Alice Through the Looking Glass: Autopsy of an Expensive Alice Flop

Heaven's GateIn 1978, Michael Cimino took home the Best Picture and Best Director Academy Awards for his epic, The Deer Hunter, and was thus given a free pass to make whatever he wanted next. Heaven’s Gate, an even grander Western epic, went spectacularly over budget, costing $44 million dollars. The critical backlash to Cimino’s hubris led to the film making only $3.5 million at the box office. The fiasco caused the studio United Artists to collapse. Seven years later, director Elaine May thought that Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty would be funny as a hapless songwriting duo who get involved in a Middle Eastern guerrilla war. Ishtar’s budget ballooned to $50 Million dollars and it took in only $14 Million, killing a the director’s career.

They just don’t make flops like they used to! Although Rolling Stone pronounced Alice Through the Looking Glass “floppier than the average flop,” there’s very few people who will lose their heads as a result of this failure. Disney also owns Star Wars, Marvel, and Pixar. Zootopia made over a billion. They’re doing fine. The week after it opened saw many news outlets performing autopsies for why an installment in a beloved franchise with A-list stars tanked as hard as it did. This movie didn’t flop because it was a bad movie. That was incidental. It cost $170 Million to make and brought back in just $35 Million over Memorial Day Weekend. It was greenlit in the first place because Tim Burton’s 2010 Alice in Wonderland made over a billion dollars worldwide, and is still one of the top twenty-five highest grossing films of all-time. That movie was a success because of a brilliant marketing campaign, the big names making it, and culturally perfect timing for a nostalgic Alice movie. That cocktail of the zeitgeist put a lot of butts in seats, but did it generate a love for the ‘Underland’ universe that left people still hungry for a sequel six years later? Decidedly no. Was it a Heaven’s Gate-level fiasco that will end anyone’s career? Also no. (Except for Johnny Depp, but we’ll get back to that.)

Alice Through the Looking Glass

No one here needs to be reminded that the idea of releasing a sequel to Alice in Wonderland exactly six years later and calling it Through the Looking Glass has been done before. In searching for audience responses to this movie, I was disheartened to find a few fans who considehumpty-dumpty-and-the-messenger-alice-through-the-looking-glass-illustration-B7JW3Bred the second book to be way worse than the first. They cheered that this movie made the right decision to have little relation to its title’s source. Yes, there was Humpty Dumpty and chess pieces and a few quotes. And she gets into Underland this time around by going through a looking glass. But the beauty and language of TTLG remains unsullied by this messy film.

On Thursday, June 2nd, I filled a thermos full of sake and bought a ticket to a 4:25pm showing of Alice Through the Looking Glass in downtown Berkeley, California. To my great delight, I was the lone audience member at this showing, which allowed me the luxury of using my phone without bothering other viewers. I mostly browsed Twitter for other audience reactions, many of which are positive! Then a miracle happened. At 5:30, the power for the whole block went out, and a stressed-out theater manager issued the matinee crowd free passes to come back another time. (I plan on seeing the Anthony Wiener documentary.) Will Alice successfully defeat the sinister Time? Will she again slay the Jabberwock before it eats the Mad Hatter’s parents? I may never learn. I also was saved from seeing the scene where Alice wakes up in a sanatorium and is diagnosed with “female hysteria” (which I thought was a code word for Victorian women who enjoy sexual intercourse?)

Here are some of my tweets from the theater:

Alice-Through-the-Looking-Glass-TV-Spot-Mia-WasikowskaSeriously though, what’s up with the Alice as a Ship Captain thing? At the end of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, Alice is seen sailing off to colonize China. At the beginning of the sequel, she’s the captain of a merchant ship, fighting off pirates in a storm. Back in England, she’s told by the Patriarchy that she’s too female to be a captain and demote her to clerk. One of the reasons the 2010 film made over a billion dollars was because it was widely popular in Asia. (My suspicion is that China could greatly help this flop make back some of its $170 Million budget.) Considering the product itself is a High-Fructose Corn Syrup-spiked American export, isn’t it more than curiouser that these films have an Alice working for the notorious East India Company? Down in Underland, she’s a white girl who saves the locals from their own dangerous cultural faults and slays the dragon-like monster. She’s basically Daenerys Targaryen.

Also, she steals from Time a device called the Kronosphere, which causes the very fabric of spacetime to erode. Doesn’t that make Alice more of a comic book villain than Time is? ARE WE ROOTING FOR THE WRONG SIDE?

Tenniel HaighaAt 4:54pm, I tweeted “If Johnny Depp had green hair, he’d look more like the Joker than the Mad Hatter. #AliceThroughTheLookingGlass.” This brings us back to one of this phenomenon’s central mysteries. What the hell is up with Depp? Many critics are blaming this movie’s poor performance squarely on him. A week before it came out, his wife Amber Heard posted pictures of her bruised-up face and filed for divorce. Bad timing for Disney, but Johnny Depp’s box office mojo had shriveled up already. He started his career as a quirky indie darling, but proved to the establishment that he could draw crowds with billion-dollar Pirates of the Caribbean movies, and then with Alice in Wonderland. Then critics turned on him, irritated by his over-exposure and trying-too-hard performances. Alice Through the Looking Glass isn’t Depp’s first big budget flop, it’s his third recent one after The Lone Ranger and Mordecai. This bomb could be the thing that blows him off the A-List. (That and the domestic abuse.)

I don’t mean to pile on the Mad Hatter, but Depp’s depiction is baffling. His makeup is horrible, his ticks are annoying, and his accent ill-defined. The actor’s Jack Sparrow and Willy Wonka had soul. But his Mad Hatter doesn’t seem to have any core or defining characteristics. And he quite often foregoes even wearing a hat.

Helena Bonham Carter, Anne Hathaway, and the rest of the cast are fine. This is also the final film to feature the great Alan Rickman. R.I.P. Severus Snape, and someone I would have loved to have had voice the caterpillar in a real AAIW adaptation.alice and the queens

alice-looking-glass-red-queen-posterWhen the 2010 movie came out, there was quite a lot of writing, here and elsewhere, about Alice’s long history in the movies. It’s often been noted that the structure of Lewis Carroll’s books doesn’t lend itself to a very good movie plot. Some of the faithful adaptations have been dull. Alice is often older than six (although has she ever been as old as 26, Mia Wasikowska’s current age?) The Alice returning to Wonderland premise has been done many other times besides Tim Burton, so no one had any expectations that the 2016 movie was going to be based on TTLG. It’s totally allowed that they set out to tell an original story featuring public domain characters. The new characters they introduce, Time (Sacha Baron Cohen) and his clockwork henchmen, Seconds and Minutes, are considerably more interesting than the versions of Wonderland characters we get here, some of whom have next to nothing to do in the film and are just there. (Here’s looking at you, Big Puppy, who most people don’t even remember from the book. Is there any less famous AAIW character?)

stock-vector-alice-shakes-the-red-queen-through-the-looking-glass-and-what-alice-found-there-original-book-76271695The Toronto Sun wrote, “Alice, of Alice in Wonderland fame, is dead to me now. Alice Through the Looking Glass has killed her off as a viable character for a movie.” Damn! Anyone want to bet on the next time there’ll be an Alice in Wonderland film? I’ve got 5-to-1 odds on 2022. This time around, Alice will be 35 and return to a war-torn Wonderland ruled by a Donald Trump-esque dictator dormouse.

The central sin of this film isn’t that they used Lewis Carroll’s characters. It’s that Disney attempted to fledge out a Universe for the franchise, here called Underland. In a misguided attempt to give its main characters depth, they gave us “origin stories” for the Mad Hatter and the Red Queen. I hate origin stories. I don’t care how Batman’s parents died, please just drop us into the story in medias res. Much of the time-traveling plot of Alice Through The Looking Glass is spent on delving into why the Mad Tea Party happened and why the Queen of Hearts is so angry (spoiler alert: it’s tarts). This is a time-traveling prequel masquerading as a sequel to a movie that was already a sequel to Alice in Wonderland. Linda Woolverton’s screenplay is a mess.

alice-through-the-looking-glass-poster-timeAlice Through the Looking Glass is a movie for anyone who ever skimmed a passage of Lewis Carroll and thought, ‘This is great, but it could use a bit more Terminator,’” said Justin Chang in the LA Times. The first half hour drowns us in exposition for plots we can’t care less about. Germain Lussier at io9 wrote, “Alice and the Hatter stand in one place and exchange information. Alice and the White Queen (Anne Hathaway) stand stationary and exchange information. Alice and Time share a conversation filled with, you guessed it, extraneous information. It’s all in beautiful settings but it’s a textbook instance of telling instead of showing.” This style of direction – where half of a movie is noisy computer graphics and the other half is people talking to each other while sitting on couches in rooms – sounds a lot like the hallmarks of the greatest sequeler and prequeler of our era… George Lucas. Director James Bobin has given us the Star Wars prequel to Alice in Wonderland that no one asked for. That little mustachioed clockwork guy’s voice even sounds eerily like Jar Jar Binks.

The sheep plays a major roll in the new Disney film, not.

The sheep plays a major roll in the new Disney film, not.

Then again, going from place to place and having conversations with different characters is more or less exactly what Lewis Carroll’s Alice books are like, and the reason they don’t make great movies. So to rephrase, Through the Looking Glass wouldn’t work as a Hollywood movie because it’s just Alice going from place to place and having great conversations, so instead they made a movie where Alice goes from place to place and has conversations about plot exposition. And then she’s institutionalized for female hysteria.

I was saved by the PG&E gods from having to watch the second half of this film. But the truth is that this movie and its predecessor will be how many young people for a generation will first experience Wonderland characters, and now everyone knows the Mad Hatter’s origin story. Another way to look at it is that this movie was so bad, maybe it will inspire a young reader to wonder if the book version of Through The Looking Glass is any better. Or maybe they’ll go watch Michael Cimino’s four-hour-long Director’s Cut of Heaven’s Gate instead.



French Radio Program About Carroll and his Mathematics & Photography

For the Francophone members, a new radio show about Carroll, photography, and mathematics by Patrick Roegiers and Jacques Roubaud.  Originally broadcast on January 2, 2015, this program is available until September 27, 2017 so hurry! If the embedded player doesn’t work, direct link here.

Alice150 Kicking Off the Year with a Big Article in the NYT

So great news for Carrollians, the larger world is starting to notice that this year is the 150th anniversary of AAIW.  And what better way to start than with a nice article in the New York Times.

Macmillan to Reissue Lots of Alice Books for Alice 150

Can’t keep a good idea down, Macmillan is jumping on the Alice 150 bandwagon with a slew of new editions of both Alice and Looking Glass, not to mention Morton Cohen’s Carroll biography.  Details here.

Alice’s House for Sale for a Cool £1million

I bet if we all pooled our money we could buy this as our official residence and meeting place.  Ah well, I can dream can’t I?  Click me to see some actually quite nice photographs of the the house.  And if any of you Mimsy Minions do in fact buy it, I would love to visit!

Latest Disney Alice Film Not Based on Carroll

It should come as no surprise that the latest in Disney’s Johnny Depp-fueled Alice films is not based on Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass. The director speaks.

Radio Interview With Current LCSNA President on Carroll’s Birthday

Carroll Cameo

Audio fans!  This just in:

Life Elsewhere, a radio show from Tampa, FL, interviewed our current president, Mark Burstein, on Carroll’s birthday, January 27. The host, Norman B, was a bit obsessed with the usual canards about Carroll’s alleged fondness for young girls and drug use, which Mark defended to the best of his ability in a rather wide-ranging interview. Mark also begs your indulgence for any minor factual errors or anything else he uttered due to nervousness. The sound bites added afterwards are from the Jonathan Miller production. You can get a podcast or download an .mp3 at (it’s the first half-hour).”

World of Alice Author and WWII Codebreaker Mavis Batey Dies at 92

Batey Oxford Book CoverIf you are reading this post, you are likely a Carrollian, and as such, if you know the name Mavis Batey, it is probably because of her books Alice’s Adventures in Oxford (1980), and The World of Alice, published in 1998, the year of the Carroll Centenary at Christ Church College, Oxford.

We regret to report that Mrs. Batey passed away on November 12th at the age of 92.  She was a brilliant and gracious person, and will be missed by many.  But her publications about Alice, and English gardens, are not her only legacy.  In her youth, she was a key part of the British government’s secret Bletchley Park  code breaking team during World War II, and made a number of significant contributions to crucial code breaking efforts (including deciphering the first message from one of the infamous German “Enigma” machines) that helped turn the tide in the war.

To read more about Mrs. Batey’s contributions while at Bletchley Park in the Washington Post, click me.

To read an obituary in The Telegraph with more details about her work at Bletchley, click me.

Kristen Stewart’s Wonderland-Themed Childhood Home For Sale

Curiouser and curiouser.  Even if you don’t follow the gossip columns, or go to the movies, chances are you’ve heard of talented actress Kristen Stewart, star of the megahit Twilight film franchise, as well as Snow White and the Huntsman, among others.  Perhaps that second title should have given us all a hint; it turns out that Ms. Stewart grew up in a fairytale, Wonderland-themed home, complete with a giant chess board by the pool, and several Alice-themed murals.  The home is now on the market due to her parents’ pending divorce; if you have $1.75 Million, you can snap it up for yourself!

To view pictures of the property, click me.

Free One-Hour Audio Adaptation of Alice in Wonderland

One of our mimsy minions reports the release of a new (and free) 60-minute audio adaptation of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by a Canadian collective known as Voices in the Wind.  After a quick listen to parts, I can tell you that the adaptation is quite loose (and Alice does not have a British accent).  There is also at least one Disney-esque musical number.

Click me to read an article about the recording.

Click me to go directly to Voices in the Wind’s web site.