Thursday, June 2, 2016

Thank Goodness 'Alice Through the Looking Glass' Isn't Very Good

Let's get this out of the way first thing: Alice Through the Looking Glass is not a very good movie. At all. It's disorganized and emotionally unsatisfying, beautiful to look at but baffling to understand, and basically acts as one big epilogue to the first Alice in Wonderland, tying up plotlines that most of us never bothered to want to tie up. It's not very good, thank goodness.

I'm happy about this, you see, because if Alice Through the Looking Glass were actually good, I would have some complex feelings about that. As it is, I am eternally grateful for its mediocrity-verging-on-badness. Why? Because I don't know how to go about praising a movie where the central plot is all about rescuing and saving a character played by an actor whose wife has just accused him of physical and verbal abuse.

Yeah. Really don't know what to do with that.

For those of you staying out of the celebrity news cycle of shame, here's the deal: Just before Alice Through the Looking Glass opened in theaters, Johnny Depp's wife, Amber Heard, filed for divorce and a restraining order, citing years of well-documented abuse. She was granted the restraining order, which should give you some understanding of how serious this is. As in, serious enough for a judge to deem her evidence substantial and compelling. She has photographs, witnesses, text message conversations, and 911 calls. It's pretty damning.

What does that have to do with this movie? Literally nothing. But while I was sitting in the theater, I couldn't help thinking about it. I couldn't help looking at Johnny Depp's character on screen and thinking about how the period when he was filming that movie was a period when he was allegedly abusing his wife. I couldn't not contemplate that by paying money to see this movie I was effectively subsidizing the career of a man who might have hit his wife. I just have no idea what to do with that information. That in and of itself doesn't make Alice Through the Looking Glass a bad movie (it does that all on its own), but it did make me even more hesitant to consider liking it. I don't know what I would have done if it were actually good.

This feels like a topic whose time has come. Cannes this year was characterized by the controversy over Woody Allen, a divisive figure who at best seduced his seventeen year old stepdaughter and at worst might have sexually abused his daughter. Actors left and right were falling all over themselves to justify their decision to appear in his movies and continue associating with him, while other actors expressed their vehement disgust for him and his films. The one thing we couldn't get past, though, was that Woody Allen's movies, whether you like them or not, are huge career moves for the actors in them. Even more, lots of people do like his films and think they're really wonderful.

What do we do when the media we love is made by people who have done terrible things?

I really am asking. I don't have an answer for that. In this case, I feel relieved (and a little terrible for feeling relieved) that the film in question just isn't very good. But that doesn't help me with the larger question, of how to deal with the duality of art and artist. Sadly, I don't see society coming to any clear consensus on that anytime soon. So in the meantime, let's talk about exactly why, thankfully, Alice Through the Looking Glass is a bad movie.

The film is, of course, a sequel to the 2010 Alice in Wonderland. In the years since she returned, Alice (Mia Wasikowska) has gone on to do wonderful and incredible things. We open on her at the command of her father's old ship, The Wonder, leading her men through a narrow escape from Malaysian pirates. In other words, Alice in the real world has grown up to be a total badass. She's a ship's captain, leading trading missions deep into China, and generally living her own awesome life. 

Sadly for her, though, the rest of society is having trouble catching up to her awesomeness.

Her own mother (Lindsay Duncan) wishes she would settle down and live a more respectable life, and the men who run the shipping company have "generously" offered her a demotion to working as a clerk in their offices. Without her father around, her mother had to mortgage the house and use their ship as collateral. So either Alice buckles down and ditches the ship and her dreams of being a sea captain who has grand adventures or her mother is homeless. Even worse, all of this is being spearheaded by Alice's spiteful ex-beau, Hamish (Leo Bill).

Okay, so that's all horrible and emotionally engaging, right? I was totally on board with this. I was in it, desperate to know what happens to Alice and her dreams of being a ship's captain. But the movie, it turns out, didn't think this was the most interesting story. So just when it was getting good, Alice saw a blue butterfly and chased it through the looking glass.

She wakes up in Wonderland, of course, and plops right down at a council of all those characters you came to know and love in the first movie, whether it makes sense for them to be there or not. The characters have all gathered for a meeting to determine how they will save the Hatter (Johnny Depp) from himself. It seems that the Hatter has fallen into a deep depression and might be dying from it. Alice is their last hope to save him, because she and the Hatter were definitely that level of emotionally close all those years ago and clearly that makes sense.

Alice goes to Hatter and discovers that his depression is based on potential: he has discovered that the family he thought was dead might be alive and now he's distraught that he doesn't know where they are or how to find them. He's also devastated by remembering that his father died before the two of them could ever reconcile and that is sad. Alice is naturally very saddened by this but insists that it's impossible for Hatter's family to be alive. This nearly kills him.

Because this is Wonderland and everything is bonkers, then, the good people and animals and whatever come up with a plan. They will save the Hatter by ensuring that his family is alive. As in, they will send Alice to steal the macguffin so she can sail back in time, save Hatter's family, and make him better again. Make sense? No, no it doesn't but we have to go with it anyway.

The rest of the film is a time travel romp as Alice spirals through Wonderland's history, dodging Time (Sacha Baron Cohen), and trying to right Hatter's timeline. In the process, she also runs into a lot of information about the history between the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) and the White Queen (Anne Hathaway), explaining the animosity between them and how two sisters grew up so different.

It's hard to say what the main plot of the movie is, though, because by the time we reach the climax, it isn't at all about saving Hatter's family anymore, it's about making sure that Wonderland doesn't cease to exist because Alice screwed with Time. And for all that the adventures are wacky and the sets gorgeous and the effects really good, it's hard to get into this movie emotionally. We know that this isn't a film that will let anything bad actually happen. Even worse, the whole story seems to be made of collapsing boxes, with each plot falling in on itself only to be replaced with a new one.

Alice can't save Hatter's family because she gets knocked off course. So she sees the conflict between the Red and White Queens and decides to fix that because fixing that might save Hatter's family. 

Only Alice discovers that she can't actually change anything in the past because the literal only time she tries it doesn't work. So instead of continuing to try to change things, she escapes to the real world, escapes back into Wonderland, finds out what happened to Hatter's family, nearly ends the world, and just generally makes a mess of things without ever letting us feel like progress is made.

Seriously, even when she goes and Hatter gets better and it's all fine again, we don't feel like things have happened, like a story has been told. It was just some vignettes that passed across the screen and everything is fine again. Time turns out not to have been a villain all along but actually the only sane person in the whole story, and rather than being about saving Hatter's family (who become an afterthought very quickly), the whole film hinges on whether or not the White Queen will apologize to her sister for lying about some tarts when they were children.

That's it. That's basically the movie.

The problem I really had with this film was that I didn't care about any of it. I didn't care whether the Hatter found his family and I didn't care if the Queens got their crap together and I definitely didn't need the Red Queen to be "redeemed" and have all of her actions be framed as completely reasonable and definitely her sister's fault. That was dumb and not emotionally engaging.

No, I spent most of the movie wishing we could go back to Alice at the bow of her ship, fighting pirates and gender norms in Victorian England. When we dipped back into the real world we found Alice in an insane asylum being experimented on by a horrible doctor (played by Andrew Scott in a brilliant stroke of cameo casting). I wanted to get back to that! When we finally do go back to Alice's real world, it felt like too brief a story but it was still a hundred times better than everything that had happened in Wonderland.

I wanted that story, the one about Alice and her mother making their way in a hostile society that punishes women who step out of place. I wanted the story about a brave young woman commanding a ship full of men who respect her and listen to her and follow her orders without any grumblings about her being "just a girl". I wanted to watch a whole movie about Alice bucking the system and having lady-allies and being amazing.

Instead I got a movie about a bunch of characters I didn't care about trying to tell me that everything had to be done to save a character I also didn't care about. 

This is more of a sidenote, but it's worth considering that it isn't impossible to make a compelling story based on Alice in Wonderland. The 2009 miniseries Alice does a great job by eschewing the nonsense of the original in favor of a fully realized and complex cyberpunk world and a really engrossing and fun story. So it's not like you can't make a good movie about Alice in Wonderland, it's just that this movie didn't.

I get that this movie was never going to be Alice's adventures as a sea captain. Wonderland is the selling point and so she had to go through the looking glass and have some more adventures. But it says a lot that the most compelling story was the one back in the real world. And for all that Alice is a badass in London, weirdly none of that seems to translate to Wonderland - Alice fades into the background of celebrity cameos and "wacky" scenes, left with very little to do in a plot that can carry on without her. Mia Wasikowska is an amazing actress, but watching her in this was a bit like watching Kate Winslet acting in a middle school play. She's great, but there's absolutely nothing for her to do.

Which does bring up that this film gave the strange sensation of seeing a cast positively glittering with Academy Awards do nothing for two hours. Weird makeup might help in the building of a complex and interesting world, but it's not great for actors who already don't have a lot to do.

Okay, so Alice Through the Looking Glass is a hot mess of cool CGI and a potentially interesting plot about time and acceptance that gets buried in studio notes and character redemptions no one asked for. What does all of this have to do with our larger question about art vs. artist?

In a way, nothing. Alice Through the Looking Glass is a movie that Johnny Depp is in rather than a movie that he wrote and directed and intended as a statement about the world. So in that sense there's less to worry about here. In a larger sense, however, the film is all about Depp's character and his emotional state, a plot that's conflicting for viewers who are aware of what's going on in his personal life. 

I'm not going to lie, I do not have answers here. I don't know how much responsibility a film should take for the behavior of its stars.

All of this just brings us back to the beginning: thank goodness Alice Through the Looking Glass isn't a better movie. It's horrible to say, but it's true. If you're just looking to ogle some nice CGI, then I'm sure it's fine, but the movie lacks an emotional core and generally does't work. As for all the rest, I think it might be time for us as a culture to sit down and really consider how we feel about this. Is it really okay to like a movie made by someone who might be abusive? Is it okay to boycott it based on allegations that have yet to go to trial? I don't know, but I do know it's important to consider.

At least I also know that Johnny Depp's Mad Hatter is annoying and not in a funny way and that however this shakes out I still wouldn't have liked this movie.

Though Sacha Baron Cohen at least wasn't the most irritating person on screen for once.


  1. (Sacha Baron Cohen)

    Ah, yes, the guy who's dressed up as a black man and a gay man so he can make fun of black and gay people while pretending to make fun of racism and homophobia. Pass.

    I feel relieved (and a little terrible for feeling relieved) that the film in question just isn't very good.

    I'm a bit like that about the Ninth Gate. I love the film, but I'm selfishly glad I bought it before knowing about Polanski (Depp's in that one too).

    I was in it, desperate to know what happens to Alice and her dreams of being a ship's captain.

    Hell, yes. That sounds vastly more compelling.

  2. There has to be a moral line. And people KNOW this which is why they fall all over themselves praising Woody Allen when his films, aside from being 90 minute treatises on what its like to be a middle aged neurotic pedophile, are BORING!.
    And I was so hoping after the greatness of the first movie they would do something with Alice s "muchness". Katarina Scorsese was a badass in the Alice miniseries and the series never forgot that.

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