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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington Wilmington@moviecitynews.com

Wilmington on Movies: Alice Through the Looking Glass

ALICE THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS (Three Stars)
U.S.: James Bobin, 2016

Saying that a movie is better than its reputation—especially when its reputation is lousy—may seem a point not worth arguing. But that’s what I felt about the new Tim Burton-co-produced Alice Through the Looking Glass, which has been trashed by critics and avoided by audiences, at least in comparison with Burton’s 2010 Alice in Wonderland, which was a worldwide hit, and (slightly) better liked by critics. I liked the first Alice and I kind of liked this movie too. At least, I enjoyed it more than I was supposed to, according to most of my fellow critics—who tended to treat the whole show as an over-CGIed desecration of a great piece of literature, overblown and fatuous and over-expensive.

Expensive-looking it certainly is. Over CGIed it is as well. A lavish and visually spectacular sequel to Burton’s 2010 revisionist/feminist Alice—which was adapted from Lewis Carroll’s follow-up to his classic children’s book—Looking Glass is, in many ways, a disappointment. But this movie’s flaws seem to me less ruinous, its strengths less negligible, and its effect more enjoyable than naysayers have allowed.

That doesn’t mean that you should rush out and see it, simply that the people involved did a better job than they have been credited. Film is, after all a visual art as well as a narrative one, and that certainly goes both for this huge overstuffed plum pudding of an “Alice” picture– made by a gifted crew that includes number of veterans of Alice, notably screenwriter Linda Woolverton (a collaborator on Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King), led this time by director James Bobin (helmer on a recent Muppet movie).

The 2010 Alice was a girl-power reboot that gave a us a feisty grown up Alice, Mia Wasikowska, looking like the blonde, nubile, innocent-looking heroine of a Polanski movie and surrounded by all the dreams that money can buy. Here, as before, she encounters a bevy of Wonderlanders juiced up with more psychosexual tension that Lewis Carroll (or Walt Disney, in his ‘50s feature-length cartoon version) would have dared imagine. The Burton Alice was a sexy movie, and it was actually more suitable for adults than for children — or at least, for most children — and that may have been one reason it was a billion-dollar-grossing worldwide smash hit. It may also be part of the reason a lot of critics disliked the first movie, and even more disliked this one.

Bobin and Woolverton and the rest of the people who made this new movie may have been misguided. But they certainly weren’t hacks. When my lady friend and I walked out of Looking Glass, I may have been less transported than Transformered (to name another CGI-fest to which the Alices have been compared). But we’d had a fairly good time. I didn’t get the charge I got when, at the age of seven or so, I first read a paperback edition of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, while riding home to Hyde Park in Chicago with my mother on the Chicago El.

That was one of those magical experiences of my childhood, one of those revelations you can never quite repeat: the John Tenniel illustrations, the world underground, the dazzling wordplay and the lovable intricate nonsense. Burton’s Alices were both, by comparison, just okay shows, whose enjoy ability lies in their razzle-dazzle pictorialism. But, since they will probably drive a number of children, and even a few adults to read the books once or again, the movies may actually be better friends to that brilliant eccentric, the Rev. Charles  Dodgson (alias Lewis Carroll), and his bewitching legacy, than the modern day commentators savaging the movie as butchery of the source.

Linda Woolverton continues here from where the first script left off. — with a mature Alice played by Mia Wasikowska with a blonde skinny sumptuousness that suggests a Roman Polanski heroine . Woolverton Alices are feminist rethinkings of the tales and the character. And while I prefer Carroll’s creatures, I can see why the first film grossed a billion or so. In that show, Alice escapes marriage to a chauvinist jerk — Leo Bill as the obnoxious creepy Hamish — by fleeing on the White Rabbit’s trail to Wonderland. There, Wasikowska’s Alice (last name: Kingsleigh) took the lessons she learned in the scrumptious visual fantasy of the first movie and the first Wonderland (or “Underland“ as it was redubbed) and gave him the boot — finding more amicable and fantastic company with the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) and his gang.

Now she’s back after a stint at being a ship’s captain: surviving a spectacular storm and returning to England, where the perfidious Hamish is up to his nasty tricks again, trying to foreclose on her ship — and driving her to another escape into Wonderland –ah, Underland — where she finds her old pals, the Hatter and the White Rabbit (voiced by Michael Sheen), the March Hare (Paul Whitehouse) and the Caterpillar turned Butterfly (the late Alan Rickman, to whom the movie is dedicated).

And plenty more, including Humpty Dumpty (Wally Wingert), Tweedledum and Tweedledee (both played by Matt Lucas , dubbed and doubled), Bayard the Bloodhound (Timothy Spall), the Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry), The White Queen (Anne Hathaway), that old nemesis, the off-with-your-head harridan The Red Queen or Queen of Hearts (Helena Bonham Carter), and Alice’s main buddy, the Mad Hatter a.k.a. Tarrant Hightopp. (Johnny Depp), who is now plunged into an all-embracing melancholia that not even one of Fred Astaire‘s Top Hats could cure. All these and a role for Rhys Ifans (Zanik Hightopp, no less, paterfamilias of the Hightopp clan) and another snazzy new character, Time himself, played by a mustachioed swashbuckling Sacha Baron Cohen, with the zest of a Borat, the dash of a Keith Richards and the cracked malice of a Ladykiller. (One of Mackendrick‘s rather than Coens’).

There are worse ways to spend your film going time than with a company like that, set to dancing by Danny Elfman, in a production design by Dan Hennah and sets by Anna Lynch Robinson and Ra Vincent, lit and shot by Stuart Dryburgh. Certainly, a better movie would have restored Alice to her childhood, revived the nonsense of Carroll, and perhaps taken more visual cues from Tenniel. But compared to most of the multi-million dollar bloodbaths we’re offered, this movie has something worth watching — even if it’s only classy Brit actors on toney Brit sets, playing with the remnants of a great book.

The whole picture is often too much of a muchness, too curious a curiosity, too full a bottle, and Woolverton’s script has taken most of the abuse. But at least it’s not a comic book, not even a Classics Illustrated one. There are no car-chases and the world is not about to end, though the Underland might. I’ve seen worse. So have you.

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Wilmington

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