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“Empowered” Alice Takes Tiresome, Revisionist Trip Through the Looking Glass

Disney Pictures

Alice (Mia Wasikowska) returns to the whimsical world of Underland to help the Hatter (Johnny Depp) in Disney's ALICE THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS, an all-new adventure featuring the unforgettable characters from Lewis Carroll's beloved stories.

David Ives - published on 05/29/16 - updated on 06/08/17

In a bid to be "relevant" the film's makers disappoint fans of the original Alice books

Well, it’s sort of better than the first one. Of course, the 2010 take on Alice in Wonderland was fairly excruciating, so being sort of better makes its sequel, Alice Through the Looking Glass … what exactly?

The problem lies (mostly) with Linda Woolverton’s script. Woolverton is best known as one of the screenwriters behind such Disney classics as The Lion King,Mulan, and especially Beauty and the Beast, in which she helped craft a heroine who was much more independent and proactive than the typical Disney princess up until that time. “I feel that you have to have an empowering message or you’re not going to be relevant.” Woolverton explained in an interview, “If you don’t stay relevant to how people are and how women are approaching life now, it’s not going to feel true.”

Unfortunately, by the time Alice in Wonderland rolled around, Woolverton’s message had devolved from positive female empowerment into something akin to “women rule, men drool.” She took Lewis Carroll’s clever and curious Alice, who was plenty empowered already, and morphed her into a proto-feminist cruelly oppressed by a patriarchal society. Her only escape was to return to Wonderland where, instead of having whimsical adventures, she became a reluctant warrior princess called to fulfill her destiny. Basically Woolverton turned Alice into Aragorn with breasts. And as much as that visual image might appeal to a very small percentage of today’s population, it made for a pretty unsatisfying experience for fans of the original Alice books.

Through The Looking Glass starts out just as tediously preachy. After proving herself the most capable captain ever to set sail on the sea, Alice returns to her home port only to find that everyone still scoffs at her because she is “just a woman.” That such attitudes existed in Alice’s time is inarguable, but there are lots of better ways to communicate that to an audience rather than just having multiple characters grimace at the camera and proclaim that Alice is “just a woman.” Go ask Jane Austen.

At any rate, Alice again finds she must escape her dreadful situation by returning to Wonderland. However, once there, she discovers that her dear friend, the Mad Hatter, is wasting away because nobody believes his claims that his family, long thought killed by the Jabberwocky, are actually still alive. As the Hatter’s death would have a devastating effect on Wonderland, the White Queen reluctantly informs Alice that she can save her friend by confronting the personification of Time itself and securing from him the means to change the past. Only Alice can perform this task because if natives of Wonderland were to go back in time and accidentally see their past selves, the entire universe would be destroyed, thereby conveniently setting up a special effects laden finale.

Because of the cosmological concerns involved, Time refuses to allow Alice to borrow his machine, so she steals it instead, much to the chagrin of the Red Queen who wants it for reasons of her own. With Time in pursuit (whom you can’t outrun, you know), Alice begins to hop about the history of Wonderland, eventually learning the completely unasked-for origins of the Mad Hatter and the Red Queen.

As it turns out, all of the Hatter’s problems stem from daddy issues. This is so standard a motivation in a Tim Burton production that it would almost feel weird if that wasn’t the case. The Red Queen’s story, on the other hand, is a bit more problematic as it carries the stink of the last film Linda Woolverton wrote, Maleficent. Yes, once again, one of the classic villains of children’s literature has been shoved through the rabbit hole of revisionism and recast as a victim. All that “off with their heads” business, it’s really not the Red Queen’s fault because someone (or some ones as the case may be) once wronged her.

The shame of it is, this tiresome trip down revisionist lane spoils what is otherwise a more enjoyable outing than its predecessor. The visuals are often highly imaginative, especially inside Time’s fortress and the Red Queen’s vegetable-themed palace. The story doesn’t try to shoehorn in elements from Lordof the Rings like the first movie did. And there are some real moments of humor, such as the tea party where everyone tells jokes at Time’s expense, a scene particularly notable as it the closest the film ever comes to feeling like Lewis Carroll’s original creation.

Sadly, it’s all for naught as the script’s by now clichéd attempts at revisionism undercut all the fun. You know, all it would really have taken was for at least one character to bring up the notion of moral agency and mention the simple common sense fact that you don’t respond to being slighted by becoming a head-chopping sociopath. But nobody ever does. Oh well, as the Cheshire Cat once noted, they’re all mad in Wonderland after all.

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