‘Alice Through the Looking Glass’ dips into sci-fi, steampunk & Orientalism

The sequel to the live-action “Alice in Wonderland” picks up three years later and leaves all charm and coherency behind. In “Alice Through the Looking Glass,” there are fewer nods to the actual book and more to recent science fiction and CGI extravaganzas and the current popularity of something called steampunk.

Have movie makers, including Disney, forgotten how to make small, intimate movies for children? “Alice Through the Looking Glass” begins with pirates, but none as insolently charming as Jack Sparrow. The ship called Wonder, captained by Alice Kingsleigh (Mia Wasikowska), must escape pirates and does so with an impossible maneuver that the pirates attempt only to crash and burn. Alice left England after refusing the proposal of the evil lordling, Hamish Ascot (Leo Bill).

Alice again finds herself at Lord Ascot’s estate for an evening party and again she is inappropriately dressed in a garish Chinese inspired pants suit before women were allowed to wear pants in polite society. So much has changed in three years: Her father’s friend and Hamish’s father, Lord Ascot, has died, the lordling is now the Lord Ascot and owner of the company Alice’s father helped build. Her mother sold her and Alice’s shares in the company and will be forced to sign over her late husband’s ship that Alice now commands if she wishes to keep her own home. So much has not changed; Hamish and his cronies are male chauvinists with money and social position. Hamish is willing to hire Alice, not as a captain, but as a clerk (said with a sneer). This is the old boys’ club at its Victorian worst.

Someone needs to check out Ascot’s estate for the paranormal is strong there. Alice sees her old friend the Caterpillar now turned into an iridescent blue butterfly, Absolem (voiced by Alan Rickman). He lures her to step through the looking glass of the title. In Linda Woolverton‘s script there’s some initial reference to chess, but little to the mirroring. Both those things characterize the original book. Yet the script treats the mirror more as a portal between two worlds and not a mirror universe or mirrored universe.

Alice enters what this series has dubbed “Underland,” and learns that her friend the Mad Hatter, Tarrant Hightopp (Johnny Depp), is possibly mad or at least severely depressed.  Woolverton works hard to give us back stories for the Red Queen, the White Queen and the Mad Hatter. To help the Mad Hatter, Alice is determined to change history (always a mistake, right?) and to do so she must visit Time (Sacha Baron Cohen).

Time is half-clock and half-human: Think steampunk cyborg. This cyborg needs something called the Chronosphere to keep his own ticker ticking. The Chronosphere also powers the world. Each person’s life is a pocket watch and when the pocket watch stops ticking, the person dies and Time takes it from the place where clocks tick to the place where clocks are suspended ornaments kept in alphabetical order. What chaos zombies must make for Time. Time is keeping time with the Red Queen, Iracebeth of Crims (Helena Bonham Carterj).

The Red Queen may have been banished, but she has her own minions, people made up of garden veggies and fruits. She is determined to get the Chronosphere (you can get one for a little over $50 at the Disney store) which will help her rule the world of Underland. Alice gets it first. The Chronosphere once taken from its place in the clockworks of Time, can be thrown and it instantly enlarges into a spherical time machine that can be ridden to the past. Alice rides the Chronosphere which is like piloting a ship, chased by a weakening Time in another makeshift time navigating craft. Through the surrounding seas of times, she tries to prevent the death of the Hatter’s family, his leaving his family after a disagreement with his father and the accident that caused the gross enlargement of the Red Queen’s head. Time warns Alice, “You cannot change the past. It always was. It always will be. Although I dare say, you might learn something from it.”

Certainly there’s some intelligence in the script: Don’t miss the bit of cleverness where the pocket watch of Alice’s father has “Carroll” written on it. And there’s a reference to Mickey in Time and surely many more if you have the patience to see this movie more than once.  Yet the names and the back stories scream “Wicked.” The Red Queen has been betrayed by the goodly White Queen in the past. This time, under director James Bobin (Tim Burton is the producer), Hathaway’s more mincingly mimicking Glinda from the “Wizard of Oz.” One’s surprised that the Red Queen isn’t wearing stripped socks. The time travel conundrum does come up where characters from the past see their character from the future. So this version of Lewis Carroll’s fantasy includes a Time lord, time travel, portals between worlds, steampunk robots, a cyborg, animated veggies, talking animals, an unusually long-lived butterfly and time at an insane asylum plus a little Orientalism so off-stage you’re meant to ignore it.

Bobin gets it wrong in the press notes when he says, “‘Alice, as written by Lewis Carroll, was very forward-thinking for the time and almost out of place because she’s a strong female character in a very patriarchal, Victorian society…sort of a modern woman in an old-fashioned society.” Alice in the book  “Through the Looking-Glass” is not yet eight. She declares she is seven and a half. She isn’t a woman. She’s a child who can clearly see the nonsensical society before her. In this movie series, Alice is a young, determined woman.

Also in the press notes, Wasikowska notes that “Alice is a great character because she’s very much her own person, and after returning from her travels where she was captain of her own ship has gained more confidence and is filled with a sense of inspiration and excitement.” By this Wasikowska unintentionally means, Alice is excited about the unequal treaties between China and the possibility of exploiting the Chinese labor and being part of the colonizing British who could act like they were lords while plundering a defeated country. This Alice can’t deal with the restrictions of her own society and its aristocratic society yet has appeared at the dowager empress’ court and navigated the restrictions much older than the thought of England as a nation? Think of that for a moment. China isn’t faux pas friendly unless you’re pulling the card of white imperialism.

For a generation that remembers the turning over of Hong Kong to Mainland China in 1997, the legacy of British trade in China isn’t just part of a distant past. While that’s a matter for Great Britain, the 1997 turnover also brought another wave of immigration of Hong Kong Chinese to different countries, including Great Britain, Canada and the U.S. This movie opens during Asian Pacific American Heritage Month in the U.S.  and the Chinese have a long history in the U.S. This version of Alice, puts the heroine in gleefully in the middle of China, just after the Opium Wars (1839-1842, 1856-1860). The first Opium War ended with the cessation of Hong Kong and granted indemnity and extraterritoriality to Britain. The second Opium War ceded Kowloon and allowed British ships to carry indentured Chinese to the Americas and legalized the opium trade. The year this movie supposedly takes place, 1875,  was the year the four-year-old emperor Guangxu ascended to the throne as his aunt, Empress Dowager Cixi adopted him and became regent along with the Empress Dowager Ci’an. Here in “Alice Through the Looking Glass,” Alice is a different kind of pirate, one who embraces the days of empire as glorious opportunity for white people. Alice has sidestepped the old boys club by joining club colonialism where even white women are superior to the local men.  This presentation of Alice isn’t really feminism at its best.

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