed attitude from Alice, who must work her way into his steampunk-inflected clock fortress and steal a magical piece of machinery called the Chronosphere, effectively shaking her loose from time itself, allowing her to traverse timelines. The sequence at the fortress is among the film’s finer moments, working an even darker setting into the glossy Underland and keeping the visual standard high, spilling over into new characters which include Time’s brassy henchmen.

The Red Queen’s desire to control time herself presents Alice with the more sinister conflict of the film, but even the complexities of evil are hinted at here with a great little origin story for both the white and red queen, both of whom are petulant children when Alice happens upon them in the past.

Added meat to the overall narrative of Alice Through the Looking Glass works with the dizzying visual spells by the likes of Burton and Colleen Atwood, who provides some incredible costumes. These elements all combine to make a somewhat stronger outing for Alice as part of this re-booted franchise, although there’s still much to be desired seeing as Burton has spread the groundwork for some truly magnificent possibilities, many of which aren’t realised or even started upon here.

Review Score: THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Running Time: 113 Minutes

Alice Through the Looking Glass is out in Australian cinemas on Thursday 26th May through Disney.