When Tim Burton’s whimsy was at his peak (detractors would call it his worst period), the auteur adapted Lewis Carroll’s seminal Alice in Wonderland. The outcome was a mixed bag: It made a mint at the box office, but it was tough to watch. Burton stripped the story of all darkness and inflated the role of the Mad Hatter to justify the presence of Johnny Depp in the titular role. Add a visual smorgasbord of pastel colors and CGI and you got the longest screensaver in history.
The sequel, Alice Through the Looking Glass, is almost Tim Burton-free (he remains a producer) and all the better for it. Helmed with a lighter touch by James Bobin (Flight of the Conchords, The Muppets), the film is still a frothy version of Carroll’s oeuvre, but at least is streamlined and focused on Alice.
On the verge of losing her merchant ship, Alice (Mia Wasikowska, the obvious protagonist and yet third billed) is drawn again to Wonderland, this time to check on the Mad Hatter who seems terminally depressed. He believes his long lost family may be alive, but imprisoned by Time (Sasha Baron Cohen, dialing it down). Skeptic, but loyal to the end, Alice goes on a quest that takes her to an earlier period of Wonderland’s history, before the Red Queen’s head swelled and the Hatter was a mildly annoying kid.
Since the narrative is more straightforward than in the previous film, it’s easier to get lost in Alice Through the Looking Glass. Even the message (“you can’t change the past, but you can learn from it”) is slightly more sophisticated than “be your own person”. The visuals remain overwhelming, but they are more elegant and related to the story. Time’s lair is even awe-inspiring.
While overall the experience is superior, there are some issues impossible to overlook. Anne Hathaway remains an uninspired choice for the White Queen, and the resolution is as corny as it gets. True, the target audience are kids, but they can handle some narrative sophistication (see Inside Out). Three kooky prairie dogs.
Alice Through the Looking Glass opens today everywhere.