I read a viewer comment after seeing Alice Through the Looking Glass that stuck with me; the person was upset that the message in the film implied that Alice had to leave the past behind. This perception is limited; it is both a truth, and not the truth.
On the surface, the film is an adventure into the past to save Mad Hatter from fading into nonexistence; underneath, a story about coming to terms with grief, learning the value of time, and recognizing that we carry loved ones on in our souls. Inner reflections are truer and deeper than external trinkets. Many characters struggle to overcome the past. Alice clings to her father’s pocket watch. The Red Queen is angry about a childhood incident with her sister. Hatter is yearning so much for his family from the past, he nearly fades away. By the end of the story, Alice has given up her father’s watch. The Red Queen has forgiven her sister. And Hatter has his family back. The past is put to rest.
In including Time as a character, a being, rather than an intangible measurement, the story allows exploration of abstract themes alongside Alice’s continuing maturity out of adolescence. One of the childish things she throws aside is putting her wishes and desires ahead of those of the people she loves most. In doing so, Alice finds equal footing with her mother, this sacrifice leading to a stronger relationship as business partners. She lets go of her father’s watch not because it is necessary to abandon sentimental relics, but because Alice no longer needs it by the end: she understands that her father will never die, so long as she has his “muchness.” Alice is the living embodiment of her dad, far more than any non-ticking watch. Much as she loved him, she must now focus on the living… on her mother and her friends.
Time cannot be rewritten… but it has lessons to teach us. In exploring Underland’s past, Alice learns how to approach the future. She learns that too much emphasis on the past can distract her from the truth. Her worldview shifts: “I used to think Time is a thief,” she says handing over the watch, “but it gives first.”
Humans collect objects and attach sentiment to them, like Alice and her father’s pocket watch. Since he is dead, the pocket watch becomes a symbol of her father, in her mind. Sentiment gives objects value, assigning their importance by the personal value placed on the person that once owned them. Two identical objects may not fetch the same price, if one was owned by a person society deemed “important.” The watch is simply a watch. Alice values it, because her father used it. In becoming lost in the object, she risks missing out on the larger truth: she is a living embodiment of the past. Numerous ancestors fill her genes, influencing quirks, traits, even dimples. Blonde hair came from someone. Names fade but none are truly gone.
Even if you forget someone’s name, you carry them inside you—a thought, belief, or lesson learned, originated in them. A favorite author may die, but the transformation they worked in your life will not end.
Is Time a thief? Impatient hearts will it to move faster, and wishes to slow it down to treasure moments. But ultimately, it is a gift… and we decide what to do with it.