Given all of the negativity about Alice In Wonderland, it’s easy to forget that it was the second highest grossing movie of 2010 (after Toy Story), Johnny Depp’s second highest grossing movie as star and Tim Burton’s Highest grossing movie ever. Not only that but it’s the 28th highest grossing movie of all time.
I’m surprised, too.
Flabbergasted, in fact.
I had assumed it limped into the cinemas, limped out again and hidden itself in shame.
A sequel, therefore, was both a surprise and an inevitability.
The problem with Alice In Wonderland – well the problem most people who had read the books stated – was that it bore only the most tangential relationships with the source material. It didn’t even follow the path of the Disney animated movie. It took the characters from Alice in Wonderland, added others from elsewhere in Lewis Carroll’s cannon and came up with something . . . almost wonderful.
The problem was simply that Tim Burton was directing. Well, okay, that’s not fair at all; I’m actually a massive Burton fan, but I’m aware of his shortcomings. Burton will alway always put a good looking scene into a movie regardless of whether it fits into it or not and often at the expense of a scene that forwards the narrative. A lot of his movies are a glorious mess, shot through with visionary brilliance but . . . he has rarely come up with a satisfying and emotional climax – I’ll give you Edward Scissorhands and Big Fish, but often his movies just sort of . . . stop without real resolution.
Add to this, some badly realised CGI and some scenes where the characters appeared to be walking a foot above the ground and . . . well . . . it was a noble attempt but there was so much wrong with it.
Tim Burton, though, remains one of my favourite directors purely because of his visionary, often daring choice of movie and his simply beautiful design. Alice In Wonderland had that in spades!
That said, he didn’t actually direct Alice Through The Looking Glass. He produced it and as such, his influence is all over it – not least his fantastic character designs from the last movie. The direction, though, has been handed over to James Bobin, who made the last couple of Muppet Movies. I don’t really want to dwell on his next movie which is a Men In Black/21 Jump Street crossover called MIB23. No really. I’m not joking.
Alice Through The Looking Glass treads a path that owes an awful lot, not to Lewis Carroll, to Return to Oz. It’s virtually a remake. The veneer may be different but the vibe and the beats are almost identical; the return to a fantasy world, the asylum, the mirroring of real world events, the metaphorical death of childhood and finding peace with those things you cling on to that have long since served their purpose. There is also a good deal of HG Wells in this movie which isn’t a bad thing.
But that makes it sound less than satisfying which it certainly isn’t. It’s surreal, hallucinogenic and very, very sweet with Alice on a mission to find The Hatter’s family, long thought incinerated in a Jabberwocky attack many years ago. Alice, travels backwards and forwards through time piecing together the clues in order to track his family down. We learn how the Red Queen became so horrible and the terrible secret of the White Queen; that Time is a person, part clockwork and that hell is one minute to tea-time. We learn of the tragedy of the Hightopp Family and how that affects The Hatter. We also get see The Hatter’s first hat.
It does stray into the mawkish at times, particularly the saccharine ending, but I can forgive it that as it’s more than balanced out by the rich imagination and visual splendour seen on screen. With CGI having moved on so much on six years, the effects are a lot more mobile, the scenery less static and more expansive than Alice in Wonderland. That can only be a good thing!
Oddly, the least believable part of the movie is the opening ‘real world’ sequence that sees the grown-up Alice being chased by Malaysian pirates. We then see a consequences of the spurned marriage proposal from the previous movie and how that affects Alice’s family. What is simply wonderful is that celebrates the fact that women can perfectly well control their own destinies if only men wouldn’t get in the way! It’s a film about liberation in so many ways; embracing imagination, personal freedom, letting go of the past in order to carve a future…but you’re never battered into submission by the message. It never comes across as ‘worthy’.
New additions to the cast include Sacha Baron Cohen as Time, a physical manifestation of time itself – his character is based on a single line in Through the Looking Glass that refers to time as ‘he’. That’s a hell of an extrapolation from a single word! While Cohen’s performance is erratic at best – with a wildly swinging accent – his kingdom does give us some of the most breathtaking views; the world clock, the gardens of births and deaths and even the cute clockwork robots – the Seconds.
It isn’t perfect, but it is daring, bold and beautiful. More importantly for me, in a world where fantasy has has been forced in the grim, gritty and ‘grounded in the real world’, it’s refreshing and frankly wonderful to have a fantasy movie firmly grounded in the fantastic, absurd and nonsensical.
I kept seeing flashes of Dave McKean’s “Mirrormask” in here, which is never a bad thing, but Alice is a much more satisfying movie. The third act is quite literally “the ticking clock” and the race for time, though not the most original of plot points, does it with such beauty and such élan, it felt fresh. I was genuinely thrilled.
What impresses most is that this is movie that could have drowned in artifice, as Alice In Wonderland did. This doesn’t. Substance keeps it’s head above water for almost all of the time – ducking below water occasionally, admittedly – but swims ashore at the end, safe and sound and rather wonderful.
If you go expected anything approaching Lewis Carrolls work, you’ll be disappointed. If go go expecting a charming fantasy movie, you’ll be right on the money.