Friday, May 27, 2016

Alice Through the Looking Glass: Not such a much

Alice Through the Looking Glass (2016) • View trailer 
3 stars. Rated PG, for fantasy peril

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.27.16

This film conclusively demonstrates that it’s extremely difficult — if not impossible — to replicate Tim Burton’s signature brand of whimsy.

Mere moments after having traveled through the looking-glass, Alice (Mia Wasikowska)
clumsily triggers a crisis that "all the king's horses, and all the king's men" will have to
repair. Which is par for the course, for this film's dim-bulb Alice.
It’s not merely a matter of Burton’s directorial finesse; he’s also a shrewd judge of source material, and how it should be shaped. Either he carefully selects equally talented screenwriters, or he’s actively involved in how a script reaches its final draft; either way, the result — time and again — is weirdly droll, oddly endearing and invariably, if improbably, entertaining.

And — here’s the important part — meticulously structured, and consistent within its own fantasy universe.

None of which can be said about Alice Through the Looking Glass. Linda Woolverton’s script is a mess; her slapdash plot begs, borrows and steals from sources as varied as H.G. Wells, Frozen and the Back to the Future trilogy.

James Bobin’s direction is uninspired and lifeless. Somebody apparently thought he’d be right for the job, on the basis of his having helmed the two most recent Muppets movies. At the risk of stating the obvious, human characters need more directorial guidance than Muppets, who get most of their personality from their unseen “muppeteers.” Alice (Mia Wasikowska) and her various co-stars get very little guidance here.

Granted, this sequel to Burton’s Alice in Wonderland looks equally fabulous. Dan Hennah’s production design is opulent, imaginative and richly colorful: no surprise, as he’s a veteran of all three Hobbit chapters. Oscar-winning costume designer Colleen Atwood is a carryover from the first Alice, and her efforts here are equally creative, often amusing and sometimes flat-out beautiful; Alice’s kimono-style outfit is particularly fetching.

And, yes, the special effects are excellent, if overused ... and that’s part of the problem. As just one example, Bobin wastes an awful lot of screen footage with repeated sequences of Alice sailing through the “oceans of time,” and repetition does not make such journeys more interesting. Quite the opposite.

To make matters even worse, the film was subjected to after-the-fact 3D effects. Aside from being superfluous, the result — as often is the case with “fake 3D” — mutes colors and darkens the final product: most noticeable during Alice’s encounter in the sinister Castle of Time.

Hennah must be frustrated, having worked so hard on his production design, when we’re unable to fully appreciate his efforts.

As for the story...

Bobin and Woolverton stumble immediately, with a prologue intended to explain Alice’s lengthy absence from Wonderland, since the previous film: She has been in the real world, captaining one of her father’s merchant ships during what turned into an extremely lengthy sea voyage. This unwieldy sequence feels as if it wandered in from the next chapter of Pirates of the Caribbean, and the notion of 19th century sea dogs cheerfully taking orders from a young woman stretches credibility way past the breaking point.

Events back home have gone astray, with Alice’s mother (Lindsay Duncan) at the financial mercy of the smarmy Hamish (Leo Bill), jilted by Alice in the previous film. Frustrated beyond measure, Alice locks herself in an upstairs study and discovers that the large portrait mirror on one wall is a portal; she therefore abandons her mother (!) and returns to the realm where she had so many exciting — and dangerous — adventures.

Rather confusingly, this is Underland, rather than Wonderland. Not sure why, and it definitely doesn’t spring from Lewis Carroll.

All of Alice’s friends are present, save one; the merry, mischievous Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) has lost his “muchness,” and is pining away in his hat-shaped abode. He has fixated on the notion that his parents and siblings, believed to have been killed long ago by the ferocious Jabberwocky, actually are alive ... somewhere. He begs Alice to find them, which she initially insists is impossible (something Alice never would say, as we’ve been reminded during the pirate prologue).

The solution to this mystery involves journeying into the past, by “borrowing” the chronosphere that powers time itself, and can be found within the castle citadel overseen by Time (Sacha Baron Cohen). But this is an extremely dangerous proposition, cautions Mirana, the White Queen (Anne Hathaway); one must never meet one’s younger self, lest time be brought to a dead stop, destroying the entire universe.

Alice nonetheless accepts the challenge.

Her initial encounter with Time is quite entertaining. Cohen is deliciously imperious, albeit given to caustic quips, and his mechanical clockwork minions are adorable. Time is a great sort-of-villain — his pun-laden visit to the Mad Hatter and March Hare’s continuous tea party is hilarious — but, sadly, his role diminishes as the story proceeds. That’s a sad waste of Cohen’s talent, and the film’s third act sags without his vibrant presence.

Alice eventually makes numerous time-hops, journeying ever further into Underland’s past. This affords endearing glimpses of her wacky friends: the Mad Hatter’s childhood self (Louis Ashbourne Serkis), and — most particularly — little Tweedledee and Tweedledum (both played by Matt Lucas).

At this point, though, Woolverton’s script errs seriously, with a retcon of Mirana and the shrieking, self-absorbed Queen of Hearts (Helena Bonham Carter): a shameless lift from Wicked and/or Frozen. Now introduced as mildly antagonistic sister princesses, we learn how young Mirana (Amelia Crouch) was indirectly responsible for the incident that gave young Iracebeth (Leilah de Meza) her huge head, which in turn made her grow up to become a vengeful shrew.

The goal, apparently, was to soften our opinion of the adult Iracebeth: a glaring mistake. The Queen of Hearts ceases to be interesting, or entertaining, once we glimpse her newly revealed “fragility.”

This back-story also sours our opinion of the adult Mirana, who was so virtuous and noble in the first film. But that’s par for the course in this sequel, where poor Hathaway does little but flutter her hands from one scene to the next.

Woolverton’s worst offense, though, is transforming Alice into a feeble buffoon who repeatedly causes more harm than good. She’s clumsy, careless and clueless (which is utterly at odds with the resourceful Alice in the pirate prologue).

The worst example comes when Alice, having determined that she must be at a particular spot at a specific time, in order to prevent an incident that triggered a chain of future events with lamentable consequences, allows herself to be distracted and led away from the site in question.

That’s just nuts.

The Alice in Burton’s film often was astonished by all manner of Wonderland strangeness, but she confronted each challenge with courage, resourcefulness and intelligence, up to her climactic battle with the Jabberwocky. This sequel’s Alice is exactly the opposite: frequently helpless and hapless, stumbling from one incident to the next, unable to take control.

In short, she’s a poor excuse for a heroine; she’s also the least interesting character in this tapestry. Both are fatal flaws, in a story of this nature. No surprise, then, that Wasikowska hasn’t the faintest idea how to play the part this time around.

Carter’s waspish Queen of Hearts is wickedly amusing, at least initially; Carter’s temper tantrums and nasty wisecracks are delightful. It’s also nice to hear Stephen Fry, Michael Sheen and Alan Rickman once again voicing, respectively, the Cheshire Cat, the White Rabbit and Absolem (the blue caterpillar/butterfly). This is, alas, the very last time we’ll hear the late Rickman’s rich, distinctive voice.

Danny Elfman reprises the scoring duties, but even his work is uninspired; he relies too heavily on the first film’s primary “Alice Theme,” adding little in the way of fresh character melodies.

I’ve no idea why Burton restricted himself to co-producing this sequel, but his directorial absence is catastrophic. This new film feels driven solely by commerce — the first Alice having grossed $334 million in the States alone — and not at all by artistic considerations. The result, as often has been the case with ill-advised sequels, is deeply disappointing.

Which is pretty ironic, given that Carroll provided a ready template, if all concerned had merely followed it.

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