Why did the Mad Hatter go mad? What made the Red Queen fall out with the White Queen? And why does Helena Bonham Carter’s version of the former have such a humungous head?
These and other questions you probably haven’t been asking are answered in Alice Through the Looking Glass, a return visit to the ‘Underland’ of Tim Burton’s imaginings that, rather like this year’s The Huntsman: Winter’s War, creates a backstory for characters that didn’t particularly need one.
Chalk that one up to Lewis Carroll himself, whose episodic, haphazard follow-up to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland required screenwriter Linda Woolverton to fashion a whole new framework for an adap that, once Mia Wasikowska’s Alice has re-entered Underland through the titular mirror, jettisons any attempt to reflect its source. Instead, the film gives Alice what might in Carrollian terms be called a Mission Unpossible: travel back in time to find out what happened to the Mad Hatter’s family, the unresolved fate of which has driven him to the edge of despair.
Movies have been made on flimsier pretexts than this. And at least this one enables incoming director James Bobin to play his trump card: Sacha Baron Cohen as the embodiment of Time, presented here as a testy, pernickety fusspot who, for reasons probably best known to the Borat and Grimsby star, utters his pronouncements in the meticulous Germanic inflections of filmmaker Werner Herzog.
“My inwincible machine is all too wincible!” he cries at one stage from beneath an Episcopal hat that, together with his ornate shoulder pads and whirring neck cogs, makes him resemble nothing so much as a malevolent grandfather clock: one who bristles at the countless idioms he has inspired (“Is it true that you heal all wounds?”) and the “me-shaped corridors” of the castle he calls home.
It is this domain that Alice must penetrate if she is to pinch the “chronosphere” that, when not powering “the great clock of time”, allows her to sail on the “oceans of time” in a gyroscopic, steam-punk version of Doc Brown’s DeLorean. (Luckily Wasikowska has already proved her seaworthiness in a maritime prologue that has her evading pirates on the Straits of Malacca in her good ship ‘The Wonder’ – a conspiratorial wink to another Disney franchise captained by one of her co-stars.)
But that’s only the beginning of an adventure that not only has Mia encounter juvenile incarnations of Johnny Depp’s Hatter and Anne Hathaway’s White Queen Mirana, but also sees Bonham Carter’s Iracebeth endangering all of Underland by interacting with herself – something she would have surely known was a no-no if she’d ever bothered to watch Timecop.
It’s no surprise to find SBC and HBC – reunited here after their earlier collaborations on Les Miserables and Burton’s Sweeney Todd – providing the lion’s share of the entertainment in a film that receives an additional jolt of energy whenever either appears on screen.
What does surprise is how muted Depp is in comparison, his Mad Hatter (real name Tarrant Hightopp, in case you were wondering) spending most of the story in a despondent funk oddly reminiscent of the languor Depp projected in that Australian apology video. Then again, perhaps that is to be expected from a subplot that reduces his demented force of nature to a sadsack with daddy issues.
The fate of Hatter Sr (Rhys Ifans) is a slightly humdrum mystery Bobin tries to keep us interested in over the course of a hectic 108 minutes. On top of all the above, room also has to be found for such regulars as Tweedledum and Tweedledee (Matt Lucas), the Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry) and, most touchingly, Absolem the caterpillar turned butterfly (Alan Rickman in his final, voice-only performance).
Small wonder ATTLG is busier than both of Bobin’s Muppet movies combined, even without Alice’s attempts in 1870s London to escape both the dull future that’s been mapped out for her by her widowed mother (Lindsay Duncan) and an Andrew Scott-administrated sanatorium to which she’s fleetingly confined.
The result is an always diverting, never dull fantasy that rarely stays still long enough for the viewer to pick holes. There is a hole, though – the one Burton left when he traded the director’s chair for a producing role, taking his baroque whimsy with him.