Alice Through The Looking Glass (2016)

First published by Little White Lies

There’s no turning back.

Alice Through The Looking Glass opens in 1874, with Alice Kingsleigh aboard her father’s ship The Wonder, being forced by pursuing pirate ships to pass, impossibly, through the rocky Straits of Malacca.

A full year later (with text precisely calibrating time’s passage), Alice is back in London, aged somewhat older than the adolescent whom Mia Wasikowska (now also herself six years older) played in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. She is, as others comment, now very much her father’s daughter, and also back where she started – but things have changed, and she has changed too.

The dull, dastardly suitor (Leo Bill) whose wedding proposal she rejected at the end of the first film has moved on and married another, and is now threatening to kick Alice’s mother (Lindsay Duncan) out of house and home if Alice will not give up The Wonder (metaphor alert!). For while Victorian Britain could just about tolerate in the younger Alice the free-spirited adventurousness and independence that give her her ‘muchness’, those same qualities can hardly be countenanced in a fully grown woman, and indeed are regarded as symptoms of madness and hysteria. And it is not as though Alice can wind the clock back.

Or maybe she can. For, after being guided to a magical looking glass by the butterfly Absolem (voiced by the late Alan Rickman, the film’s dedicatee and another emblem of time’s irrevocable flow) and passing through it back to Underland, she discovers that her old friend Tarrant ‘the Mad Hatter’ Hightopp (Johnny Depp) has sunk into a possibly terminal depression because of unresolved feelings about his deceased father (feelings that mirror Alice’s own for the late Mr Kingsleigh). So it is that she sets about on a hare-brained scheme to travel back in time and stop Zanik Hightopp (Rhys Ifans) being killed by the Jabberwock, despite warnings from Time (Sacha Baron Cohen, hilarious as a highly unusual ‘villain’) that “you cannot change the past, but… you may learn something from it.”

The irony is that even as Alice’s attempts to rewrite the history of Underland are doomed to failure at every turn, once more Linda Woolverton succeeds in her own radical rewriting – not just of Lewis Carroll’s texts, but of the filmographies of the film’s lead actors. If the seas on which Alice sails in the opening sequence resemble visually the waves of time that she will later surf, they also reconfigure the nautical battles from the Pirates of the Caribbean series that conveyed Depp to superstardom in the Noughties.

Meanwhile the elaborate clockwork cogs that constitute Time’s castle, and the ‘Golden Army’ of glowing steampunk robots that do Time’s bidding, overtly evoke (and Disneyfy) the aesthetic of Guillermo del Toro, whose latest film Crimson Peak also starred Wasikowska.

All this revisionism makes the very act of adaptation – the effort to transform past materials into something new – one of the film’s principal, self-conscious dramas. Alice’s mad dash through a parallel universe of Victoriana reveals inventive prequel-like backstories. Time is (literally) against this Alice, and so she is older than Carroll’s version, or even than her adolescent incarnation in Burton’s film – but in her travels through time she encounters much younger versions of Hatter, Tweedledum and Tweedledee (Matt Lucas) and the Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry) – and we also find out how the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) came to have such a misshapen head, how her destructive enmity against the White Queen (Anne Hathaway) had its origins in a childhood dispute over mere crumbs, and how Hatter and his friends came to be caught in an endless tea party.

Director James Bobin, who had previously worked with Cohen in TV’s Da Ali G Show, helped create Flight of the Conchords and helmed the last two Muppet movies, here manages to keep serious themes (regret, mortality) afloat while steering them through some very witty dialogue and beautifully grotesque design work – including the Red Queen’s staff of Arcimboldo-esque fruit folk, disgruntled that their irascible mistress keeps eating their body parts. The reappearance of some characters from Alice In Wonderland – the Dormouse, the March Hare, the White Rabbit, Bayard the Bloodhound and the Bandersnatch – feels like mere fan service, and might easily have been cut. Fortunately ample compensation is offered by new (if ancient) antagonist Time, not just half-man half-clock but also half-grave wizard half-pompous fool. At his comic, complex best, Cohen steals the show – while his Time also ensures that Alice, after several flawed regressions, can finally move on, reconciled to her past and carrying her family’s tradition of female independence forward into new seas and a new century.

Anticipation: Alice in Wonderland was a smart adaptation. No Burton here, though.

Enjoyment: Linda Woolverton’s writing remains sharp, and the production design is wonderfully strange.

In Retrospect: Sasha Baron Cohen’s nuanced comic performance is well worth the time.

© Anton Bitel