Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
May 2016

Alice Through the Looking Glass

Glass, half-empty

Garishly animated Alice Through the Looking Glass insipidly answers nonexistent questions

Alice Through the Looking Glass
Walt Disney Studios
Director: James Bobin
Screenplay: Linda Woolverton, based on characters created by Lewis Carroll
Starring: Mia Wasikowska, Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen, Johnny Depp, Anne Hathaway, Matt Lucas, Leo Bill, Rhys Ifans and Lindsay Duncan
Rated PG / 1 hour, 53 minutes
May 27, 2016
(out of four)

"My mandate was, let's let the audience in on the why of it all. Why does the Red Queen have a giant head? ... I wanted to fill in all the blanks." - Alice Through the Looking Glass screenwriter Linda Woolverton

"I love this material because it's a kind of '**** you' to literal-minded people. It makes you use both sides of your brain when literal-minded people don't want to." - Tim Burton

OK, so maybe that quote is from a decade and a half ago, and maybe Tim Burton was talking about material completely unrelated to Lewis Carroll. Still, the sentiment is not out of place here; in fact, it serves as a supremely fitting, if indirect, response to ... well, to whatever the hell Alice Through the Looking Glass is. The previous quote from Woolverton is not only the most inexplicable mission statement I've ever seen for a movie, but reveals an especially irksome strain of thought concerning art.

It's this pathological need to explain everything on literal terms, even that which is inherently abstract or otherwise impervious to logic. It's the grand accomplishment of point-missers everywhere - a needless impulse that mistakes explanation for insight. The figurative becomes literal, backstory becomes story, artistic choices become puzzle pieces. (It's the same sensibility that gives us those garbage fan theories, in which someone takes a bit of symbolism or a moment of dramatic flair, interprets it literally, connects a few dots that have no business being connected, and voila! An "answer." But for a question no one was asking.)

Let's look at that quote again, shall we? "I wanted to fill in all the blanks." I can't imagine what would possess any storyteller to want to fill in every blank. The blanks are there for a reason! The imagination lives in those blanks. The intangible lives in those blanks. Mystery lives in those blanks. Possibility. Ambiguity. Those blanks exist for the purpose of not being filled in. Once you've done so, what's even left?

Expanding on a story is one thing. Explaining things that fundamentally have nothing to do with story is another. The specifics Woolverton cites are even more inexplicable than her reasoning. We needed to find out why the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) has a giant head? Giving her a giant head was an expressionistic visual stroke - that is why she has it. She is an exaggeration and an absurdity - the character design is part of the visual language of this world; it communicates exactly what it intends to communicate about the character all by itself. It's not a plot point. But yep, that's exactly what this movie gives us - storylines that result in perfunctory explanations for the characters' physical idiosyncrasies, and other literal-minded nonsense. Explaining why the Red Queen has a gigantic head only ruins it. The hows and whys are irrelevant. God forbid you invite the audience to use their own imagination.

As a counterpoint to Woolverton's approach, let's use, appropriately enough, a Tim Burton example. Why Edward Scissorhands has scissors for hands is not only the jumping-off point to that film's entire story, but it's vital to understanding his character and the very nature of his creation. That film was full of countless other visual ideas that required no explanation. Neither does the Red Queen's head, nor anything else about her (or anyone else's) phsyical appearance.

Not to invite an unintended comparison, but you get the feeling that, if Woolverton were faced with a Picasso, she'd decide it would be a good idea to write a story explaining how all those body parts came to be in all those weird places.

There may indeed be specific explanations that the character designers have in mind when creating them, but these are not explanations we ever need to hear. Similar to the way actors often create long, complicated backstories for the characters they play - backstories that they keep to themselves and that never actually invade the film itself.

In fairness to Woolverton - who has done such better work, writing Beauty and the Beast, co-writing The Lion King, not to mention her robust Broadway career - perhaps there simply was no motivation for this movie to begin with. Burton's Alice in Wonderland was a smash hit, the sequel was inevitable, and this was a paying gig. Fine. But the whole enterprise is a brainless, idea-less concoction held together by repulsive CGI and irrelevant narrative detours. It's got virtually nothing to do with Carroll's Through the Looking Glass, and all it gives us in its place is a half-retread of the previous film, built around story points that couldn't possibly be any less important. Primarily, it's a race against Time (again, literally - the character of Time is played by Sacha Baron Cohen) in which the characters we met the first time around get their personal histories filled in, fulfilling the requests of exactly no one.

Though he exited the director's chair for this movie, Burton's fingerprints are still all over it. I was perhaps kinder to his Alice than I should have been - though I still submit it's somewhat more interesting than its reputation. But there's an odd kind of telephone-game detachment to Looking Glass. In 2010, it was Burton doing Lewis Carroll. Now, it's James Bobin, doing Burton, doing Lewis Carroll. But instead of reinterpreting or building upon Burton's visual creations, Bobin mostly recycles everything*, except when the introduction of a new character forces him to give us something else. Otherwise, his direction fits the M.O. of the rest of the film: obligation, stripped of inspiration. Every scene screams, "Let's just get this over with."

* When Burton last departed a franchise (Batman), his successor, Joel Schumacher, took Gotham in his own direction and didn't really worry about continuity. The movie wasn't good, but at least it was its own kind of bad. Bobin has no such artistic courage. His movie is terrible, but only insofar as it feels like a bad impression of third-rate Tim Burton.

Consider Johnny Depp's reprisal of his Mad Hatter role. Here it seems like a strangely different performance, as if he has a somewhat cloudy recollection of what he did the first time so he's just doing an impression of himself from memory. While we're at it, did you ever wonder why the Mad Hatter's eyes were so big? Of course you didn't. This movie will tell you anyway.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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