Women-led summer blockbusters get off to stormy start with ‘Alice Through the Looking Glass’

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Mia Wasikowska appears in a scene from "Alice Through the Looking Glass." Disney photo

Mia Wasikowska appears in a scene from “Alice Through the Looking Glass.” Disney photo

An already tough summer blockbuster season for women-led films got off to a stormy start Memorial Day weekend with the uninspiring sequel Alice Through the Looking Glass.

As previously reported, only three of the bevy of blockbusters slated to hit theaters this summer have female leads: Alice Through the Looking Glass, Ghostbusters and Finding Dory. And only one of them, Pixar’s deep-sea sequel Finding Dory, seems a surefire hit.

As I noted in my review, Alice Through the Looking Glass is the rare summer sequel that manages to improve on its predecessor, but it still comes marred with plot holes bigger than the Red Queen’s head. Despite its financial might, Tim Burton’s 2010 live-action adaptation of Alice in Wonderland was a curiously dank, dreary and uninspired affair. With Burton stepping back into a producer’s role, director James Bobin (2011’s The Muppets) manages to bring much-needed color and verve to the second trip to Wonderland, or “Underland,” as its strange inhabitants call it.

Still, Bobin and returning screenwriter Linda Woolverton (Beauty and the Beast) are working within the framework of the first film, which imposes certain limitations. They keep the story bustling along so busily it’s easy in the moment to overlook the dearth of peculiar whimsy you’d hope to find in an adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s enduring classics. But the magic doesn’t last once the end credits roll.

Wisely, the filmmakers focus more fully on Mia Wasikowska’s Alice, who has grown into a bold and confident heroine, the kind desperately needed in mainstream movies. Looking Glass opens with Alice bravely captaining her late father’s ship The Wonder through the Straits of Malacca, evading pirates with such audacious skill that her all-male crew thinks nothing of taking orders from a woman. It’s a thrilling sequence and makes you wonder how much fun it would be for the movie to stay on the high seas instead of heading back down the Wonderland rabbit hole.

Alas, when she arrives back in London after questing in the Far East, Alice discovers that her loutish former fiancé Hamish (Leo Bill) has colluded with her prissy mother Helen (Lindsay Duncan) to force Alice to accept her proper place as a Victorian lady. Instead, Alice follows the butterfly Absolem (the late Alan Rickman in his final role) through a magic mirror back to Underland, where circumstances may be weirder but at least women aren’t regarded as mere property.

The fluttery White Queen Mirana (Anne Hathaway) and the rest of her Underlandian pals beg Alice to help them revive the formerly mad and once colorful Hatter (Johnny Depp), who has come to believe his long-lost family is still alive but fallen into a potentially fatal funk because no one believes him. At the queen’s urging, Alice sets out to steal the chronosphere from Time, a half-man, half-machine blowhard played by Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat) channeling Werner Herzog’s accent.

The chronosphere allows Alice to travel back in time and find out what happened to the Hatter’s family, but taking it may cause Time’s Grand Clock to fail, potentially destroying Underland. Plus, the mission puts Alice on a collision course with the tempestuous Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter), who wants to go back in time and undo her fall and subsequent banishment.

From a critical standpoint, it’s a shame that Alice Through the Looking Glass doesn’t boast more of Carroll’s surreal magic. My review wasn’t the only less-than-enthusiastic assessment; the sequel only earned 30 percent positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. Although Alice in Wonderland also failed to get a “fresh” Tomatometer ranking – it got 52 percent positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes – the first film did cast a spell at the box office.

But the sequel failed to do the same. According to Variety, Looking Glass crashed with $28.1 million domestic take and a projected $35 million over the four-day Memorial Day weekend. It’s a calamitous start for a film with an $170 million production budget.

Looking Glass finished second at the U.S. and Canadian box office to X-Men: Apocalypse, which easily topped the charts with an estimated $65 million, on pace to pull in more than $76 million over the four-day spell. That’s a big drop off from the $110.5 million that the previous X-Men adventure, X-Men: Days of Future Past, pulled in over the 2014 Memorial Day holiday, according to Variety.

The only good news for the latest Alice adventure is that the sequel topped the foreign box office, earning a respectable $65 million this weekend from nearly 80 foreign territories, reports Variety. Looking Glass did particularly well in China, where it generated an estimated $27.1 million. Other territories where it performed well include Mexico with $5 million, Russia with $4.6 million and Brazil with $4.1 million.

From left, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, Kristen Wiig and Leslie Jones star in the "Ghostbusters" reboot. Sony Pictures phoot

From left, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, Kristen Wiig and Leslie Jones star in the “Ghostbusters” reboot. Sony Pictures phoot

‘Ghostbusters’ facing haters ahead of release

With Alice failing to enchant, there are only two more summer blockbusters on the slate that boast women protagonists: Finding Dory (opening in theaters June 16) and the rebooted Ghostbusters (July 15). Although it’s hard to imagine that the animated Finding Dory – the long-awaited follow-up to Disney/Pixar’s 2003 Oscar winner Finding Nemo starring the voice of Ellen DeGeneres, who reprises her beloved role as a memory-challenged blue tang fish – won’t be a smash, the femme-focused reimagining of Ghostbusters is facing backlash and sexism much more formidable than any paranormal ghoul.

As Hadley Freeman reports in The Guardian, the first Ghostbusters trailer has received more negative votes than any other has on YouTube. “Ever since the female-led reboot of the beloved 1980s comedy was announced, it has been vilified online, largely by manboys furious at the idea of oestrogen inside the Ghostbuster uniforms. The stars and Feig have been targeted with sexist abuse; notably less trolling has been directed at the male stars of other remakes, such as Jurassic Park or The Karate Kid,” Freeman notes.

Directed by Paul Feig (Bridesmaids), the Ghostbusters reboot stars Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones as the apparition-fighting foursome.

“All those comments – ‘You’re ruining my childhood!’ I mean, really,” McCarthy told Freeman in an interview with The Guardian. “Four women doing any movie on earth will destroy your childhood?” She shrugs. “I have a visual of those people not having a Ben (Falcone, her husband and frequent collaborator), not having friends, so they’re just sitting there and spewing hate into this fake world of the internet. I just hope they find a friend.”

As Freeman notes, McCarthy has become a huge comedic star doing things you pretty much never see a woman do on screen, whether she’s having diarrhea in a sink in her Oscar-nominated turn in Bridesmaids, threatening shoot off suspects’ testicles as a foul-mouthed police officer in The Heat, or outwitting all the James Bond wannabes in Spy.

“People say to me, ‘These characters are crazy’, and I’m like, ‘Are they?’” McCarthy said. “Because I’ve seen three people in Rite Aid drug store act like that. I think when a female character acts more defiant, it’s seen as a little more crazy. There are women in the world like this, we’re just not used to seeing them portrayed. We generally just see The Pleasant Lady who stands behind her husband going ‘Oh, Jack.’ But I really love a female character who is not playing by the rules.”

McCarthy also rejected the Hollywood rules that audiences don’t want to see a comedy with a female lead, that a woman can star in a movie only up to the age of 35, and that no woman in a movie can be over a UK size 10. The Illinois native made her film breakthrough at 41, is a US size 14 (UK 18) and is now the most bankable comedy star in the world.

“I mean, you just have to think, why not?” she said.

Linda Woolverton. Photo provided

Linda Woolverton. Photo provided

Alice screenwriter on Hollywood’s lack of trust in women

“Why not” also is the attitude that led Woolverton, the screenwriter of Alice Through the Looking Glass, to make the titular heroine a Victorian-era sea captain.

“I made her a sea captain because why not?” Woolverton told Mashable. “There should be an assumption that women can be sea captains.”

Woolverton wrote the Looking Glass script thinking of young female viewers, inspiring them to look beyond whatever glass ceilings they face. This theme runs through Woolverton’s work quite often — she also wrote the screenplays for the live-action Alice in Wonderland and Maleficent. In the animated realm, she co-penned the screenplay for The Lion King and became the first woman to write an animated screenplay for Disney with 1991’s Beauty and the Beast.

“There’s a basic lack of real trust in women, I have to say, and their capabilities, certainly as directors,” she said.

Woolverton told Mashable that Disney “hires a lot of women for screenplays” so she doesn’t lump them in, but she can “point the finger” at the rest of the industry for “not hiring many female directors.” She also noted that fewer and fewer big movies are being made because the focus is on tentpole franchises and superhero films, which usually go to male writers and directors.

“Entrusting these big movies to a woman just makes people nervous for some reason,” she said

“Why would a woman not be able to make money [at the box office] and a man would?” she continued. “Think about all the women in the world who are feeding their kids. They have two jobs, balancing the budget of their household so they can buy dinner and handle the childcare — and you think those women can’t handle a big budget?”

Woolverton said the lack of female representation behind the scenes hasn’t stopped her from forging ahead.

“That’s the good fight … because you change things,” she told Mashable. “You change the landscape.”



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