Alice Through the Looking Glass: To the Anti-Wonder



a feeling of surprise mingled with admiration, caused by something beautiful, unexpected, unfamiliar, or inexplicable.

If Disney and director James Bobin cannot remember the particular verses hiding within this childlike word, “wonder,” which can only really be felt bouncing on a knee or lying under the stars, they might at least have realized that the audience would. “Inexplicable” is the only one of those words that applies to Alice Through the Looking Glass, a film that rehashes Tim Burton’s rehash of Disney’s rehash of Lewis Carroll to the point that the lack of wonder has become a form of self-defeat, more painful for being less self-aware. I can explain how it feels to watch, on a lazy day that was previously amiable, but not how it was made by people with all their lobes intact.

It makes a mockery of wonderment from the first seconds, in which Captain Alice (Mia Wasikowska) pilots her ship (the “Wonder”) through a storm, turning the mast parallel to the water to escape pirates through an encampment of rocks. “It’s impossible!” someone says. “You know my view of that word,” she replies. This opening vindicates Burton's decision to skip on the sequel: before even the title card, Alice Through the Looking Glass makes the real world a cartoon. The chance to feel any surprise or any feeling of the unexpected when she slips into Wonderland's playground of lush, green screens, is lost in the first artificial moments when she performs this outlandish maneuver without even wincing at it. Even among such absurdities as a time-traveling spaceship, this is one of the film’s more unbelievable sequences.

In Wonderland, there's little for the actors to do but stare into what must have been to them the most intimidating blankness, judging by their statuesque expressions. Occasionally, Wasikowska has Johnny Depp, Anne Hathaway, or Sacha Baron Cohen to stare at, but nothing else seems to be in her spatial continuum. Here: a doorknob. There: a handrail. Beyond that, she is floating in an abyss, and looks it. Her expression is comatose, her performance, detached. She somehow populates every scene, and yet feels like she had no part in the film.

Wasikowska’s natural stony sureness has been proven to be effective in the right circumstances, such as in the most recent Jane Eyre or the undervalued British comedy-thriller, The Double. Yet I struggle to think of one moment in which this particular version of her appeal feels like it had a director behind her trying to make the most of it. Alice Through the Looking Glass is flat in every crisp, artificial image, every gorgeously boring background and weightless character model floating in another sugar-coated staring contest. Bobin strains to capture even Burton’s hedonistic interpretation of Carroll’s world, and without one speck of effort in the position of the camera or the length of shot, in the lighting or in the grounding of the action, everything reads as equally glossy, fake, and uninspiring.

This is how Bobin not only defies wonder but negates it. His images are more than boring: they are allegedly exciting things that mock excitement through their disinterested execution. It’s worse even than a film that looks completely fake, which can use fakery to become whimsical or stylish. On some alien world or within a theatrical impression of history, Avatar or 300 may take the audience to a foreign place even if its belief is not so much suspended as abused. But at least they acknowledge that there is a viewer – Alice Through the Looking Glass takes the audience's high tolerance for fakery and plunders it for no nobler purpose than to save production time.

How can Time’s (Cohen) serene chamber of souls, portrayed as clocks hanging by their chains from ochre heavens, or Alice’s harrowing adventure to a town scorched by the dragon-like Jabberwock, both seem the same and both as blatantly constructed as a life insurance ad? It’s as though the computer hired to render the images was also put in charge of the content. These scenes are like its best attempt to portray what it believes humans must find wondrous. In a spaceship called the Chronosphere, Alice roams the ocean of time, blasting through the foam, seeing images of history in the waves and it has absolutely no power or wit or beauty. Alice is surprised at nothing. She admires nothing. She becomes an ironic insertion of an audience used to far better effects and seems to have as little ability to change the course of her story as any random viewer (she wants to get back years of the Hatter’s life – the audience would settle for getting back 113 minutes).

The story is that the Hatter (Depp) suddenly remembers he has a family. He asks Alice to save them; to do so, she has to go back in time. The problem with this, if there's only one, is that the audience is not familiar with Wonderland in any state of prosperity or destruction. This means that going back into its past means nothing more than strolling down the block without a baseline for comparison. Screenwriter Linda Woolverton (whose writing credits ludicrously include the Disney animated features, Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King) must have realized this since in every time period Alice somehow pops out right next to someone she knows. Only their age tells us that she is indeed in a different time, as though Wonderland was populated with only the four or five people she’s met before. Without that context, nothing would be different.

This isn’t even the most illogical part of the time travel contrivance – it’s just the itchy sweater of its logic you have to put on to talk about it. Its crowning inadequacy is in how it establishes one man’s emotions as the fulcrum of a universe, and yet does absolutely nothing to explore them. Even Depp’s ability to over-emphasize a character’s inner nature does nothing for him when faced with a cast of performers all desperately trying to ape his act. Wonderland becomes an asylum for loud-mouthed ingrates and loopy loons, all denizens of a Tim Burton costume contest. There was more potential in the super-sanity of crazy serious people that even the Disney cartoon version got partially right way back in 1951. Supposedly, the Hatter is comatose, but any character could pass equally well as someone who is unconscious.

None of these characters are present for their own lives, let alone their lines. The one fulcrum of dependability here is not Alice but Time, whose clockwork neck may be the film’s single convincing effect, and whose rationale is the only one the audience can follow at all. He needs to stop Alice before she destroys the universe for her friend, and he’s never wrong about the stakes, despite being a manic parody of a German musician wrapped up in a slapstick character who seems to have been told that falling is not in his nature. You almost hope he succeeds.

This could have been interesting – a childlike protagonist bumbling through the airways of time, mussing up universal constants to help her friend, while the ostensive villain is actually an eternal blue-collar worker just trying to hold the fabric of things together. But none of that can come through the film’s thick layer of subtext concerning female independence, which constantly yanks the movie back to a sermon on social ethics that its plot is completely unprepared to represent. Alice is given tough and exertive things to do to prove that she can play the part of the self-sufficient owner of a shipping yard (?), in order to make her seem better than the way the character is usually portrayed – as a ditzy little girl. The film makes her confront, for instance, a snivelish board of directors about being a female ship captain, a premise the film regurgitates whenever she steps out of Wonderland for even a few seconds.

There are several issues with this approach. The first is that the literary Alice, the character whose history this adaptation relies on, is as likely a figure for headstrong independent womanhood as Oliver Twist would be for an evil landlord who sings about savings and shares. Had it been internally consistent, however, the character’s history might not be an issue. The second and more significant problem with Woolverton’s approach is that as the film grinds its point about ladies in the blue-collar workforce into your head with jackhammer subtlety, its plot continues to be about a girl whose naïve militarism and can-do persistence is endangering the fabric of the entire universe. She is, after all, still Alice. Any message from a social context outside of the perspective of the character would have to be written with total internal consistency to avoid self-defeating. But this is what it does because its headstrong icon of progress is completely unlikable and wrong about almost everything. Even the self-obsessed Red Queen (Helena Bonham-Carter) is given a more sympathetic side role that climaxes with a hasty reconciliation, seemingly to make Alice’s ignorant, destructive actions seem “worth it.” The audience can’t buy a single bit of it.

When the Hatter asks Alice to believe him that his family is still alive, she says, “But it’s impossible.” Bobin does one thing right by getting us to Wonderland quickly, but it means that Alice scolding her first mate about that word “impossible” that she doesn't believe in was less than ten minutes prior to her use of it to put down the hopes of her dearest friend for the sake of the plot. Even later, she tells him she believes him, not because she resolves this contradiction and believes in the impossible again, as Alice must, but because she has discovered through rational evidence that his family is indeed alive. She finds her way to wonderment with the coldest logic imaginable. No one would call that “belief,” which requires a bit of ignorance to build a bit of faith. She’s just reciting knowledge.

By offering a precise description of its fallacy, both in its themes and its vacant images, Alice Through the Looking Glass makes my job easier. As its wonders defy wonder, its protagonist believes in the impossible, only when it is proven. I would be thankful, but I’m still trying to resuscitate my corneas from Bobin's definition of “wonderment.” I didn’t see it in 3D but from what I’ve heard, it's bragging to say so.

This article is a re-upload from Film Objective, April 23, 2018

Image is a screenshot from the film: ©Walt Disney Studios

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