There are some things in life that are certainties we have to accept: gravity, aging, a wet British summer, and that if any film grosses over one billion dollars, we will see it again. Whether it’s a sequel, a remake or a reboot; if a film clears that magically 10-figure benchmark of modern super success, those that own it will do everything physically possible to make sure they squeeze some more dime out of it. At time of writing this, 25 films have raked in $1 billion and every single one has had some form of property continuation or at least has one confirmed in the works (even Titanic received James Cameron’s Ghosts of the Abyss documentary follow up). So that is why, six years later and with no significant demand for it, we have a sequel to Disney’s 2010 live action adaptation of Alice in Wonderland (at one point the 5th highest grossing film of all time... now 23rd). It may not have been top of many people’s sequel wish lists (Dredd fans keep the faith, justice will be served) that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy the results, and there’s certainly some fun to be had here.
The now-grown up ship Captain Alice (Mia Wasikowska – Stoker, Crimson Peak) returns to Underland to find the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp – Tim Burton’s filmography) unwell, and the only way to save him is to travel back in time to save his family from being killed.... but Time himself (Sacha Baron Cohen – Borat, Grimsby) doesn’t take kindly to be being meddled with.
Now, this is an almost complete departure from Lewis Carol’s sequel novel because otherwise, many notable characters would be absent or barely appearing. Considering the film is orientated towards younger audiences, it’s pretty understandable that Disney would want to keep the big names band together. This does mean that story spends some sections without the slightest clue what to do with its smaller characters, and several even have zero plot significance, which does make the film feel untidy and even gives the feeling of an unnecessary sequel. However, the main story, which is more “Alice and the Steampunk Tardis” is quite fun and enjoyable. The idea of time being not just a personification in Sacha Baron Cohen (not overly dissimilar from Discworld’s Death) but a physical entity in a great controlling clock feels very in keeping with the Tim Burton style adaptation of Underland (Burton is still producing despite James Bobin now directing) and everything revolving around Cohen or Time’s majestic palace location sees the film at its best. The location looks incredible with its mixture of gothic architecture and vast clock workings. The Ocean of Time travelling sequences are absolutely breathtaking and gorgeously imaginative. Then Cohen himself proves to be by far the film’s best character with his vast comedic skills bringing in plenty of good humour; not to mention returning writer Linda Woolverton (The Lion King, Maleficent) giving his dialogue possibly every time based pun ever written.
One thing this second Alice outing really gets right is the girl herself. One of the biggest (and justified) criticisms last time around was that she was shoved out of the spotlight too often; Mia Wasikowska was a relative unknown back then so the studio played safe by focusing on its bigger casting names. This time around it feels more like her movie and her story with her companions dipping in and out as needed rather than taking over which adds more meaning to the conclusion and Alice’s personal journey. In fact, the studio’s faith in Wasikowska’s star power results in an absolutely brilliant real world opening sequence as she captain’s a ship desperately evading pirates. It’s thrilling opening flourish of action and immediately makes us feel like the events of the first film mattered in creating the bolder society and stereotype dying Alice we reunite with. Sadly, despite the leading lady having grown, keeping the rest of the cast in a time capsule doesn’t benefit the film. The residents of Underland look like the cameras never stopped rolling after the last film which, after the initial nostalgia passes, quickly makes many of them feel tiresome and samey in an environment that’s supposed to be about lunacy and unpredictability. It’s like Wayne’s World 2, recycling a lot of the same jokes only to find they just aren’t as funny anymore.
In terms of performances, Wasikowska is much more enjoyable this time around and particularly impresses for getting across the South Park style, “I learned something today…” messages without feeling overly corny. Yet as mentioned above, the film belongs to Cohen. It’s his most enjoyable comedic performance for quite some time as while his more adult roles can be great, it’s nice to see him stripped away from deliberately controversial material to just delivery good simple laughs. We even get a Les Mis reunion in his scenes with Helena Bonham Carte,r who is one of the few returning faces that manages to give us something new as we delve into The Red Queen’s past and find a softer side lurking beneath. Johnny Depp feels very by the numbers --he’s fun in places but nothing more or less than you’d expect. Anne Hathaway feels even more wasted than the first film. The vocal talents of Stephen Fry, Alan Rickman (happy trails Hanz), Timothy Spall, and Michael Sheen are still on point for their characters but suffer for having less to do.
So this Still Alice sequel is visually marvelous and frequently very funny if struggling to find a role for all its characters. Anyone that enjoyed the first film or Disney’s recent live action remakes will feel right at home but those less fond of the silliness may find it too childish. So if you feel diving into some weird and wonderful then take the red and stay in Wonderland.