Alice Through the Looking Glass

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The following can be found with a quick search.

a feeling of surprise mingled with admiration, caused by something beautiful, unexpected, unfamiliar, or inexplicable

If Disney and director James Bobin will not remember the particular verses hiding within this one, indispensably childlike word, which can only be felt bouncing on a knee or lying under the stars, then at least you might. “Inexplicable” is the only one of those words that applies to “Alice Through the Looking Glass,” a film that rehashes Tim Burton’s rehash of Lewis Carroll to the point that the lack of wonder is actually discomfiting. Like the movie spread its sick into the hole your wonder used to live in. I can explain how it makes me feel, but not how it was made by thinking human beings.

It makes a mockery of wonderment from the first seconds, in which Captain Alice (Mia Wasikowska) pilots her ship, the “Wonder,” through a storm, turning the mast parallel to the water to escape pirates through an encampment of rocks. “It’s impossible!” someone says. “You know my view of that word,” she replies. Even Tim Burton’s lax standards would have nothing to do with this film and I’d like to think this opening was reason enough: that before even the title card, “Alice Through the Looking Glass” makes the real world a cartoon. Thus, the chance to feel any surprise, any mingling of the unexpected, when she does slip into the playground of lush, green screens, is lost in the first artificial moments when she performs this maneuver on the open water. Even among such absurdities as a time-travelling spaceship, it is one of the film’s more unbelievable sequences.

In Wonderland there is little else for the actors to do but stare into what must have been to them the most intimidating blankness, judging by their statuesque expressions. Occasionally, Wasikowska has Johnny Depp, Anne Hathaway, or Sacha Baron Cohen to stare at, but I’m not exaggerating when I say that nothing else seems to be in her spatial continuum. Here: a doorknob. There: a handrail. Beyond that, she is floating in an abyss, and looks it. Her expression is comatose, her performance, detached. She somehow populates every scene, and yet feels like she had no part in the film.

Since blaming her is inefficient, I’ll take up my complaints with the management.

I struggle to think of one moment in which this film feels like it has a director. “Alice Through the Looking Glass” is flat in every crisp, artificial image, every somehow gorgeously boring background and weightless character model. Bobin strains to capture even Burton’s hedonistic interpretation of Carroll’s world, and without one speck of effort in the position of the camera or the length of shot, in the lighting or in the grounding of the action, everything reads as equal.

This is how Bobin not only defies wonder but actually negates it. His images are more than boring: they are exciting things that turn excitement to bile through their disinterested execution. It’s worse even than a film that looks completely fake, which may at least take its cartoonish fantasy as some plight for the candy of its whimsy. On some alien world or historical foolery, “Avatar” or “300” may take us with some excitement to a foreign place, even if our belief is not so much suspended as abused. But at least they acknowledge us—“Alice Through the Looking Glass” plunders the potential of our computers for its amusement, but never once thinks of the humans that have to watch it.

How can Time’s (Cohen) serene chamber of souls, portrayed as clocks hanging by their chains from an ochre heavens, or Alice’s harrowing adventure to a town scorched by the dragon-like Jabberwock(y), both seem the same and both seem as literally constructed as a life insurance ad? It’s as though the computer hired to render the images was also put in charge of its views and timing, and strained to the best of its circuits’ ability to make what it believes humans must find wondrous. In a spaceship called the Chronosphere, Alice roams the ocean of time, blasting through the foam, seeing images of history in the waves. It has absolutely no power or wit or beauty. Alice is surprised at nothing. She admires nothing. She is an insertion of the audience if there ever was one, and seems to have as little ability to change history as we do.

The story is that the Hatter (Depp) suddenly remembers he has a family. He asks Alice to save them; to do so, she has to go back in time. The problem with this, from a standpoint no more expansive than the pure logic of its written word, is firstly that we aren’t familiar with Wonderland. This means that going back into its past means nothing more than strolling down the block, since we have no baseline for comparison. Screenwriter Linda Woolverton (whose writing credits ludicrously include the stunning Disney animated feature “Beauty and the Beast”) must have realized this, since in every time period Alice somehow pops out right next to someone she knows, whose age tells us that she is indeed in a different time, as though Wonderland were made of only the four or five people she’s met before.

This isn’t my main problem with the time travel contrivance, just the itchy sweater of its logic I have to put on to talk about it. Its crowning inadequacy is in how it establishes one man’s emotions as the fulcrum of a universe, and yet does absolutely nothing to explore them. Even Depp’s ability to over-emphasize a character’s inherent nature does nothing for him when faced with a cast of performers all desperately trying to ape his act. Wonderland becomes a kind of asylum for loud-mouthed ingrates and loopy loons. The one fulcrum of sensibility at its center is not Alice but Time, whose clockwork neck may be the film’s single convincing effect, and whose rationale is the only one you can follow at all. He needs to stop Alice before she destroys the universe for her friend, and he’s never, despite being a manic parody of a German musician, wrong about the stakes.

This could have been interesting—a childlike protagonist bumbling through the airways of time, mussing up universal constants to help her friend, while the ostensive villain is actually an eternal blue collar worker just trying to hold the fabric of things together. It collapses on itself, however, when viewed against the film’s simplistic female independence subtext. Alice is given tough and exertive things to do to prove that she can swing it with the boys, and made to confront a snivelish board of directors about being a female ship captain, a premise the film regurgitates whenever she steps out of Wonderland for even a few seconds. I would like to go off on a tangent about how the literary Alice is as likely a figure for headstrong independent womanhood as Oliver Twist is for savings and shares, but I’m denied even this by the film’s inner inconsistency. While at the same time the drill-bit inscribed with a point about ladies in the workforce grinds its way into our outer skulls, the plot continues to be about a girl whose naïve militarism constantly places the entire universe in jeopardy. Headstrong womanhood really is the closest thing the film has to a villain, when even the bombastic Red Queen (Carter) is relegated to a side role and eventual hasty, superficial reconciliation in favor of Alice’s ignorant, destructive impulses.

When the Hatter asks Alice to believe him that his family is still alive, she says, “But it’s impossible.” Bobin does one thing right by getting us to Wonderland quickly, but it means that Alice scolding her first-mate about that word “impossible” was less than ten minutes prior to her use of it to put down the hopes of her dearest friend for the sake of the plot. Even later she tells him she believes him, not because she does believe in the impossible, but because she has discovered rationally that his family is indeed alive.

Perhaps I should be thankful that “Alice Through the Looking Glass” offers within itself such a precise description of its fallacy. As its wonders are all contra wonder, its protagonist believes in the impossible, only when it is proven. I would be thankful, but I’m still trying to resuscitate my corneas from all this wonderment.

I didn’t see it in 3D but, since no one likes a braggart, that’s all I’ll say on the subject.


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