Disney’s Alice Through the Looking Glass Review

It’s impressive how quickly discussion of the movie Alice Through the Looking Glass vanished off the internet, but also not particularly surprising. I saw the movie when it first came out and wrote up my thoughts then, but now they’re here for your viewing pleasure.

After tripping around in the real world for a while – hitting those improper and scandalous notes pretty hard – Alice flees into a looking glass. Back in Wonderland (Underland, whatever) the Hatter has begun to waste away. He’s convinced that his family is alive and in need of saving, but no one believes him. Alice is also not particularly convinced, but decides that she can go back in time and save his family from the Jabberwocky.

By itself, this would simply be a silly storyline; it’s worse sin that it further corrodes the Hatter as an unfathomable and disjointed character. However, it is not by itself. The rest of the movie is spent jumping from one time to the next, never giving us time to breathe or take in the visuals; visuals, mind you, that are in general pretty good, even if they are often tired and sloppy.

Ultimately, we get a bunch of origin stories, which is a baffling choice for a story like Alice in Wonderland. Origin stories are really about explaining why the world is currently formed this way. Origin stories are about logic. Giving Wonderland characters origins with simplistic motivations only makes the characters boring and their weird quirks silly.

Origin story 1: Back in time we see the very tired story line of a young boy who just wants to be creative and have fun. However he is stifled by his overbearing father. Both of his parents are frustratingly stereotypical and lodged tightly in overdone gender-roles. His father is gruff and unforgiving and his mother is emotional, attempting to bring the family together as she insists that her husband is too hard on their son. Hatter leaves after a tiff and hasn’t seen them since.

In the end, they discover Hatter’s family wasn’t killed by the Jabberwocky, but is being held captive by the Red Queen (yeah, I’m sure that was what they were planning in movie 1). After they save his family, Hatter’s father accepts Hatter for no particular reason. The acceptance feels more like it’s born more out of PTSD from being trapped in a glass case than anything else. The family story is also weird because somewhere early in life Hatter becomes certifiably insane. That is the point of his character. Having this white-faced, pink-eyed young man bouncing around an oddly stringent Victorian family, who are concerned more about his desire to have fun than his insanity, is unreasonable on many, many levels. I’m not a huge fan of the way Wonderland has been made to fit social norms, but if that’s the goal, it should at least be consistent.

Origin story 2: As a child, the White Queen one day ate a tart she wasn’t supposed to eat and hid the crumbs under her sister’s bed. The Red Queen was later punished for this and, after running out into the street, bumps her head on a stone. This is the reason her head has swelled. So basically, the entire war and the death of hundreds of people was caused by a tart. First of all, the size of the queen’s head is very fairy talesque. When you try to explain a fairy tale using our scientific logic, you immediately make it difficult on yourself. There’s nothing magical about bumping your head and nothing ordinary about having a head as large as the Red Queen’s.

After much mayhem and running about in the present, The White Queen apologizes for lying about the tart and the sisters are entirely reconciled. The Red Queen even says that all she wanted was for the White Queen to admit she’d done it. It is wildly difficult to believe that their entire relationship was destroyed because of this simple act and it’s even harder to believe that all the White Queen had to say was ‘sorry’ to fix it. Like the Hatter and his father, there’s no build up and no time spent on the relationship. I also ask, why do we need to know the origin of the queen’s head? Why do we need them to reconcile? This is the Hatter’s story and throwing in the Red Queen just muddles his story up.

Also, there’s a villain in this picture. I almost forgot. The villain is the physical representation of Time. Time as a villain is pretty pathetic. His outfit is silly (those wings, man, those wings) and he’s introduced by knocking his head on a gate and falling over. He’s bumbling, incompetent, obnoxious, and all around uninteresting. If the Red Queen was already going to be the villain (since she’s the one who has Hatter’s family), having him there seems unnecessary. He certainly never does anything. He feels like he might have been a fun villain in a movie for younger children, but in a story that is geared at least towards teenagers, he doesn’t make much sense.

And finally, I must comment on the visuals and plot elements that feel so amazingly similar to Alice: Madness Returns. Alice: Madness Returns is a video game that takes the Alice storyline in an incredibly dark direction (it’s amazing, go play it). Let me point to the two biggest similarities. In Madness Returns, in between levels, Alice returns to the real world. Towards the end, she ends up in an asylum that attempts to do very nasty things to her. In the movie, she also briefly jumps back into the real world into an asylum. The scene in the asylum is rushed, stereotypical, and pointless. It feels like they liked how Madness Returns did it, but didn’t have a good reason to use it. What really convinced me was the Red Queen’s palace. In Madness Returns, the palace is made of organic material like hearts and muscles and blood. It’s also a very vertical level. The palace in the movie was made of roots, but the design was very similar. The way the scenes are shot is also very vertical, as Alice and everyone else run up through the palace. Given the popularity of the game, it’s hard not to see influences from the game onto the movie; influences that don’t make a lot of sense given the wildly different tones.

So I guess you could go for the visuals, but ultimately it’s a messy story and there’s better things to see.

Wicked – Part 3

Many years later, Elphaba enrolls in Shiz University and through various circumstances (set up by the headmistress, Mistress Morrible, perhaps?) ends up roommates with Galinda. The set-up of the bookworm and beauty queen rings a little cliché – likely not helped by later media that utilizes that idea like Mean Girls or The School for Good and Evil. Specifically, while Galinda later gains greater complexity, here she sticks a little too close to the airheaded cheerleader constantly mortified by her weird roommate. Though this is alleviated somewhat by Greg’s exceptional ability to portray the snooty and modest refinement of Victorian England. And although the character is not the most original, Galinda is still portrayed with enough subtlety and complexity to be a very believable character.

I have similar qualms with Borq’s infatuation with Galinda. Borq is a Munchkinlander in a nearby university who meets Elphaba and her group when he sneaks into the women’s university to see Galinda. I’ll buy that he fell head-over-heels for her initially because of her beauty. But his interaction with her are so limited – and they all end with her rejecting him – that I don’t believe that he could (or should) remain infatuated for so long. As it stands there’s really nothing to recommend her to him and it further serves to push the stereotype of the man that doesn’t know the meaning of the word ‘no.’

Elphaba, on the other hand, is wonderful as ever. She’s grown into her mouth and while shy and awkward about her green skin, she’s exceptionally passionate, witty, and intellectual. She’s also clearly very confused about herself and attempting to find a place for someone like her. This is best shown in a scene where Elphaba explains to Galinda that she’s reading unionist texts not because she’s really interested in them or wants to read them, but because she’s trying to understand her father and the nature of good and evil – which is both relevant to someone so different and an overarching theme of the story.

Mistress Morrible is also a wonderfully subtle threat. It’s obvious that there’s something very dubious under her fawning and bumbling veneer, but it’s handled so delicately that it’s easy to dismiss her actions as harmless. Specifically, during a poetry reading she recites a poem that is likely criticizing Animals (talking animals who are quickly becoming second-class citizens under the Wizard’s rule), but easily bats away the criticism when Elphaba finally gets up the courage to call her out on it. Morrible also continually hints to Galinda that something should be done about Elphaba, but in very vague terms. Morrible’s cleverness and sense of people is also spectacular, especially as she’s able to pick up on Galinda’s magical talents far before Galinda does.

Star Trek: Beyond Review

After watching Star Trek: Beyond (most generic subtitle ever), I have to admit that while I won’t defend Star Trek: Into Darkness as a good movie, I did enjoy it. I would say the opposite of Beyond. It was well-crafted in a simple and straightforward kind of way, but I felt kind of meh towards it. If you’re looking for a spoiler-free review, I recommend heading over to Keith DeCandido’s review otherwise, read on.

The world building was fantastic. The first ten minutes are blissfully free of action. Instead we tour the ship, Yorktown, and the comings and goings of everyday life out in space. Kirk’s voiceover nicely (if rather bluntly) sets up his arc and while I never for a second believed he was really going to agree to be an admiral and leave the Enterprise, the idea of losing yourself was an interesting one. I don’t think enough was done with it (as is true of almost all of the character arcs), but it was at least hit often enough to keep him afloat and moving forward.

My two cents on the Sulu debate is that it was the right choice to make him gay. It was nice to see a main character as LGBT, rather than a side character who doesn’t really matter. I also liked that it wasn’t a big deal, nor was it something anyone felt the need to comment on. My one qualm was that it was so lightly touched on that it would have been incredibly easy to miss. While I do appreciate the subtlety, the movie’s dialogue and themes are so hard hitting that the subtlety felt out of place.

Leonard Nimoy’s death was also tied in beautifully. It could have easily felt gimmicky and out of place, but his death and its effect on Spock were fabulous. Spock is also considering leaving the Enterprise (of course you are, Spock. We believe you) and while the death is part of what’s spurring him on, it’s also clear that he’s incredibly confused and depressed. His emotions felt genuine, he has a great moment with Bones when he reveals the death, and Bones captures what it’s like for us the audience watching this. It caters to the fans a lot, but it ultimately makes Spock’s character arc make much more sense and much more developed than everyone else’s.

The destruction of the Enterprise was appropriately solemn and it’s given quite a lot of build up. Using it as a confined and desolate place for the characters to run around in later also gave a nice jumble of melancholy, loss of hope, and desire for things to be better.

I liked the idea a lot of the characters getting split up, but ultimately the conversations didn’t do a lot for me. Spock and Bones did work pretty well off each other, with some good banter and some good conflict between Bones’s duty as a doctor and dislike of Spock. I do love how blunt Bones is, but I didn’t feel like much had changed by the end. I think Bones respected Spock a little more, but I never felt there was any great hatred he had to get over, nor do I believe they’ve become closer friends.

Uhura and Sulu were completely underutilized. They have little to no character and are basically just there to get fed plot info through monologues the villain probably wouldn’t ever give. Kalara was a pretty interesting character, especially with the deepening suspicion about her true intentions and it’s pretty disappointing that she was so randomly killed off. I think it would have been better to keep her around and continue developing her rather than throwing in new bad guys, like Manas.

In terms of world building I also love, love, love the acknowledgment that not everyone speaks English. The translator is a cool technology and it was awesome getting to hear Kalara’s language and then hear it translated (rather than going the babble fish method). In continuation of that theme, the technology was pretty cool in this movie. They picked a few things and then developed them and used them in interesting ways. Specifically, the image refractors and the swarm warships. Although there is so much technobabble, so much technobabble. And while the death-by-music climax of destroying the swarm was pretty silly, the choice of music (and its callback value) was awesome.

I struggled for a while with the twist, wherein the villain (who, by the way, was completely bland and was mostly only redeemable for being horrifyingly evil) is revealed to be a former star fleet officer. On the one hand it worked so well because it made sense. The movie hits the idea of unity really hard and he’s a great example of unity breaking down. It’s also the people you are unified with who are the most dangerous to your unity, so the idea worked. But it also came really late in the movie. And I think that was ultimately the problem. I think the threat to Yorktown should have been cut out entirely (because honestly, who cares? We barely know anything about this city. Why should we the audience feel any personal connection with this place?) and the reveal should have come earlier. Then more time could have been spent on the characters wandering around in their split groups and more time could have been spent on developing the twist.

Despite the weak character arcs and unsubtle dialogue, there was some good banter and the ideas were clearly defined and carried neatly from beginning to end. Yet despite feeling like it was a well-crafted movie, it didn’t have enough interesting characters or a fun, threatening villain to pull me in.

Wicked – Part 2

The last chapter in part one of Wicked is Darkness Abroad and it starts all of the macro-plot elements that will move the rest of the story forward – specifically the coming of the wizard and the fight for Quadling rights. As is the way of plots, this momentum is created by everything going horribly wrong. Up until this point, Wicked hasn’t really had a plot – although exploring Elphaba’s childhood is important both in understanding that she wasn’t horribly abused by monstrous parents and in giving a glimpse of the sexual/religious/political/fate bound background she did in fact come from. Also the writing is just great and it was fun to read.

But let’s mostly talk about tone. Greg does a great job of building ever-increasing tension and fear in Darkness Abroad, albeit a little melodramatic at times. So let’s break it down piece by piece.

By now, a Quadling named Turtle Heart has ingratiated himself into the life of Elphaba’s family and is liked by pretty much everyone. In answer to why Turtle Heart left Quadling country, he responds, “Horrors” (which is a pretty great word for creating the appropriate tone. If I was a linguist I could probably tell you why). A few lines later, Elphaba picks up the word and continually interjects it into the conversation as things grow gloomier. It is of course wildly foreboding that this is Elphaba’s first word.

As Melena suddenly fears that everything is going to change, she and Nanny attempt to turn the conversation away. But it is at this point that Elphaba says “Horrors,” throwing the room into silence and ruining Melena’s last chance to keep things the same.

Turtle Heart describes how the Quadlings keep their delicate country intact and how the Emerald City is going to destroy it. Because Turtle Heart’s speech pattern is very different from ours, it allows him to create a greater sense of wonder and impending doom, especially as his language become more poetic, “Rubies under the water. Red as pigeon blood…Quadlings to say: The blood of Oz.” He speaks of learning of future horrors through magic – which has been infrequent enough throughout the rest of the story to still have a strong sense of wonder to it – saying, “As the water to run red with rubies it will to run red with the blood of Quadlings.”

In response to Turtle Heart, Melena and Frex grow increasingly tense, attempting to deny his claims. When Frex suggests they move to Quadling country, Melena screeches at the idea and hastily reveals her pregnancy. Although it’s not made clear if Frex believes Turtle Heart is the father, nonetheless, his response is, “‘Congratulations,’ he said coldly.” Just as Elphaba’s birth pushed a wedge into their relationship, so will another strange child.

As everyone heads off to bed, Nanny tells Melena that she went to an alchemist named Yackle, who predicted that Melena’s child will be an important part of history – so grows the sense of large and important things to come, things that will change the nature of the story.

As everyone heads off to bed, Elphaba goes missing and further throws everyone into a panic, only egged along by Nanny declaring, “It’s the prowling hour” and “Punishment for your wicked ways, you two-faced hedonists.” When they find Elphaba, the whole chapter coalesces into an unexplainable, wonderful, terrifying moment of Elphaba crouched in the arms of a tiger, her eye unnaturally hollow, staring into Turtle Heart’s magic glass, continually whispering “Horrors.”

New Story in Altered States of the Union

What if Lincoln governed America in enemy territory? The United States annexed Persia? North Alaska and South Alaska went to war? Los Angeles spread across the world? Kansas disappeared in a cloud of dust? If you thought America was strange this year, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Join us as our all-star roster of science fiction and fantasy authors explore the frontiers of over a score of different lands in ALTERED STATES OF THE UNION.

I’m incredibly excited to announce the appearance of my short story The City of Oil and Paint in Crazy 8 Press’s most recent anthology, Altered States of the Union. The anthology is an alternate history based around the question, What if the US’s boarders shifted to something completely different somewhere along the way?

If you’re hunkering for some alternate history from a whole slew of great authors, you can purchase a physical copy here and an e-book here.

Wicked – Part 1

Gregory Maguire loves his strange sex, which that is immediately apparent in the opening of Wicked. As the Witch flies over Dorothy and friends, she hears them trading gossip – the witch is a bereft lover, a lesbian, a man. And Elphaba is born into a world where various sexual identities are already being thrust on her. Her parents want a son and a lot is made of the idea that girls are ‘damaged’ or ‘unwanted.’ Even after she’s born, there is some debate about what her sex is. The Tin Woodsman suggested that she’d been castrated at birth – which she is, symbolically, when the birthing-matter that (maybe) brought on the confusion of her sex is removed.

The other long-running theme in this series is mysterious nature of magic. In this world, magic is never fully understood and no one is ever fully able to control it. Greg handles this mysterious nature brilliantly. The first taste of magic we get in Wicked is the Time Dragon. It is generally understood that the Time Dragon accurately shows the past, present, and the future. But, at the same time, the things it shows are almost never proven to be true and almost everyone who watches the Time Dragon’s little shows consider them to be nonsense. They generally spend a good deal of time explaining rationally how the shows must have been put together. So here we have little Elphaba, who, because of an angry mob, is birthed in the Time Dragon. Is it fate? Is it just happenstance? Is this what gives her some inclination towards magic? The beauty of it is that we’re never sure.

Elphaba’s father, Frex, a minister, is fighting to divert the villagers away from the Time Dragon, as he sees it as an apparatus of the ‘pleasure faith.’ Elphaba is clearly a spiteful child and her birth in the apparatus her father is fighting against knits in very well with that. It is also this failure to protect his people that starts to break Frex. From here on out, his and Melena’s banter moves from lightly scathingly to actively unpleasant. Elphaba’s green skin color also ratchets up the tension as Melena begins to resent her husband’s long forays away from the house. We learn she has her own history of sexual promiscuity, bringing into doubt Elphaba’s parentage – another long running idea in the series. Melena may have been drugged and raped – drugged specifically with something that made her dream of the Otherworld (here, our world). Melena also grows more and more isolated, as she fears letting the rest of the village see her child.

A lot of the opening is on Melena and Frex trying to cope with having this kind of child in a small village. Frex wonders on his failures and Melena grows increasingly into hers. In other words, the trauma of the situation is given appropriate breathing space.

And Wicked We Shall Be

I’m an all-around fan of Gregory Maguire and when the Wicked series first came out, I happily charged through the first two books. Several years after I was delighted to learn there was a third and I also read that. Being of the opinion that the series was now finished (a common delusion among Wicked readers, I have found), I wandered off into the mist. Many, many years later I found myself in the rather rococo-ish bedroom of a complete stranger and I began to peruse their bookshelf. What should I find there but a copy of Out of Oz. Some months later I acquired and finished the book. Now, being older, wiser, and snarky enough to spend my time writing blog posts about my own opinions, I’m rereading the series. So for the time being I will mostly post on Wicked and its sequels, with the occasional digression into other topics when I see fit.