As reputations go, the one possessed by Time, who in director James Bobin’s Alice Through the Looking Glass is a piercingly-blue-eyed clock man played by Sacha Baron Cohen, is certainly one of the less enviable.
He is variously cast as a villain and a thief, a purloiner of life and memories, a taker not a giver, whose only concern is keeping the seconds and minutes ticking by with military precision.
But as Alice (Mia Wasikowska) discovers on her return trip down the rabbit hole, or in this case a permeably translucent, event horizon mirror in a cluttered room in the mansion of her spurned fiance Hamish Ascott (Leo Bill), this picture may not be an entirely fair or accurate one.
Initially at least she sees Time as an enemy, a force to be overcome and used in her ceaseless quest to resurrect the spirit of her good friend the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) who is beset by deepening sadness and regret over the long ago loss of his family to the Jabberwocky at the unhinged behest of a revengeful Red Queen (Helena Bonham-Carter).
Or rather by the fact that no one, including his beloved Alice, will believe him when he says that he now believes his family are alive, the idea given a sizable boost, in his mind at least, by the discovery of the first hat he ever made in muddy ground when it couldn’t possibly be if his family has been devoured by monstrous fire as he believed.
Affected more by the fact that none of his friends – Tweedledum and Tweedledee (Matt Lucas), the White Rabbit (Michael Sheen), the March Hare (Paul Whitehouse), the Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry), Bayard the Bloodhound (Timothy Spall) and Mallymkun the Doormouse (Barabara Windsor), and most painfully Alice herself – think he is even more mad than usual, the Mad Hatter wastes away, the colour literally draining away from his face and hair.
Spurred into action, Alice, who has her own real world problems back in London fighting to retain control of her deceased father’s ship and keeping her mother (Lindsay Duncan) engaged with life, whose entire life philosophy now revolves around doing six impossible things before breakfast, heads off to borrow (read: steal) the Chronosphere off Time in a bad to travel back and stop Hatter’s family dying in the first place.
But as you might, all of this zipping back and forth in time, pursued by Time who is neither villainous nor prone to thievery but simply a lovesick keeper of himself – the puns and jokes about time fly thick and fast – does work out in quite the way Alice initially envisages.
She learns that changing time is neither easy nor un-messy and that there are some things that simply cannot be changed, a realisation that has implications for herself, the Mad Hatter and all the idiosyncratic residents of Wonderland, or Underland as it more correctly known.
It’s these life lessons that form the backbone of the narrative of Alice Through the Looking Glass, a film that manages a far more engaging storyline than that of its live action predecessor, Alice in Wonderland (2010) while delighting with the same inventive visual sumptuous and rich characterisation that made the Tim Burton-helmed first trip to Wonderland such a joy.
At every turn, we are treated to the most imaginative takes on Lewis Carroll’s beloved creations; everything from Time’s towering palace, which sits atop a giant clock face, to the “oceans” of time that Alice sails over in his quest to fix the life of her dear friend Hatter through to the lollipop-coloured richness of hatter’s tea table are suffused with colour, life and vivacity.
And where the story takes a darker turn, such as when Alice finds herself at the mercy of Hamish’s ham-fisted business tactics in a grimy crowded 1875 London or when we relive the fiery destruction of Hatter’s hometown of Wit’s End, the visuals remain breathtakingly expansive and immersive, a sign that the filmmakers understand that every aspect of the film needed to be as boundless, expectation-defying and convention-bucking as Alice herself.
Wonderland, after all, is a deliciously over-the-top land, on which tips everything we know to be true on its head, and to leave the potential untapped, both visually and narratively, would have been a crime on par with Alice’s ill-informed and misguided thievery of the Chronosphere.
Fortunately while Alice is most definitely at fault, something she profusely apologises for later to a forgiving Time who nonetheless asks her to never return (in stark contrast to Hatter who never wants her to leave), the film is not, its every step, bright, colourful, whimsical, meaningful and rich.
With production supplied by Tim Burton, who stepped away from directing for this instalment, a sequel that betters the original, and a screenplay by Linda Woolverton that is dynamic, sweet, funny, just plain silly and emotionally resonant, often simultaneously, Alice Through the Looking Glass is faithful to Carroll’s insightful, clever tale in ways that delight, amuse and affect.
While it may suffer a little from Disney’s propensity for neat happy, emotionally well tied-up endings, this is a minor criticism given how substantial and meaty it is beneath all the pleasing visual confectionery.
It’s whimsical, funny and gorgeously over-the-top yes, which is exactly as it should be, but it is also emotionally astute and affecting, taking time to give each of the main characters at play – Alice, the Mad Hatter and the Red Queen – the kind of story arcs that aren’t just entertaining but meaningful too.
It’s no mean feat managing to be both bright and fancifully escapist, and emotionally insightful and authentic but Alice Through the Looking Glass manages it with aplomb, giving us not only another chance to spend time with Carroll’s riotously amusing characters and the wacky land they inhabit, but an emotionally-resonant, heartwarming tale that not only rings true but which will stay with you long after Alice has left the insanely world of Hatter and the others, one which has more lessons for our own than we could possibly imagine.