Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Alice Through The Looking Glass (2016) - Movie Review

Whether it was listening to the original book on cassette tapes, watching the 1999 TV film version with Whoopi Goldberg as the Cheshire Cat or even playing Alice: Madness Returns back in high school, I have a very ingrained appreciation for the story of Alice’s trip down the rabbit hole into a world where pretty much nothing makes sense. As much as the more logical parts of my brain would like to say otherwise, this appreciation extends to the 2010 film by Tim Burton. It’s one of those rare films where I legitimately don’t care about the plot inconsistencies, of which there are plenty to be found there, and I’m willing to bet that my already-admitted fanboyism for Burton’s work has got something to do with it. Nevertheless, I liked the first film which means that I was probably the only person on Earth who wanted to see a sequel to it, which I also was... initially, at least. Am I going to defend this film as well, or am I going to join the crowd?

The plot: Some years after her last adventure into Underland, Alice (Mia Wasikowska) returns to find that the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) is distraught about his family, whom were killed by the Jabberwocky long ago. Wanting to cheer him up, Alice goes into the domain of Time (Sacha Baron Cohen) to steal the Chronosphere, a device that will let her go back in time and save the Hatter’s family. However, it seems that time is not so easily re-written and Time as well as the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) is catching up to her.

In the six short years since the original film, Mia Wasikowska has gone from an Aussie anomaly trying to make her big break to working with the likes of Jim Jarmusch and Guillermo Del Toro. Words cannot express how nice it is seeing an Australian actor doing good in Hollywood, especially since that extra experience serves her well here. Moving beyond the wide-eyed slothfulness of her previous outing as Alice, she manages to translate the supposed strength and smarts of the character into the film proper this time around. Depp gets a bit more emotional heft than before, but the Hatter was never one of his stronger performances to begin with so it doesn’t translate too well on screen. Bonham Carter is as shrill as ever, Anne Hathaway as wispy as ever, Matt Lucas still checks out as the Tweedles and Andrew Scott’s glorified cameo as the psychiatrist, even with how short it is, leaves a definite impression. And then there’s Baron Cohen, and I’ll be honest, I’m glad to see him in proper form again. He may be getting a little too much mileage out of his French accent, but he does admirably at conveying the haplessly regal demeanour of the personification of Time in this film.

The trailer for this film is incredibly misleading. It gives the impression that the creators might be going for a more psychologically-tinged American McGee approach to the story of Alice, something I was initially quite excited about. Alas, the scene featuring Andrew Scott’s manic doctor lasts about as long as it does in said trailer, and it doesn’t even crop up until a little over halfway through the film. That is not to say that the film itself doesn’t start out well, though. On the contrary, as it appears that new director James Bobin and returning screenwriter Linda Woolverton have gotten a better grasp on the source material than last time. Sure, it starts out on some loud and blaring misogyny courtesy of returning buttmonkey Hamish (Leo Bill), but it ends up ringing a little truer since Alice well and truly asserts herself as a person worthy of such scepticism. That may seem a little harsh, but trust me: Seeing him trying to snark her down to size after the very Pirates Of The Caribbean opening action scene did make me sympathize with her a lot more than the first time round.

Then we get into the story proper involving the Mad Hatter and… okay, please take my opening spiel into account when I say this: This might be one of the better interpretations of the connection between Wonderland and the real world that I’ve seen in one of these adaptations. The way it connects the very irrational notion of proving the Hatter’s delusions right, as opposed to convincing him of anything else, with the epitome of permanency and inevitability that is Time and how it ends up taking all of us shows that they have a definite understanding of the utter illogic that Wonderland (or Underland in this case) runs on.

This then leads into time travel shenanigans, and as much as I want to lambaste any film nowadays that tries to involve such a plot, initial impressions suggest that these filmmakers are aware of the inevitable conclusion of such a venture. Hell, the fact that Alice trying to change the past is framed as the irrational notion that it is is a point in favour of the film. It does end up going down a lot of similar directions as other time travel stories, particularly The Butterfly Effect with the emphasis on past actions and the scene set in an institution. However, I am willing to be fair to such stories because, in yet another notch on my subjectivity bedpost, it plays into the reason why I watch films in the first place. Back when I talked about Love, Rosie, I mentioned the film About Time being recommended to me by my psychologist. What I didn’t mention was why that film specifically: Because I have a very serious issue with dwelling on past mistakes, and that film helped me get through that aspect of my thinking. With this in mind, I have no issue with these stories as I know that, even with their prevalence, they are still useful to some people out there.

That is, so long as the story is told well… and here is where things start to slip. While the film initially starts out promisingly enough, it starts to buckle under its own lack-of-weight around the halfway point. This is largely a result of the film not only having very little sense of direction in terms of its overall story but also because it does end up dragging out its ultimate lesson for far, far too long. We get it: We learn from our past mistakes to become the person we are today; Star Trek did a far better job of illustrating this same point in about half the time with the TNG episode 'Tapestry'.

So, what about the visuals? I mean, even for people who couldn’t stand the first film (of which there are an understandable many), there was still plenty of praise to be had for the film’s visual aesthetic. To be fair, those comments had some rationality to them, as the 2010 film is probably one of the best examples of using a digital backlot to craft a world for the film to exist in, right up there with the film version of Sin City. Well, in contrast to the writing deficiencies, I’d go so far as to say that the visuals are actually even better than last time. As much as I got a real kick of the Burton style garishness of the original, it did end up making the world of Underland feel a tad small. Insert your own joke about cakes marked 'Eat me' here.

With this one, it starts really strong on those grounds with the aforementioned opening scene set on a ship beset by pirates. From there, once we get beyond the somewhat bland Victorian d├ęcor, Underland shows a definite upgrade. From the Hatter’s house to the oceans of time, right down to the Grand Clock itself, there’s a real sense of world-building as well as scope to be found here. I’d call this a shallow victory, given how the rest of the film doesn’t really hold up alongside it, but I can see some legitimacy in watching films purely for visual splendour. Yes, I have railed against photographically obsessed filmmakers in the past (Terrence Malick, Baz Luhrmann, etc.) but I’m not opposed to the idea overall, and this is such an instance… possibly.

All in all, as much as I seriously want to champion this movie, it’s not good. While it shows signs of improvement and more considerable effort being made, it ends up succumbing to a lack of direction and an inability to carve out its own path, instead just following what other films have done before it to abrasive degrees. I’d still argue that there are elements worth seeing here, but with how much of a letdown it ended up becoming, I can’t bring myself to recommend it.

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