Thursday, May 26, 2016

Review: "Alice Through the Looking Glass"

I quite loathed 2010’s “Alice in Wonderland,” but here’s a pretty penny.

This sequel with only a tertiary connection to Lewis Carroll’s second Alice novel manages the rare feat of significantly outshining its predecessor. If the first film was “an exercise in cynical regurgitation,” to quote some meanie critic (*ahem*), then this movie gleefully tosses the books aside for its own freewheeling cogitation on the characters and dizzying world Carroll created.

“Alice Through the Looking Glass” is, dare I say, an exercise in audacious originality.

Screenwriter Linda Woolverton is back while director Tim Burton is not, and it pains me to say that his shifting to a producer role is undoubtedly for the best. Burton has worked with star Johnny Depp so much that he seems to have lost the ability to reign in the actor’s kookiest impulses, ceding the storytelling process to his latest costume-and-accent fetish.

In the last movie, Depp’s Mad Hatter character was a discombobulated mashup of emotions and loony behavior, a coy nincompoop one moment and a sword-wielding war machine the next. Even nonsense needs a consistent sensibility.

James Bobin, an accomplished television writer/director with only one other feature film to his credit (“Muppets Most Wanted”), gets the call and wisely keeps the Hatter in check.

Set three years after the last movie, “Glass” finds Alice (Mia Wasikowska) the captain of her late father’s shop “Wonder,” just returned from a long excursion to the Far East. Alas, upon sailing home to London she finds the family fortune raided by the local lord, whose marital advances she rejected before her deep dive down the rabbit hole into Underland.

Alice rejects the insistence of her mother (Lindsay Duncan) that she must sell the ship and give up her adventures. “I want to believe I can do as many as six impossible things before breakfast,” she stamps.

After stepping through a looking-glass portal, she finds herself returned to Underland just as Hatter has taken ill. He believes that his family, whom he long believed killed by the Jaberwocky serpent at the behest of the evil Red Queen, is waiting to be found. Alice must travel through time to save them.

The only way to do this is by stealing the Chronosphere from Time himself, here represented by Sacha Baron Cohen as a stern-yet-comical figure who oversees the great clock controlling the universe – both Underland and our world. “You cannot change the past, but you can learn from it,” he warns.

Thus sets off a jaunty trip through multiple time frames of Underland, so we get to visit with Hatter, the White Queen (Anne Hathaway) and their critter friends when they were younger, and then as pups. I should mention that the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter), with her outsized head and matching rage, returns as well, wooing Time to get her own hands on the Chronosphere.

As before, this is a CGI-heavy romp of bright colors and wondrous backgrounds, somewhere between medieval and Dickensian in setting, pure whimsy in tone. We learn a little more about Hatter – including his real name, Tarrant Hightopp – though not the exact origin of his… specialness.

“Alice Through the Looking Glass” is an unexpected surprise: a movie you thought you were going to hate that turns out to be quite a gem.

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