A film all about time could have used it better.
Canberra-native Mia Wasikowska reprises the title role that made her a star in this loose adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s sequel to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Tim Burton’s 2010 mega-blockbuster. Helmed by Flight of the Conchords Director James Bobin this time around, Alice steps through the titular mirror to encounter Time itself, played by Sacha Baron Cohen, easily the most entertaining element of the film, matched only by the reliably marvellous visuals best deployed in a literal race against time towards the film’s end.
The puns flow thick and heavy, so much so that they put Justin Timberlake’s fizzer In Time to shame. A critical while not defining feature of Carroll’s captivating stylings, here Bobin seems content to revel in maxims and clever word-play without any real deference to the ideas or philosophical musings that entranced generations of readers in Alice’s original adventures. Sacrificing any serious adaptation of the author’s meditations on life and realism for an almost pure emphasis on their whimsicality, a single witticism seemingly on the cusp of a larger strain of thought is just that; it’s greater value lost at the expense of progressively tiring one-liners.
Not even the worst part of the scripting, Alice repeatedly explains everything that is happening and just what needs to happen next, as if the audience hadn’t been paying attention all along, for which in this film they could almost be forgiven. Cohen gets all the of the screenplay’s best lines, introducing himself by exclaiming, “stupid me-shaped corridor.” Present throughout yet still underutilized, a greater narrative could have been shaped around his interactions with Alice or better yet the altogether fascinating concept of his character. Telegraph columnist Robbie Collin recently bemoaned the dearth of quality in Cohen’s recent offerings, rightly positing that he deserved a Kubrick-type figure to adequately realise his talents on screen, as the great director had done years before for Peter Sellers in Dr Strangelove, then not recognised for the talent for which he would later be known. For Cohen, this was not that film.
Thanklessly meriting even less screen-time, supremely talented actors Andrew Scott and Richard Armitage turn up out of nowhere for momentary roles, with nominal lip-service paid to Timothy Spall and Michael Sheen as they reprise their voice-roles from the original. Stephen Fry, captivating in his earlier performance as the Cheshire Cat, is largely relegated to fleeting asides and exposition. In his final role, Alan Rickman lends his highly distinguishable drawl to the proceedings as the butterfly Absolem.
Rhys Ifans gets significantly more room to move as The Mad Hatter’s father, with Producer Tim Burton failing to learn from his lambasted venture Charlie and the Chocolate Factory that there is limited appeal in inventing a secondary character’s (in both cases played by Johnny Depp) quest to reunite with his estranged father when there is a central and much more compelling narrative that should be front and centre.
One scene between The Mad Hatter and Time, enjoyable in and of itself for the pairing of Depp and Cohen, is mercilessly short and over-stuffed with CGI, wherein the two outstanding performers could have otherwise used the sequence, and perhaps the rest of the film, to enthral an audience by playing off each other and engaging more constructively with Carroll’s extensive verbiage, of which there is no shortage, save for in this screenplay.
Yes, it is a children’s film, and it is not unentertaining. Carroll wrote the story for children, dedicating the original as ‘a Christmas gift for a dear child.’ Young readers over generations (myself included) have relished Carroll’s prose and with an abundance of material to draw from there’s no reason Alice Through the Looking Glass couldn’t have done the same.
Alice Through the Looking Glass is in cinemas on May 26th