“Alice Through the Looking Glass” Review: You Can’t Change It, But You Can Learn From It
For some viewers, Alice in Wonderland was an inventive synthesis of Lewis Carroll’s literary universe with a bold, new vision that posited it as a distinctly modern film. It was recognizable without being rote, presenting us our old familiar friends with a freshness to match their muchness. I was not among those viewers. I found it to be too dreary to be fun and overly forceful about its “We’re all mad here” environs. Though I loved Mia Wasikowska as Alice, Johnny Depp appeared to be acting in at least three different movies, only one of which was the same one everyone else was making. Depp loomed so largely over the film (he’s not only top-billed, he’s the only cast member whose name appeared prominently on the release posters) that his Mad Hatter felt intrusive. I was, to be generous, apprehensive about revisiting this movie world.
Alice Through the Looking Glass wasn’t left with many of the key elements of its source material that weren’t already used in its predecessor: Tweedledee and Tweedledum, the Jabberwock, and the White Queen originated in the second Carroll novel. So did the Red Queen, who was amalgamated with the Queen of Hearts from the first story. Looking Glass takes place primarily on a massive chessboard, and even that concept was already incorporated into the first film. There are two choices open to storytellers in this scenario: mine lesser characters and sequences, or invent new ones.
Screenwriter Linda Woolverton seized on one key remaining element from Carroll and built her story around it: time travel. Time travel has long vexed me as a viewer or reader whenever I have encountered it. Chiefly, I’ve always been left cold by the idea that things could be retroactively altered, meaning that the only consequences in that storytelling universe are the ones that its characters allow. If you can have one do-over, there’s nothing to say you can’t have infinite do-overs.
Apparently, Woolverton shares my frustration, because the thesis of this story is that “You can’t change the past, but you can learn from it.” Act II is devoted to Alice discovering that having the power to travel into the past does not afford her the agency to alter it. Consequences are real in this world, which is itself a bit curious given that this is a world constructed on absurdity.
After an exciting opening sequence in which Alice captains her father’s ship, The Wonder, and her anxious crew through dark, shallow, rocky waters away from three pursuers, she returned to London to discover that in her absence, the world has changed. Lord Ascot has died, his title — and his power over the business venture shared with Alice — inherited by his son, the nebbish Hamish Ascot whom Alice spurned in the first film. He’s since married someone else, and will now exact his revenge on Alice for her rejection by grounding her to a lowly clerk’s position, and extort her into selling her father’s ship to save her mother’s home.
Enter: Absolem, the caterpillar cum butterfly voiced by the late Alan Rickman, who has come seeking Alice’s help on behalf of the Mad Hatter. He has discovered an artifact from his childhood, the first hat he ever made, which he has interpreted as irrefutable proof that his family survived the attack by the Jabberwocky. Unable to convince anyone else has led him to a state of despair from which no one else has been able to rescue him. The White Queen’s solution is for Alice to travel back in time and save the Hatter’s family from the Jabberwocky, a mission that first requires her to go to the fortress of Time, personified by Sacha Baron Cohen.
Time will have none of these shenanigans, prompting Alice to steal the Chronosphere, which she does in sight of the Red Queen Iracebeth, who has also come seeking the power to alter the past and undo the events that led to her sister Mirana becoming the White Queen, and her punitive exile imposed at the end of the last film. Time pursues her into the past, desperate to retrieve the Chronosphere before its absence causes temporal mechanics to literally stop working.
What is fascinating about the plot device of personifying Time is that this character is not omniscient. He has extensive knowledge, certainly, but he doesn’t seem to know what will happen before it has, which allows for Alice and Iracebeth both to take him by surprise at various times. Sacha Baron Cohen plays the role with the outward appearance of a mustache-twirler, but with surprising nuance. Though publicized as the film’s “villain”, Time is more complex than that. Credit goes to Cohen for his performance, but also to Woolverton for her thoughtful consideration of how we often perceive time in our own lives as an adversary.
Similarly, the Red Queen Iracebeth is also explored in surprisingly softer ways. It isn’t often that we’ve seen a protagonist apologize to an antagonist, but one of the strongest moments in the film presents us with just that. Helena Bonham Carter still brings the volatility that was so central to the character originally, but this time, she’s given more room to go in other emotional places. Yes, it’s still an oversized performance, but within the demands of the narrative’s scale, Carter manages to create authentic emotion.
It helps that opposite Carter is Anne Hathaway as Mirana. Hathaway’s performance is more understated than the rest of the cast, which is precisely why it works. She’s talented enough to convey through a tilt of her head and widening of her eyes what a writer might spend five sentences articulating. Her Mirana is elegant, but somehow not out of place mingling with our cast of misfits.
How sympathetic viewers become of Iracebeth will vary; some will come to see her as having been set down the path she’s traveled by others, whereas others may scoff at the idea of “making excuses” for Iracebeth’s wickedness. Regardless of where we fall on that debate, it’s important to praise Woolverton for writing a story that even challenges us about where there is room in our world for understanding and compassion even for those who have done evil things, and how much allowance we have for the possibility of redemption.
Audiences will leave theaters this weekend comparing and contrasting it with its predecessor, wondering whether the more somber Looking Glass is to the more light-hearted Wonderland what Temple of Doom was to Raiders of the Lost Ark. They will find themselves thinking of other movies: Pirates of the Caribbean (the opening teaser sequence), Return to Oz (Time’s steampunk aesthetics, especially his butler Wilkins), Star Trek Generations (particularly Alice’s final conversation with Time), Back to the Future, Part II (Iracebeth and Mirana traveling back to see their younger selves at a seminal moment), any surely others. They will talk about how the film relates to Lewis Carroll’s novels and whether Linda Woolverton’s inventions are innovative extensions of them or if the film doesn’t feel Wonderland-y enough.
But more than any of this, it is a film that will speak to those who have had to work through their own conflicts with the events of the past that cannot be undone. For viewers who have yet to have those experiences, or who have yet to make sense of them, Alice Through the Looking Glass will likely be a film that they come back to years from now and find themselves appreciating on an entirely different level than they will now.
How Alice Through the Looking Glass Entered My Flickchart
Notice: This is purely my own personal Flickchart. I’m not arguing whether Alice Through the Looking Glass is “better” or “worse” than any of the following; merely that I favored it or its opposition in each match for reasons more complicated than I have space to articulate here.
Alice Through the Looking Glass > American Hustle → #918
I waffled on this one. Both are madcap romps in their respective ways, but for managing to tell a time travel story I actually liked, I favored Alice here.
Alice Through the Looking Glass < Rebecca → #918
There’s certainly no shame in losing to one of Hitchcock’s finest!
Alice Through the Looking Glass > Saving Private Ryan → #688
I’m definitely going to take flak for this one, but I still maintain that without the admittedly powerful D-Day reenactment at the opening, Saving Private Ryan is a thin, frequently generic action movie that gets by more on what it’s about than how it is about it. (Please, no one tell my brother I said this.)
Alice Through the Looking Glass < Bram Stoker’s Dracula → #688
Two fairly liberal takes on Victorian literature here. Alice’s visual effects are solid, but they’re also pervasive to the point that when I drew this match, part of me felt drawn to the pre-CGI aesthetics of Dracula.
Alice Through the Looking Glass > The Killing (1956) → #630
If you’re asking me which is the better film, I don’t hesitate to go with Kubrick’s. The twists and tension throughout The Killing are still compelling sixty years later. Again, though, I was just that taken in by Looking Glass’s themes and exploration of them that I ultimately went with it here.
Alice Through the Looking Glass > Kill Bill Vol. 1 → #602
If I’m being honest, Kill Bill Vol. 1 was a one and done affair for me that I only intend to go back and revisit at some point as part of a greater commitment to studying Tarantino. I kinda already want to go back and re-watch Looking Glass, and that’s atypical for me.
Alice Through the Looking Glass < Stagecoach (1930) → #602
Looking Glass scores points for impressing me with time travel, but Stagecoach’s social commentary was significantly more thoughtful and progressive than I anticipated. That stuck with me.
Alice Through the Looking Glass > Ben-Hur (1959) → #594
This is an unfair match, as I’ve only seen Ben-Hur once and that was on VHS in school twenty some odd years ago. I owe it a proper viewing.
Alice Through the Looking Glass > It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown → #591
Ask me again in the Fall and I may regret this, but ultimately I was swayed by Mia Wasikowska’s performance as Alice.
Alice Through the Looking Glass > The Lost World: Jurassic Park → #589
Oh, Lost World. You’re 19 years old and I’m still trying to understand you. So many things to like, so many things that just lose me.
Alice Through the Looking Glass > The Manxman → #588
I’m in the small camp that favors early, British Hitchcock to later, American Hitchcock works. The Manxman was interesting and compelling, but it didn’t quite leave me thinking about nearly as many things as did Alice Through the Looking Glass.
Alice Through the Looking Glass Entered My Flickchart at #588/1836.