In retrospect, my mild praise for Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland was guided by an incorrect approach to the material, namely the preconceived notion that the film would be a fairly faithful adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s original novels. Going into Alice Through the Looking Glass, for which Burton stays on board as one of the producers while giving the directing reins to James Bobin, I knew to withhold all expectations regarding faithfulness, and as a result, I was better able to sit simply back and enjoy what I was watching.
And boy, did I ever enjoy it; apart from being a mesmerizing visual extravaganza, aided greatly by its presentation in clear and immersive IMAX 3D, the film tells an engaging story that’s just as exciting as it is heartfelt.
I don’t think it was fair of me to criticize the previous film for swapping Carroll’s literary nonsense with a straightforward fantasy plot. I denied myself the opportunity to see what the filmmakers were aiming for. I didn’t make that mistake this time around. Instead, I fully embraced the fact that the title character doesn’t simply go from one vignette to the next, but actually traverses towards a true narrative climax. I also appreciated that the Wonderland characters had greater significance than simply acting and talking strangely. I have no doubt that literary purists will happily tear this film to shreds. I’ve made my position on such people perfectly clear. No need to repeat myself.
The plot: Alice Kingsleigh (Mia Wasikowska), whose reputation as a free-spirited sea captain in Victorian England is both an embarrassment to her proper mother (Lindsay Duncan) and a way for her former fiancé (Leo Bill) to unleash his vindictiveness, returns to the phantasmagoric Underland through a tall mirror and, hoping to unburden a now depressed and waning Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp), journeys through time in an attempt to prevent his family from dying at the hands of the fire-breathing Jabberwocky. This involves infiltrating the realm of Time (Sacha Baron Cohen) and using one of his devices to create a temporal vortex, despite his warnings against it.
Along the way, most of the side characters from the previous film – real, computer-generated, and a combination of the two – are reintroduced. This would include: The White Queen (Anne Hathaway), who always moves her arms in the manner of a Disney princess but is far from a naïve typecast; the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter), whose swollen head is finally explained; the Cheshire Cat (voiced by Stephen Fry); the White Rabbit (voiced by Michael Sheen); the March Hare (voiced by Paul Whitehouse); the Dormouse (voiced by Barbara Windsor); Tweedledee and Tweedledum (both played by Matt Lucas); and the Caterpillar, now a butterfly (voiced by the late Alan Rickman). We even get one scene with a new character, the easily breakable Humpty Dumpty (voiced by John Sessions).
The film, both visually and narratively, is a triumph of imagination. I was especially enamored by Time and his realm. His towering castle is surrounded by bottomless cliffs that, when viewed at a bird’s eye level, form the unmistakable shape of a clock face, complete with moving second, minute, and hour hands. Time himself, with a priceless voice reminiscent of Werner Herzog, is half man, half clock, his heart and brain a network of cogs, gears, and pendulums. The cavernous halls of his castle are populated by his minions – automatons made of metal parts that scamper around saying, “Tick! Tick! Tick!” They will eventually group themselves and form large metal monstrosities; “Seconds into minutes!” Alice says to herself exasperatedly. Eventually, the minutes will form into an even more monstrous hour. And then, when Alice begins her journey through time, we see endless choppy seas both above and below, and projected onto those waves are periods of Underland’s history.
Alice – and, vicariously, the audience – go into this adventure believing Time to be the villain, a thief who holds can steal lives whenever it so pleases him (his castle has two impossibly infinite rooms, one for the living and one for the dead, and in each, a person is represented by a dangling pocketwatch). But as the story progresses, it becomes clear that he’s really not evil; he’s merely trying to keep everything in balance. Likewise, we learn some surprising things about the Red Queen, all of which indicate that she too isn’t evil so much as angrily lashing out. As for the Hatter’s family … well, I don’t want to give too much away. Let it suffice to say that Alice Through the Looking Glass is an enchanting fantasy film, one I highly recommend you lose yourself in.