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I should probably pause a moment, and sort of set expectations here for you a bit. Mainly my point in reviewing Disney’s latest foray into the Alice in Wonderland universe is solely to look at it through the lens of the original book. You see, I’m a bit of an Alice fan (read snob) and personally believe that Alice in Wonderland & Through the Looking Glass are two of the best books ever written. So, whenever anyone (Disney or otherwise) decides to take a stab at redoing (redeuxing?) the books, I really want to take a close look at them.
When the initial trailer came out, I basically peed my pants in excitement. Like, over the top giddiness. This was not going to be a movie I would be taking my kids to. This would be a very dark, and very realistic remake, at least at the surface of things. There was Alice’s father’s study, there she was in miniature, running across the chess set. There was Humpty. It was shaping up to be a remake marvel… or was it?
See? That could quite possibly be the greatest movie trailer of all time. Pink is belting out the White Rabbit by Jefferson Airplane. We have Alice in some sort of sanitarium? Brilliant. I couldn’t wait.
But here’s the glitch. Alice in Wonderland as a book – and source material for a movie – is actually pretty good. There is at least, a semblance of a thread to it. Alice falls into Wonderland and spends her time trying to make sense of it, and find her way. As she goes she meets the Mad Hatter, the March Hare, and a parade of fun characters. It culminates in her clash with the Red Queen and it’s an all around exciting book. Pretty good for adapting into cartoons, movies, picture books, apps… you name it… it’s been done. But Through the Looking Glass? Not as much.
Through the Looking Glass Book as Source
I know that a lot of you have said you’ve read Through the Looking Glass… but most of you have not. No judgement. Just trying to help you out if you haven’t. By walking through the book a bit to refresh your “memory”.
If Alice in Wonderland is a 6 on the 10 point trippy scale… Looking Glass is a fullon 27. This book is more about logic puzzles and word play than it is about any sort of coherent narrative. I can totally see good ‘ol Lewis Carroll taking the fun he had telling the original stories to Alice Liddell, and the laughter at the illogic of it, and cranking it up to a whole ‘nother level for her. This time, instead of logical beginning and endings, he’d tell her stories about time and the insanity of it breaking. He gave her puzzles about infinity. He would tell her stories about incomprehensible Jabberwocky poems as well as philosophical mind job ditties about how the Red King believes everything he perceives to be a dream… including Alice. You see, Looking Glass is less about narrative than it is about little vignettes of insanity. Yes, we have an intro, and an exit. (Alice goes through a mirro, Alice comes out a mirror – duh) But otherwise the stories hardly hold together at all. Take for example this snippet from chapter 9, wherein Alice finds herself chatting with the Red Queen and the White Queen:
‘I daresay you’ve not had many lessons in manners yet?’
`Manners are not taught in lessons,’ said Alice. `Lessons teach you to do sums, and things of that sort.’
`And you do Addition?’ the White Queen asked. `What’s one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one?’
`I don’t know,’ said Alice. `I lost count.’
`She can’t do Addition,’ the Red Queen interrupted. `Can you do Subtraction? Take nine from eight.’
`Nine from eight I can’t, you know,’ Alice replied very readily: `but — ‘
`She can’t do Subtraction,’ said the White Queen. `Can you do Division? Divide a loaf by a knife — what’s the answer to that?’
`I suppose — ‘ Alice was beginning, but the Red Queen answered for her. `Bread-and-butter, of course. Try another Subtraction sum. Take a bone from a dog: what remains?’
Alice considered. `The bone wouldn’t remain, of course, if I took it — and the dog wouldn’t remain; it would come to bite me — and I’m sure I shouldn’t remain!’
`Then you think nothing would remain?’ said the Red Queen.
`I think that’s the answer.’
`Wrong, as usual,’ said the Red Queen: `the dog’s temper would remain.’
`But I don’t see how — ‘
`Why, look here!’ the Red Queen cried. `The dog would lose its temper, wouldn’t it?’
`Perhaps it would,’ Alice replied cautiously.
`Then if the dog went away, its temper would remain!’ the Queen exclaimed triumphantly.
Alice said, as gravely as she could, `They might go different ways.’ But she couldn’t help thinking to herself, `What dreadful nonsense we are talking!’
Right?! So the books are just insanity laced with mercury, shrouded in laudanum. This much is obvious.
So at the end of the day, the ultimate question we should have is, how is Disney going to pull this pile of clever ditties and insanity into a coherent whole and still retain the magic of the original book? Exactly. Your guess is as good as mine. Oh, but I’ve seen the movie. That’s right. I forgot.
Disney’s Alice Through the Looking Glass Story
Alright… so how does one pull this mess of craziness together? You make it a story about Alice trying to help the Mad Hatter out of course. You jam 50 allusions to the book in the first 15 minutes, and then away on your entirely new story. That’s how!
So whatever would this new story be about you wonder? Well, the Mad Hatter of course. It is Johnny Depp after all. So the quasi-spoiler-less version is that the Mad Hatter sees a vision of the Jabberwocky attacking and killing his family. Only problem? Hatter’s family had already died. So the White Queen’s plan? To send Alice back in time to save Hatter’s family from the Jabberwocky attack in the first place. And obviously it would need to be Alice, because if you get close to an older version of one’s self everything ceases to exist!
So Alice steals the Chronosphere from Time (don’t ask) and begins skipping backwards in time in the hopes of predating the moment when Jabberwocky killed the Mad Hatters’ family. And it is in this narrative framework (that is made up whole cloth) that the rest of the story is told. Alice continues her travels and we occasionally see a few of the stories that are sprinkled through the book. But generally, the movie heads off on it’s own path to create a unique story out of the original experience. Disney’s Looking Glass movie is more about the continuation of the relationship between Alice and the Mad Hatter than it is about following the flow and story of Lewis Carroll’s books. Which isn’t good, or bad… it just is.The Characters of Through the Looking Glass
I am not a literature purist. I do not believe that one must fastidiously follow a book’s plot line in order to be successful. I get it that books and movies are completely different mediums and what works in one will not work always work in the other. But I do think that the changes necessary to the characters of Wonderland in order to carry this story forward do become unreasonable in some instances. Alice has been given a backstory as a naval ship captain, and during one of her trips back to the real world she is locked up in a sanitarium for an onset of female hysteria… and it’s all done so that Alice and her mother will have a satisfying solution in the real world at the end of the day. Which I think I understand. (Sort of a Lion, The Witch, And the Wardrobe sort of real world solution.)
But the Mad Hatter transformation to carry the pathos and the weight of the worry around his family’s death? And the concern and worry that are necessary to drive a plotline like this forward?!? The Mad Hatter can’t carry anything of significance forward! Let’s be honest, he’s insane! So to see Depp try and pull off this bit of a futile effort off is trying. And at times it comes off more like Spiderman and Venom than it does the Mad Hatter. Or better yet, it comes off more like Gollum in Lord of the Rings than it does Lewis Carroll. Which just doesn’t come off as legit or sincere to the books here.Final Thoughts on Disney’s Alice Through the Looking Glass
I actually did enjoy the movie. But I had to consume it more as a random story in Wonderland, as opposed to, THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS. If you know what I mean. The visuals were stunning. Really top notch and quite gorgeously done from beginning to end. The acting was good, for what the actors were given. The writing was ok, for having to solve the problem of cracking this Looking Glass nut, which has never really been done successfully before. I personally think that anyone that tries to put the Looking Glass to film is insane themselves. Just utterly, and mentally gone. There just isn’t any narrative in the book to hold onto.
But, despite my whining, and kvetching that the movie isn’t the book… I thought it was a fun romp. Whole swaths of the movie are fully made up, and the Characters seem over burdened. And yet, I loved it’s darkness, it’s upside-down-ness. “It isn’t IMPOSSIBLE, it’s merely unpossible!” I enjoyed it… But not as a reproduction of the original book it is supposedly based upon. I thought it was a fun venture back to Disney’s lovely theme park ride, but not great as a retelling… If that makes sense at all.