In 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.)
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 considered 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 causes a scandal by wearing a psychedelic Chinese dress to a soiree. #AliceThroughTheLookingGlass
— S. Sandrigon (@SSandrigon) June 2, 2016
Alice is a feminist hero for wanting to be a female colonialist in a male colonialist world. #AliceThroughTheLookingGlass
— S. Sandrigon (@SSandrigon) June 2, 2016
Seriously 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?
At 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.
When 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?)
The 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 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.
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.