“Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” was the title of a 1974 Martin Scorsese film, whose plot had nothing to do with Lewis Carroll’s work. Nor indeed, does Alice live in either of the films based on Carroll’s books that have been made in this decade: Tim Burton’s misconceived 2010 version of “Alice in Wonderland,” and now, “Alice Through the Looking Glass,” directed by James Bobin, whose resume includes two Muppets movies.
Undeniably, there is a protagonist named Alice in Bobin’s film, and she gets involved in adventures in which she meets most of the characters who people Carroll’s books. But it’s not Carroll’s Alice who lives in these movies. The reason is that neither Bobin’s nor Burton’s films provide her with a cinematic home that succeeds, even minimally, in putting on the screen the wonder, wit and complexity of the two literary masterpieces, to which one can return time after time. Indeed, watching these two movies makes one want to shut the door on them and never see them again.
If Bobin’s film is less disappointing than Burton’s, it’s because Lewis Carroll’s creation would seem to be the perfect vehicle for cinematic adaptation by the director of “Beetlejuice,” “Edward Scissorhands,” the first two Batman movies and even “Ed Wood.” These are movies that depict a continuous parallel reality by means of cinematic inventiveness as idiosyncratically wild as it is poetic. Yet, the result of Burton’s encounter with Carroll was the filmmaker’s most meager work, even if the most visually spectacular. The disparity between image and substance left an unfilled void.
Carroll’s works are susceptible to so many interpretations that intelligent filmmakers, one would think, need only reach into the bag of possibilities and choose those that are likely to generate a successful cinematic result. But reality has proved the opposite. “Alice in Wonderland” has spawned numerous film versions, and “Alice Through the Looking Glass” has fewer screen adaptations. But the film has not yet been made that serves Carroll’s work adequately. Possibly it is the abstract, highly suggestive nature of the two books, along with the numberless interpretations that have been foisted on the works, which act as a barrier to the creation of successful film adaptations. Both Bobin’s and Burton’s movies were written by Linda Woolverton. In the earlier work she wrongheadedly invented a new plot for the Carroll story, with a heroine different from the original, and this time she has made an even bigger mistake.
Fewer film versions of “Alice Through the Looking Glass” have been made, both because the book is less well-known and less beloved than its predecessor, and also because its impelling narrative is even looser than that of “Alice in Wonderland.” In the conception of Woolverton and Bobin, like that of Woolverton and Burton in the earlier work – which the new one draws on completely – “Looking Glass” called for a new plot. But that plot is derived from so many sources, in addition to Carroll, that his work seems to almost disappear into the film like the grin of the Cheshire cat (in Burton’s film). Bobin’s film is uninspired, and its conservative messages connect it more to “The Wizard of Oz” than to “Alice Through the Looking Glass.”
That would be acceptable if the film had a little of the wonder, grace and joviality of “Oz.” The fact that the ship that Alice, who is now twenty-something, captains at the start of the film is called “Wonder” does not atone for this lacuna. Wonder cannot be imposed, it must spring from within. Bobin’s movie, which lacks any sort of captivating lightness, sprawls across the screen in all its glossy spectacle as though suffocated by the spectacle itself and dying a lingering death within it.
Time as character
Two of the plot elements pose serious challenges to a gifted filmmaker. One is the fact that this time, Alice enters a parallel reality through a mirror, a concept that entails a more fraught and more demanding cinematic image than the rabbit hole into which Alice falls in “Wonderland.” The second is the fact that one of the key characters in the film is time. That could have been the wellspring for a fascinating cinematic challenge. But Woolverton and Bobin make use of the two elements without the creative intentionality that’s necessary to enrich the film.
Many of the characters and actors from Burton’s film reappear. The major device that drives the plot is the attempt by Alice (Mia Wasikowska) to enter the past in order to discover the roots of the depression into which the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) is plunged. To realize her journey, Alice meets Time (Sacha Baron Cohen), who has in his gloomy palace an instrument called a Chronosphere, which Alice needs. The Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter), who was expelled from her kingdom but who returns to the plot thanks to time travel, and the White Queen (Anne Hathaway) are also fighting over the instrument. This aspect of the narrative is not developed with greater sophistication than can be found in any action film whose plot contains a prop that the good guys are trying to prevent from falling into the hands of bad guys who are trying to seize control of the world.
Of course, there are also lovely moments in the film. These include some brilliant ideas of design (particularly in Time’s kingdom) and costume (even if most of the costumes appear to come from Burton’s film), as well as a few ingenious script devices. It’s also enjoyable to hear the expressive voices of a number of British actors, including Timothy Spall, Stephen Fry and the late Alan Rickman, to whom the film is dedicated. But all this is insufficient to make “Alice Through the Looking Glass” take off. It seems to be stuck in its one and only mission: to repeat the huge financial success enjoyed by Burton’s film despite its cool critical reception. Everything in “Looking Glass” appears to be over-calculated to achieve that goal. The result is that all the potential vitality evaporates and it collapses under the weight of its calculated moves.
The actors, too, are allowed a very limited range. Helena Bonham Carter is quite amusing, but repeats the same role she played in the earlier film, as does Anne Hathaway who gleams as the White Queen. Johnny Depp, whose role is central but whose appearances are few, adopts the same visual gestures as he did in the 2010 film. Mia Wasikowska, who is burdened with the task of representing the Victorian woman whose character bears a feminist message for her time, is barely able to cope with that message, given the glaringly weak script. The result is that her performance, which should have been a colorful center of the film, is pale.