Film review – Alice Through The Looking Glass

Alice Through The Looking Glass: a brilliant follow-up very much in the vein of Tim’s Burton’s Alice in Wonderland

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Let me start by saying that the Alice books are perhaps my favourite books of all time. That said, it may surprise you that I am also a big fan of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland from 2010. And now I am a big fan of James Bobin’s Alice Through The Looking Glass.

The reasons I am such a fan of the films are threefold, and laid out below for your reading pleasure.

They are original ideas, not remakes

Lately, I have noticed a lot of remakes coming out of the Hollywood film machine. This is not necessarily a bad thing, although I’m inclined to think there’s not much point in frame-by-frame remakes if it’s just to update the visuals. I much prefer films like Frozen (2013) and Maleficent (2014), which took a well-known story and put a different spin on it. The Alice films do just that.

The fact Alice is grown up nods to the fact that most people will have seen a younger Alice in Disney’s animated film, and there’s no fun just making another version of the same story. Giving depth and a history to characters like the Hatter, Mirana, and Iracebeth brings them to life and builds on the original works, rather then simply mimicking them. Indeed, Lewis Carroll did something similar when he subverted well-known nursery rhymes in his original stories, like Humpty Dumpty and the Queen of Hearts. I don’t doubt Carroll would approve of the scale of the world that has been built on the original foundations that he laid.

Another reason I like subversions or rewritings is that they can be the first step on a path that inspires you to read the originals. No child is going to read Beauty and the Beast after they see Emma Watson as Belle in 2017 because it will tell the whole story. But a child who enjoys the Alice films might be inspired to read Carroll’s original works and will be enchanted, because you can’t help but be. Even in 2016 with social media and all the rest of it.

They really did their homework on the books

Despite its commercial success, many people have said to me that they did not like Alice In Wonderland  and initial reviews for Alice Through The Looking Glass are poor. I sincerely think this is because many people have not read Lewis Carroll’s book and do not understand the extent to which these films are detailed reworkings of the world Carroll created.

Linda Woolverton, screenplay writer for both AIW and ATTLG, peppered the films with references to the books. The visuals also make several references. Take this one from AIW as Alice confronts the Jabberwock:

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And compare it with John Tenniel’s original illustration that accompanied the poem, Jabberwocky, source of the Jabberwock:

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That’s not Alice in Tenniel’s illustration – we don’t know who it is – but the fact Burton took that image and worked it into the story shows the extent to which the original material is woven into the very fabric of the films.

The same level of detail is present in ATTLG. When Alice arrives in the market square, a woman is selling something from a cart. The price is displayed the same way Tenniel’s Mad Hatter prices his hat. When Time crashes into the Mad Hatter’s tea party, he disturbs rocking horse flies, also seen in Disney’s animated Alice and Burton’s 2010 film. Here is Tenniel’s take on the rocking horse fly:

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And when the Hatter movingly says that Alice and him will see each other again in their dreams, that’s a reference to the Red King’s dream in the original book and the question of whether Alice is real or not, which translates to whether or not Underland is real. It’s pleasingly metaphysical.

These are details but they are what makes the films so special, but you won’t get these striking comparisons unless you’ve read the books. If the films are criticised simply because critics are not well-read enough to spot these details, then that will be a great shame.

Alice Kingsleigh is a feminist

In both films, Alice admirably conquers male bias, symbolised by her spurned suitor Hamish Ascot. I thought it would be difficult to top Alice refusing to be married off and instead setting off for adventure at the end of AIW but ATTLG sees her set up a shipping business with her mother, after Hamish – now Lord Ascot – attempts to ruin the Kingsleighs and demote adventurous Alice to a filing clerk. Alice is having none of it, deciding to rival Hamish as an equal rather than work under him, as it were.

While many female characters now feel like they’re stamped out of Hollywood’s Strong Female Character cookie-cutter mould, leaving them two-dimensional puppets to what (most likely) male film producers think ticks the politically correct boxes, Alice is the real deal. Her spirit and capacity for personal growth are her strengths, not an innate or unjustified superpower that could be assigned to anyone. A Guardian review wrote that as soon as Alice reaches Wonderland, the film “abandons its feminist leanings” but this is simply not true. She remains the protagonist, the agent of the story, and the main catalyst of the action. In each film, Alice is the one who decides to use her resourcefulness and her strength of will to see the adventure through. Not only that, but she doesn’t do it for some identikit love interest: she does it for herself and her friends, people that she has formed real relationships with (nevermind that some are CGI).

The film itself

With the above in mind, you won’t be surprised to hear me say I loved the film. From the acting to the costumes to the photography to the story, it all fit neatly into the narrative that the first film set in motion. Part of the driving force behind Burton’s Alice is of course the visual effects, and Bobin stays true to that. It’s very heavy on the CGI and though I personally like that CGI half-light when it’s not trying to be natural, I appreciate some might find it a bit heavy.

Though the story might seem to deviate from the source material in all but name, note that the Hatter was at one point sentenced to death by the Queen of Hearts in Lewis’s book. His crime? Killing time. So Sacha Baron-Cohen’s character, Time himself, is not a completely irrelevant fabrication. His lines are punctuated with word-jokes and puns, my preferred type of humour (I really don’t like humour based on mockery), and his clockwork minions add some harmless slapstick. The rest of the script is suitably wacky.

Mia Wasikowska retains the youthful vigour that made her Alice charming the first time round but here she’s more mature and I was pleased that the end saw her stick to her ambitions with her mother’s help rather than ‘grow up’.

The other (human) characters’ histories are developed as well, adding depth to the film. The Mad Hatter’s family is pretty obviously just a plot device to get the film rolling but there’s nothing wrong with it, though Depp’s Hatter is a little annoying –  I literally had trouble understanding what he was saying on occasion due to the funny accent he puts on – nevermind the fact I don’t much fancy seeing his face after Amber Heard’s case against him for assault.

The story between Mirana and Iracebeth makes sense of the first film’s enmity between the two. Anne Hathaway is a little restricted in terms of screen time, which perhaps not unfortunately limits her balletic hand gestures, while Helena Bonham-Carter clearly has a whale of a time shouting her head off as Iracebeth. The way the sisters resolve their differences – a simple apology – fits the nature of the characters well.

With the Jabberwock already defeated (though he manages to sneak in a time-traveling appearance), this film is more of an adventure than a battle-based story, with a moral based on the question of time and whose terms we grow up on. Again, this parallels the original books, written for Alice Liddell as she grew up and left childhood behind. But the film puts this question in a more adult context as Alice takes her future in her own hands.

It might be wise for Disney to quit to while they’re ahead but I wouldn’t mind another installment in the series. A logical development would be a real-world love interest for Alice and such an opportunity might arise in a future film in the form of Harcourt, played by Ed Speleers. I can well imagine a third film wrapping up the series by mirroring Alice Liddell’s marriage to Reginald Hargreaves, and our heroine Alice Kingsleigh leaving the Mad Hatter and friends behind for good just as Alice Liddell left Lewis Carroll behind when she grew up (which some* have theorised is the driving force behind much of the imagery in the Alice books). But only as long as the production stays true to the heroine and world that has been created. It would be a shame if box office results didn’t allow it.

Overall verdict: 4.5 stars

*Me, during my undergraduate degree.

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