Any and all fears one might have about a sequel to 2010's "Alice in Wonderland
" repeating its predecessor's many mistakes vanish with one step through a magical mirror in the gently touching, boldly imaginative, visually extravagant "Alice Through the Looking Glass." Taking over for an out-of-step Tim Burton, director James Bobin (2014's "Muppets Most Wanted
") has seemingly made note of the earlier picture's shortcomings and given newfound life to a liberal reimagining of Lewis Carroll's 1871 literary continuation "Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There." What was once grim and garish is now a bold, foreboding aesthetic wonder. Whereas the fantastical Underland more accurately resembled the Underworld in the previous film, it now simply looks fantastic, full of rich primary hues and a fitting tinge of underlying darkness. The reliance on CGI is still copious, but also a great deal more attractive and seamlessly interwoven, no longer engulfing the frame to the point of asphyxia. Alice Kingsleigh (Mia Wasikowska), once a spectator in her own tale, is now a pro-active hero with a far more dynamic role to explore. Many of the other characters, too, get a chance to play fully realized individuals rather than go through the motions of quirky, one-note caricatures. As for the story itself, it's a time-jumping, intricately imagined humdinger, its thoughtful themesabout life, death and big, bad regretblessing the proceedings with a resonating dramatic spark.
The year is 1875, and fiercely independent 22-year-old sea captain Alice has no sooner returned to her home in London following an expedition to China and a victorious battle against pirates when she comes face to face with Hamish (Leo Bill), the sniveling fellow whose proposal she turned down three years prior. He may now be married and a duke, but he continues to hold a grudge. With mother Helen (Lindsay Duncan) having sold their family's shares to Hamish, Alice is distraught over the prospect of losing her sailing vessel, a ship named Wonder
she believes her late father would never have agreed to sell. Living in a period when all that was expected of a woman was marriage and having children, Alice is once again left frustrated by the backward attitudes and narrow views of society. As with "Alice in Wonderland
," the real-world bookends are stirring and sensitive, finding observant truths in their impassioned trajectory toward female empowerment. Unlike the soul-deficient "Alice in Wonderland
," our title protagonist's journey to a magical, dreamlike realm populated with old friends and enemies alike is equally as alive.
Returning to an era when family features weren't afraid to be a little scary, "Alice Through the Looking Glass" reminds on more than one occasion of 1985's notoriously freaky Disney sequel "Return to Oz." This film may not be quite as nightmare-inducing, but it does display similar threatening undercurrents while touching upon surprising existential subject matter. The central premise finds Alice slipping through a mirror and back to a notably more exuberant Underland. Alas, the Hatter (Johnny Depp) has seen better days, his lingering guilt over losing his entire family to the Jabberwocky stealing away his signature madness, and, thus, the very light inside him. The Hatter has convinced himself Alice is the only one who can bring his loved ones backan improbability, but not, it turns out, an impossibility. With nothing to lose but the whole world's existence, Alice voyages through a grandfather clock and into the domain of Time (Sacha Baron Cohen), an infinite, eternal, immortal figure who controls the ticking hands of time itself. Hijacking time-traveling device the Chronosphere, Alice races into the past with the hopes of rewriting the Hatter's tragic history.
"Alice Through the Looking Glass" may not be as paradoxically sound as the "Back to the Future" trilogy, but Linda Woolverton's (2014's "Maleficent
") adept screenplay is mighty auspicious all the same. Zigzagging back and forth between the past and present, the script exhibits an energetic, at times thrilling, creativity. If the unpleasantly landscaped "Alice in Wonderland
" was little more than a series of stodgy vignettes, drained of all joy and vigor via a color palette resembling a corpse-strewn rainbow, "Alice Through the Looking Glass" is a feast for the eyes with a carefully plotted narrative and ideas to match its exorbitant budget. The sheer ingenuity of its creative concepts and art direction is pretty wondrous, from Time's cavernous, cathedral-like home of ticking parts, to Alice's trips in the Chronosphere, the fabrics of time imagined as a wavy kaleidoscopic ocean of images. Underland is portrayed as a place where, lo and behold, blue skies and a sun do exist. Better still, characters can convincingly walk through their surroundings without the obviousness of the greenscreen work calling overt attention to itself. As Alice receives a singular glimpse into the childhoods and young adult lives of the Mad Hatter and estranged sisters Mirana the White Queen (Anne Hathaway), and Iracebeth the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter), the picture dives into complex issues involving the universal yearning for acceptance, betrayed sibling bonds, and the power of forgiveness.
Mia Wasikowska is an endearing, headstrong Alice, invigorated by the increased demands and progressive nature of her role. At no point does her performance or anyone else's strike as a contractual obligation; they commit to their parts and have fun with them. With a great deal more backstory and development, Johnny Depp's (2015's "Black Mass
") Mad Hatter has shifted from being a weird blank slate to a curiously oddball sweetheart with three dimensions and an aching mortality. Helena Bonham Carter (2015's "Cinderella
") and Anna Hathaway (2015's "The Intern
") also get to have honest to goodness character arcs as Iracebeth and Mirana, their troubled relationship attentively delved into rather than treated as a gimmick. As the demanding Time, desperate to retrieve the Chronosphere before its absence puts a cataclysmic end to time, Sacha Baron Cohen (2012's "The Dictator
") has a talent for making every one of his roles unique and memorable. With that said, a decidedly disposable comedic segment midway through where he crashes the Hatter's tea party is awkwardly intercut with the more pressing Alice exploits, and could have easily been trimmed. Of note, the late, great Alan Rickman (in his final film) voices butterfly Absolem; though he regrettably doesn't receive much to work with, he does get a poignant "In Memory" tribute during the end credits.
"Time is a thief, and a villain," Alice Kingsleigh remarks upon returning to London in the early scenes of "Alice Through the Looking Glass," her awareness of the callous process of life already percolating within. When "Alice in Wonderland
" was released in 2010 to smashing box-office returns and fully warranted lukewarm reactions, it was painful to dwell on what a missed opportunity the project was. The picture was not without redeeming qualities, but it was difficult to see them through the deflating, murky superficiality on display. Possibly the most impersonal film of Tim Burton's career, it left the viewer with little to care about and even less to think about. "Alice Through the Looking Glass" rights these wrongs. It is a film with vision, drive, purpose, and a palpable, pulsating heartbeat. Director James Bobin brings such an attention to detail to his every frame, it is surely one worthy of multiple viewings and deeper consideration. Early detractors claiming this radically superior follow-up is absent of magic must have seen a different movie, because it's swimming in enchantment.