A Much Better, Madder View Of Alice Through The Looking Glass

Cards on the table, I wasn't a big fan of the original Tim Burton Alice In Wonderland. It felt too much like Eoin Colfer's And Another Thing… fanfic with ideas well above its station, taking characters and moments from throughout a work and trying to tie everything in, offering little that was new, and hoping that references would substitute for plot and character.

But the kids liked it.

Alice Through The Looking Glass however is a different beast and for me one of those rare sequels that beats the original hands down. And it does this by, for all intents and purposes, ignoring much of the established ensemble cast from the original and concentrating on the ones that really matter and make a difference for this story. Alice, the Red Queen, the White Queen and the Mad Hatter, using everyone else as crowd filler and bringing in a few new star turns with Time and the Hatter's father along the way.

Add to that a proper time travel storyline right out of Doctor Who  with a way to portray such a device that echoes Alice's real life adventures, and it creates a far more satisfying story. For me, that is. The kids wanted more Tweedle Twins and Cheshire Cat.

The original saw Alice, seemingly trapped in an unloving engagement, fall back into her childhood fantasy world and, from those adventures, find the inspiration to plot her own unlikely path as a ship's captain rather than the wife to weak chinned suitor Hamish.

This film opens far more spectacularly, with her proving her worth as a ship's captain, with the kind of bravado that those adventures rekindled in her, practising the impossible to avoid capture by pirates. It's a truly thrilling opening scene, and it provides a far better context for the feats of derringdo that she will perform later in the film. And makes her subsequent journey back to Underland via a mirror less of an escape from her life and more a place of inspiration.

And there, rejoining her old friends, she has to do the impossible again, necessitating a travel through the oceans of time, and embracing the acceptance of things she cannot change, like the past but finding the wisdom to make a difference in the present. Taking the responsibility for the consequences of her actions and finding a strength to put things right. There is no "power of love" get out, this is all about perseverance. And maybe just a little luck along the way.

As well as dealing with the very real possibility that this is all her own madness and she really belongs in Bedlam. Because the concept of madness is brought up repeatedly, whether it's a way of seeing the world differently, a realisation that everyone has their own unique perspective, sympathy and empathy for those who are set on a dangerous, destructive path. The matches certain psychiatric therapeutic paths, recommendations turned from subtext into actual texts, which adds to the genuinely satisfying storyline.

This is a film that explores origins, asking why the Hatter is the way he is, and why the Red Queen is as well, never removing personal responsibility, but showing their path through time. This is also reflected on the actions in the real world of Alice's mother and the decisions she has made regarding Alice but, as with the other characters, never letting it be too late to change and reparations attempted to be made.

And yes, this is a story about parents and children. Alice's loss of her father, the Hatter's loss of his, with Alice's journey as much for her as for the Hatter. Alice's mother's misguided sense of duty over her daughter finally being steered right, and the White Queen realising her own misdeeds as a child over something so trivial could lead to the end of the world. And all the elements work together rather than competing for space, as was a problem for me with the first film.

Even the more fanfic elements no longer grate on me. The "why is a raven like a writing desk" aspects bothered me a lot in the first film, but here, the details behind why the Mad Hatter's party is always taking place a minute before tea time seem to be genuinely clever and inventive given the storyline. And even the nod to the Carrol timepiece is sweet rather than forced.

The film looks beautiful throughout, whether the artificial oceans of time, of the scandalous dress that Alice wears to an official function – not for the skin it reveals but for the colours it shows off. Alice has become the butterfly she showed the promise she could be.

Praise must be doled out to Helena Bonham Carter for taking the Red Queen to new levels, channelling Miranda Richardson's Queenie to unsurpassed levels. Johnny Depp completely disappears into the Mad Hatter, both young and old, so wonderfully consistent with the character at either end of his lifespan. Sacha Baron Cohen is a multi-layered Time, an antagonist that the audience learns to sympathise with, as we also do Rhys Ifans as Mr Hightop, the Hatter's father who joins Sacha in some marvellous moustache acting.

As does Leo Bill as Hamish, reviving that marvellous vacuous misogynistic fop, even more so than the first film, with the most punchable face. If the film is missing anything, it's that no one took a swing at it.

Maybe for the threequel.

Alice Through The Looking Glass is released on May 27th.

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About Rich Johnston

Founder of Bleeding Cool. The longest-serving digital news reporter in the world, since 1992. Author of The Flying Friar, Holed Up, The Avengefuls, Doctor Who: Room With A Deja Vu, The Many Murders Of Miss Cranbourne, Chase Variant. Lives in South-West London, works from Blacks on Dean Street, shops at Piranha Comics. Father of two. Political cartoonist.
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