Review: Alice Through the Looking Glass 

It’s a dose of gritty medicine in a sugary work of lighthearted fantasy

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A lot of moviegoers dismissed 2010’s Alice in Wonderland as a phone-in job from director Tim Burton. But if you look and listen closely, it emerges as a surprisingly personal statement from the auteur of dark whimsy.

As Alice opens up about her experience in Wonderland, you can’t help but feel like Burton is expressing his own frustrations and defending his rocky career through her, especially when she says: “From the moment I fell down that rabbit hole, I’ve been told where I must go and who I must be. I’ve been shrunk, stretched, scratched, and stuffed into a teapot. I’ve been accused of being Alice and of not being Alice, but this is my dream. I’ll decide where it goes from here.”

In that bit of dialogue alone, you can see why Burton made the film. It’s an act of defiance — an answer to critics saying he lost his true colors.

The sequel, Alice Through the Looking Glass, isn’t nearly as bold or personal. Directed by James Bobin (The Muppets), the film feels like a simple carnival ride, thrusting viewers into a quirky world of strange yet forgettable sights and ultimately leaving us empty.

The film finds Alice (Mia Wasikowska, seeming bored) traveling back in time to uncover truths about the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) and his family that may save his life. (His health is deteriorating due to extreme stress over family matters.)

Before she can embark on her quest, Alice must acquire a device called the Chronosphere from Time himself (Sacha Baron Cohen). His palace is the film’s most surreal setting — a gigantic clock that controls the speed of the whole universe. The people on Earth don’t realize that life as they know it is powered by the gears and levers of this mechanical organism.

While this world is certainly exotic and visually arresting, it feels more like a level of a video game than a setting of significant emotional impact. In fact, much of the film feels this way — like a mere tour of computer-generated worlds rather than a story whose special effects enhance its drama.

However, the film does have one nugget of emotional truth: “You cannot change the past, but you can learn from it” — a statement you don’t hear often in tales of time travel. It’s a refreshing idea — a dose of gritty medicine in a sugary work of lighthearted fantasy.

The idea that you can’t mold your past bears resemblance to something Roger Ebert once said: “We are who we are — where we were born, who we were born as, how we were raised. We’re kind of stuck inside that person, and the purpose of civilization and growth is to be able to reach out and empathize a little bit with other people. And for me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy.”

If only this film focused more on stirring up empathy from viewers, connecting viewers hearts to the characters’ pasts more than dazzling our eyes. 

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