The Walt Disney Company has had a long and storied relationship with Lewis Carroll’s Alice books. When Walt Disney struck out on his own to make a hybrid of live-action and hand-drawn animation, he turned to Alice for the 1923 short Alice’s Wonderland. It was a success, and Disney milked the Alice Comedies for another 56 installments for the three years and allowed Disney and his brother, Roy, to head out west to make their name in Hollywood—animator Ub Iwerks and cameraman Rudolf Ising followed.
Twenty-eight years later, Disney returned to Carroll’s works with the feature-length animation Alice in Wonderland. Disney and his team of writers sanitized Carroll’s somewhat sadistic and torturous books but instilled them with fantasy and wonder thanks to the animating team of the Nine Old Men—not to mention the vocal casting of Ed Wynn and Sterling Holloway—and brought childhood dreams to the screen, endearing the work for future generations and setting the standard for subsequent remakes and adaptation.
With this baggage in tow, the Walt Disney Company brought Alice back to the screen in 2010 with Tim Burton’s live-action, 3-D phantasmagorical spectacle, Alice in Wonderland. Influenced by a post-9/11 world, Wonderland—now dubbed Underland—is post-apocalyptic, ruled by a ruthless dictator, and haunted by the constant threat of the Jabberwocky. The character of the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) is fleshed out and given a PTSD backstory that acts as the catalyst to convince Alice (Mia Wasikowska) to take up arms and slay the Jabberwocky. She does, the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) is banished, and the White Queen (Anne Hathaway) is restored as the benevolent ruler of Underland. Alice returns to her world, denies the hand of her suitor, Hamish Ascot (Leo Bill), and strikes up a trade business with Hamish’s father (Tim Pigott-Smith), a former business partner of her deceased father.
Alice in Wonderland was a shock to the senses, not as a visual achievement—though it has its moments—but as a financial investment. Grossing over $1 billion worldwide, Alice became one of the most unlikely movies to climb into the top-grossing movies of all time categories—now sitting pretty at number 23.
When there is that much money on the table, a sequel is inevitable. The whys behind the six-year lag time are no doubt a story in themselves, but here is Alice Through the Looking Glass, like it or not. The main cast of characters return to reprise their roles, screenwriter Linda Woolverton returns, but director Burton does not. He moves into the producer role, while James Bobin (Da Ali G Show and two recent Muppets installments) takes over directing reins.
Picking up a year or two after Wonderland’s conclusion, with Alice piloting a British Naval ship out of harm’s way, Through the Looking Glass begins on a dark and stormy night and sadly doesn’t get much more inventive from there. Alice returns to London, where she learns that her mother (Lindsay Duncan) is in hock to Hamish. Hamish’s father has passed on, and now Alice must sign over her father’s ship or lose her family’s house. Alice will also be appointed a less than glamorous job as a pencil pusher under Hamish, a blunt reminder that if Alice cannot be convinced to know her role, she will be forced into one.
Identical to Alice, when the second society backs her into a corner, Alice runs down a hole or through a mirror to Underland, where she learns to cope with the real world. This time it’s through the mirror and back to the magical realm, where everything is fine, except for the Hatter. Convinced that his family is still alive, he mopes around the house because no one believes him, least of all Alice, which breaks his heart.
Convinced that she can set things right, Alice searches for the Hatters, which can only be done by traveling in time. To do that, she will have to visit Time (Sacha Baron Cohen), a living clock with a Werner Herzog accent.
Alice’s trip through time is governed by the typical rules of time travel, e.g., the past and the present can never intersect. When it inevitably does, Bobin creates a moment of true visual splendor, but that’s not saying much. Despite the digital animation wizardry of the filmmakers, Through the Looking Glass is not a visual story but a textual one.
Through the Looking Glass isn’t engaging, but it is entertaining. There is nothing special about it, but it is structured to move at a good clip and never sags. Through the Looking Glass doesn’t feel like a movie designed to be memorable or enchanting, but simply to make money and entertain throughout its duration. It accomplishes the latter, and the former is certain to follow.
But there might be more to it than that. Not every movie is designed to last. This is nothing new to the Walt Disney Company, particularly in the 1950s and ’60s when the company released a slew of live-action movies. Some were good: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, The Great Locomotive Chase, The Parent Trap; some less so: The Happiest Millionaire, Babes in Toyland, Follow Me, Boys!; most were forgettable, but all were watchable. They kept the studio going and no doubt helped keep those who worked busy and engaged.
Disney did a similar thing with his animators, continuing to have them produce animated shorts long after the market for them failed to make it financially worthwhile. Disney claimed he hated to let any of his boys go—all the animators at the time were male—but he also knew that what they learned working on the shorts would translate to the features. There is little doubt that it did. It may not have made financial sense, but it worked out.
Alice Through the Looking Glass is not a movie designed to add to a cinematic universe the way a Marvel or Star Wars edition might. Nor is it designed to make a larger political statement (Zootopia) or a work of emotional resonance (Inside Out) or the reconfiguration of a childhood classic (Pete’s Dragon, which will be released in August). It is here to make money for the studio and the DIS shareholders. And keep those studio bees buzzing. And there are a lot of bees here—the end credits scrawl lasts roughly eight minutes. Hopefully, they learned something that will carry over to the next work.
Alice Through the Looking Glass (2016)
Directed by: James Bobin
Written by: Linda Woolverton
Based on the books by Lewis Carroll
Produced by: Tim Burton, Joe Roth, Jennifer Todd, Suzanne Todd
Starring: Mia Wasikowska, Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne Hathaway, Sacha Baron Cohen, Rhys Ifans, Lindsay Duncan, Leo Bill
Walt Disney Pictures, Rated PG, Running time 113 minutes, Opens May 27, 2016