Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Alice Through the Looking Glass

*1/2 out of ****

Alice Through the Looking Glass is a sequel to the 2010 movie called Alice in Wonderland, which was already a sequel to Lewis Carroll’s book of a similar name, even though Carroll wrote a sequel to that book called Through the Looking Glass. Confused? It doesn’t matter.

I’m sure that Walt Disney Pictures had some important business in bringing that property to the big screen again and after what turned out to be one of Tim Burton’s worst movies, we now have a sequel from director James Bobin (The Muppets).

With saturated colors and new whimsical creations, this movie’s aesthetics are a great improvement over the previous one, but the effect of those visuals still lack the impact of a movie that commits to either photorealism or stylized animation.

These Disney “live action” adaptations are strange because they don’t really fit the definition of “live action.” They feature real actors imposed into computer-generated environments that manage to be high quality without seeming real at all. To be fair, I’ve seen this approach work well in some movies but it’s very tricky to put a finger on the difference between the effectiveness of different eye candy shows.

I do know that Disney screenwriter Linda Woolverton returns to this material to continue the misguided attempt to turn Wonderland into a place like Oz, Narnia, or Middle-Earth: A place that’s zany and magical but still has some level of structure when it comes to finding navigation or trustworthy friends.

The story essentially picks up where we last saw Alice when she returned to the real world of oppressive Victorian England to overcome the limitations imposed upon her by assuming the command of a trading vessel in her father’s company. Now, after years of exploring the world in adventures that rival just about anyone else’s, she returns to England to learn that the twit (Leo Bill) whose hand in marriage she declined is making deals with her family’s estate, which will take away her treasured ship.

Fearing a return to the normalcy of restrictions imposed on women, Alice is coincidentally summoned back to Wonderland by the Absolem the butterfly (with the voice of the late Alan Rickman) through a looking glass, which may be the only commonality this film has with the Lewis Carroll sequel.

After arriving, Alice learns that Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) is dying from distress over his supposedly dead family. The White Queen (Anne Hathaway) informs Alice that she may have the option of traveling through time to change the fate of the Hatter family and… I hate describing this plot already.

Time, in Wonderland, is a dark, strange a man (Sacha Baron Cohen) who is the king of the castle when it comes to the fate of others. Alice steals a device from him, which allows her to go on a Bill and Ted style time traveling journey where she learns that the tyrannical Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) plays a big part in the Hatter’s story too.

Wolverton’s continued error in imposing character arcs, structured narrative, and other Screenwriting 101 devices on material that’s supposed to be outlandish simply doesn’t work. It’s nearly impossible to have an emotional investment in the characters Alice meets in Wonderland, but the movie is trying so hard to humanize Lewis Carroll’s bizarre abstractions. In 1951, Disney’s animated version had no trouble being an entertaining movie without trying any of these things.

My pet peeve of incessant dramatic scoring is expectedly at play again here too. Danny Elfman’s boy’s choir riffs give every turn of the movie the same dramatic value as the last. Wasn’t this composer once the king of quirky scores?

The movie has a few funny exchanges and beautiful qualities, but it’s quickly a tiresome bore of an experience that has me dreading what the “live action” results of Beauty and the Beast may be like. Disney’s doing so much great stuff, but their continued mission to trample on their most timeless properties is making me rather angry.

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