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I once believed I could do as many as six impossible things before breakfast.

Alice Through the Looking Glass
(2016)

(SPOILERS) Alice Through the Looking Glass isn’t quite the turkey its critical and box office reception might suggest; it’s certainly more engaging than the torpid Tim Burton original, which rode the crest of Avatar’s coattails to $1bn worldwide on the strength of post-conversion 3D . But, and this is a big but, the motivation motoring this sequel is a real bust, and it means that, for all that some elements absolutely work (Sacha Baron Cohen, perhaps surprisingly given recent form), it entirely lacks the emotional underpinning and pay-off it should. This is largely down to one entirely misjudged ingredient: Johnny Depp.


Or rather, the Mad Hatter. I’m not as down on Depp’s recent career as most (or everyone, if you believe the Internet) seem to be, but the Mad Hatter in the 2010 Alice in Wonderland was an outright stinker as far as the actor’s penchant for eccentric turns go. Up there with his high-pitched Willy Wonka. The problem is only reinforced here, as the emotional journey (literally) is all about him. But the Hatter is inherently unsympathetic, unfunny, and unappealing. His lost family is only important because Alice invests them with importance – no one discussing the matter is able to conjure a shred of conviction about how vital they are   but even given the first film, or because of it, the depth of feeling she holds for the Hatter is mystifying. About the only time the character’s fey English eccentricity proves remotely interesting is when Depp knocks it on the head and briefly turns malignantly Scottish.


So Alice sets off on a quest to recover his kin, which requires her going back through time. And still we wonder why she’s bothering. There’s something of a Shrek Forever After quality to this reflective journeying, by way of Back to the Future Part II, but the passages involving younger versions of the regulars, the Queens et al, aren’t especially captivating, merely a means to assemble familiar faces, albeit with the years pushed back (yet more of the current rage in CGI botox, this time servicing Helena Bonham-Carter).


The quest for the Chronosphere is introduced via some desperately unconvincing and half-arsed exposition, but as soon as Sacha Baron Cohen strolls on the scene, for all the world sounding like ‘Allo ‘Allo’s “French” policeman (if there’s a big screen version, and why not given the rip-roaring success of Dad’s Army, the makers will know who to call), the picture perks up. Time is eccentric, likeable, odd, stupid, threatening, appealing in all the ways the Hatter simply isn’t. Most tellingly so in the one Hatter scene that really works, as Time sits in at a tea party, and the comedy shenanigans’ success are entirely thanks to Cohen’s flawless comic timing.


He’s even wise in a bumbling sort of way (“Young lady, you cannot change the past, but I dare say you might learn something from it”), and something approaching wit surfaces during these sequences (written by Linda Woolverton again, she does better this time); giving chase to Alice, the literal Time implores “You cannot win in a race against Time. Come back. I am inevitable”.


As such, we easily side with Time in respect of Alice’s reckless, selfish (really, since she imperils everyone and is “changing natural law”) desire to help the Hatter; it’s thus appropriate that, come the climax, her scene with Time is resonant in ways the makers surely hoped the Hatter being reunited with his family would be. She says sorry, and even his “and please, do not come back” has the right edge of kindly forcefulness.


Alice is no more successfully established than in the original, so again it’s down to Mia Wasikowska to imbue her with life. The business with Alice becoming a sea captain just doesn’t deliver; it’s the kind of slightly inane female empowerment theme Hollywood thinks will simply because it’s a positive sentiment, rather than because it’s well thought out or motivated. And the interlude in an asylum, where Sherlock’s Moriarty attempts to “fix her” (“Text book case of female hysteria”) may not be alarming, but that’s because the picture doesn’t stand still long enough for the implications to sink in.


But mother Lindsay Duncan’s eventual siding with her daughter actually does have some charge (“Alice can do what she chooses, and so can I”), although it helps that bad guy Leo Bill is such a frightful stinker. I see one review opined “What does this have to do with Lewis Carroll?” Well, since there are no implications of repressed paedophilia in the plot, perhaps that’s no bad thing.


The amount of appropriation from Terry Gilliam is most noticeable, though, even if the results aren’t fit to shines his shoes. From the fixation on Alice not becoming an appropriate, responsibility-bound adult (“This is a child’s dream, Alice”) to the plundering of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen the cogs and sprockets of Time recall the also batty King of the Moon, and the old hatter growing younger before the eyes of the female protagonist is exactly what happened to Baron Anais – you can see the director’s influence on Hollywood, even if he can’t catch a break there.


The director is no Gilliam, though, and the screenplay is both too ungainly and too schematised to settle into something truly involving. James Bobin’s flat, single-plane approach doesn’t matter too much, given how virtually, CGI heavy the whole thing is, and given that his predecessor isn’t exactly the most expressive of auteurs when it comes to camera movements, but it adds to the sense that this is a picture made without much genuine inspiration. It was a cash grab with a third-tier guy calling the shots, or being directed to by the corporate bods.


Alice Through the Looking Glass’ gross hasn’t been sufficient to offset its cost (it made less than a third of the original, although reportedly cost a wee bit less), although it will surely break even and more in ancillaries. But it’s an unnecessary sequel to an uncalled for original that no one especially loved and no one was looking for more of (in terms of which, it’s gross is probably the best that could realistically have been expected). Now what Disney should have done, was take a chance on Tron 3.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

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