Alice Through the Looking Glass, the sequel to 2010’s live-action Alice in Wonderland, tasks director James Bobin (of Flight of the Conchords and the two most recent Muppets movies) with turning out imitation Tim Burton. It’s quite a task considering its predecessor was already Burton himself doing imitation Burton. (It’s easily his worst film, a few appealing grace notes in an ornately garish and dispassionate self-parody.) That Looking Glass manages to be a good movie in spots is a nice surprise. For maybe fifteen minutes total I thought Bobin and screenwriter Linda Woolverton were on to something, finding Alice (Mia Wasikowska, never an unwelcome sight) a ships’ captain in 1875, eager to go exploring. The only problem is these real-world scenes are bookends for a whole lot of consequence-free nonsense in Wonderland taking up the bulk of the movie. Not only does every bit of the story get undone by the end, but it even rolls back some of the last one, too.
Following the template of its predecessor, this new movie follows Alice through token scenes of struggles with her real problems – this time patriarchal business snobs, revealed in a quiet funny cut to wrinkled, bearded white grumps, who can’t even begin to imagine a woman explorer – then spirits her away to Wonderland for a fantastical topsy-turvy fantasy story. There are some clever bits here and there, like a Humpty Dumpty egg rolling off a gigantic chessboard, a doorway opening onto a great height, and, nestled in a chained up grandfather clock, an enormous castle containing time’s master clock. The weirdly unpopulated realm is, however, awfully low on characters who become more than set dressing. It’s also low on conflict. The best the contractually obligated returning creatures – like Tweedledee and Tweedledumb (Matt Lucas’s face floating on enormous CGI heads), the White Queen (Anne Hathaway), and the Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry) – can come up with is concern about the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp, creepy mannered gibbering passing as creativity) who has been acting strange lately. How can they tell?
It turns out the Hatter is upset by memories of his family, who were killed by the Jabberwocky controlled by the vengeful Queen of Hearts (Helena Bonham Carter). Alice is encouraged to go back in time and save the Hatter’s family. To do so, she meets Time (Sacha Baron Cohen chewing over a deliriously silly accent), a clockwork stickler for the rules of time and space. She outwits him quickly, hopping in a spinning gewgaw that allows her to sail the timeline back into the past. This initial flying spasm of effects leads to the movie’s cleverest moment as Time zips after her shouting, “You can’t win a race against time! I’m inevitable!” Later we learn he waits for no man. Also the Cheshire Cat at one point sprawls out on his shoulders and declares that he’s “on time.” You take your small delights where you can get them in a movie that has a lot of movement and noise, but short supply of actual wit or compelling curiosity. Bobin tries his best to provide vibrant colorful images, but the more they pile up the less they add up.
The stifling artificiality of the gaudy colorful sets and costumes has none of the imagination to power actual whimsy, and the plot itself is motored by the flimsiest of motivations. Who cares if Alice can take the Mad out of the Hatter? Not me. It’s not an enjoyable story to be lost in when its very mechanics operate against investment. Its best moments occur when Alice steps back into reality, her adventures in Wonderland having no bearing on the real world and never carrying enough emotional weight to represent metaphoric developments. The movie drains the beautifully logical illogic of its Lewis Carroll source through the blandness of conventional fantasy tropes, and looks all the worse for it. And the whole thing, burdened with an achingly predictable MacGuffin-based plot, is not nearly as delightful as it should be to excuse so much swirling around hither and yon across flat backdrops and Toontown sets dusted with hallucinogenic cartoon filigree. It’s just pointless, plodding gobbledygook. Nothing sticks in the brain. Nothing is worth digesting. Imagine being slowly buried alive in a bottomless vat of cotton candy.