“Alice Through the Looking Glass” continues the narrative of Alice, Lewis Carroll’s timeless character, as depicted in the 2010 Tim Burton adaptation. This 2016 follow up, directed by James Bobin and written by Linda Woolverton with Burton as producer, is based on Carroll’s novel Through the Looking-Glass. With taut dialogue, an ensemble cast, and an expectation-defying plot, “Through the Looking Glass” successfully manages to surpass its predecessor.
Alice Kingsleigh (Mia Wasikowska) has proven herself more than capable as the captain of her father’s ship, and after a three year voyage, she returns to London. Upon her arrival, Alice discovers that Hamish Ascot (Leo Bill), her almost-fiancé, has assumed ownership over his father’s company, which currently employs Alice. Scorned by her earlier rejection, Hamish explains his plans to take back her ship in exchange for her mother’s home, and offers her a position as a clerk. Distraught, Alice returns to Underland (Wonderland) by stepping through a mirror, or looking glass.
However, all is not well in Wonderland. Her party of friends, the White Rabbit (Michael Sheen), Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry), White Queen (Anne Hathaway), Absolem (Alan Rickman), and the Tweedles (Matt Lucas) reveal that the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) has gone, well mad. Madder than usual, that is. After finding the first hat he ever made, Hatter is now convinced that his family, presumed dead after the Jabberwocky attack, is still alive. Alice embarks on a mission to save Hatter’s family, which involves stealing the Chronosphere from Time (Sacha Baron Cohen) in an attempt to travel back in time and change the course of history.
“Through the Looking Glass” resumes a few years after the events of 2010’s “Alice in Wonderland,” and plunges into the story straight away. Alice’s journey into Wonderland happens much earlier than in the original film, and it’s neat to see her step out back into the real world for a brief intermission, before returning to Underland for most of the third act. Set design is gorgeous, both in the real world and Wonderland. The opening sequence of Alice outwitting a fleet of pirates is truly captivating, with realistic waves crashing and cascading. Time’s castle is breathtaking, and the use of CGI feels more to craft a backdrop rather than overpowering with its intricate visuals.
In a pleasant but unusual twist, “Through the Looking Glass” is quite dialogue-driven. While there’s no shortage of action, the film strikes a balance. Conversation drives the story, with action at pretty regular intervals. An ensemble cast helps the talking maintain a steady ebb and flow. Seasoned actors the likes of Andrew Scott (who appears all-too briefly) and Richard Armitage wisp in and out, testament to the talented roster. Helena Bonham Carter reprises her role as the Red Queen, outdoing her stellar performance in the previous entry.
The plot features several unexpected twists, and it’s a bit dark in places. As a fairy tale goes, it’s not quite as intense as “Return to Oz” which featured the notorious heads scene, but has its own moments of briefly bleak sequences. Yet there are still some definitely foreseeable happenings, occasionally stumbling into predictability. While the overwhelmingly gifted cast is a treat, there are times when the story feels too rushed. Scott notably doesn’t get nearly enough screen time, appearing in a dark but humorous scene which calls to mind the aforementioned “Return to Oz” and its commentary on fantasy, reality, and insanity.
Despite its few shortcomings, “Alice Through the Looking Glass” continues the reinvented Alice in Wonderland epic. It’s equally, if not more, enjoyable than the first series entry, aided in no small part by the brilliant cast. What propels it from good to great is a heavy reliance on dialogue rather than pure octane, and the surprising plot elements which subvert traditional fairy tale tropes.