In hindsight, it’s hard to say exactly why Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland was such a breakout success. Everything from the post-Avatar 3D boom to Disney’s relentless marketing campaign to the distinctly Burton-ish style could be cited. But more than anything, the next-generation Alice became one of those unusual phenomena in the film industry, when a film makes a ton of money but seems to have little lasting impact as time goes by. Put another way, it’s a very successful film that is nobody’s favorite movie.
Alice Through The Looking Glass takes so much of what was grating about Burton’s film (the clear privileging of aesthetics over all else, the video game-esque “here’s the next world” storytelling, Johnny Depp’s performance as the Mad Hatter) and escalates it in an effort to not only continue Disney’s recent run of successful live-action adaptations, but potentially recapture the immense success of the Burton film. The worlds are lavish, the performances are outsized, the pacing is fleet, and Depp continues to gnaw rabidly on the scenery.
All of this is to say that, in short, Alice Through The Looking Glass is not particularly good. It’s a classic case of sequel bloat, a film that seems to exist less because of any extended story it wants or needs to tell than because it must repackage something that was once popular. And because the law of Hollywood sequels dictates that subsequent installments of a series must go bigger, Looking Glass invokes one of the oldest traditions in the “where can we possibly go with another one” handbook: time travel.
That’s right. Looking Glass picks up with Alice (Mia Wasikowska) some time after the first film. She’s become a ship’s captain in 1875 England, and has proven herself effective, as evidenced in the film’s anarchic opening that sees her steering her father’s ship (the “Wonder”) through tumultuous waters. But all is not well in Alice’s reality, despite her strong sense of manifest destiny: “The world is open to us, but we must movie quickly!” Those around her resent a “lady” doing a captain’s work, and a spurned ex-flame is demanding possession of the Wonder in exchange for the deed to Alice and her mother’s house.
This is all preamble, however. Looking Glass wastes mercifully little time getting back to Underland, which itself is in considerable turmoil. Since everything seemingly resolves around the Mad Hatter (Depp), it stands to reason that a shift in his behavior would upset all of Underland. The Hatter was frolicking with the other whimsical creatures of Underland when he was suddenly triggered by some discarded trash, trash which reminded him of his estranged, long-gone family. The Hatter wants them brought back to life, Alice tells him that resurrecting the dead is impossible, and the Hatter starts to turn darker, convinced that even his dear Alice isn’t really herself, since nobody will give him the only thing that can make him feel whole again.
All of this feels unusually perfunctory for a story with such rich roots, and Looking Glass largely employs its time-hopping conceit in service of that bane of modern big-budget films, the unnecessary origin story. Much of Looking Glass is in the origin business. By the film’s end you’ll know why the Mad Hatter became mad (and who he was as a child, for that matter), what happened to his family, why Iracebeth the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter)’s head is so large and why she’s so angry, why she so resents her sister the White Queen, Mirana (Anne Hathaway), and so on and so forth. If your biggest point of attraction to a story like Alice in Wonderland is the compulsive need to understand exactly where every little thing came from, Looking Glass is a dream come true.
However, if you’re of persuasion that a story beloved for its absurdism doesn’t need to hold the viewer’s hand through every step, Looking Glass will instead come off as an overcooked cash-in that pads out story where it’s not even warranted. The film’s one visual innovation emerges when Alice comes into possession of the Chronosphere, a small ball capable of expanding into a giant steampunk globe that lets Alice sail the seas of time, which the film cleverly envisions as a double-sided ocean of memories and different incidents in time. Here Looking Glass comes the closest to justifying the opulence of its nonstop setpieces, with Alice racing through different flashbacks in hopes of altering enough of the past (or at least learning enough from it) to reunite the Hatter with his family and bring balance back to her secondary world.
But for the film’s strenuous attempts at resonance through the larger themes of loss, familial strife, and the inevitability of time, it’s only the latter of those that lands in any meaningful way. Above all, Looking Glass is selling spectacle; director James Bobin has an assured eye for the visual, but the nonstop deluge of effects only gives the film the kind of flash on which it can be sold, rather than any ideas that will linger for long after the film ends. The more-than-capable cast is tasked with delivering almost exclusively flat dialogue in front of one green screen after the next, and after a while Looking Glass simply pushes itself from diverting to tedious to deafening, as the bright colors and constant movement strain to create the illusion of a film with an actual story to tell.
If any performance stands out (other than Wasikowska’s, who’s a charming presence in a thin role yet again), it’s Sacha Baron Cohen’s as Time. Looking Glass imagines Time as a dryly sarcastic, constantly busy presence who treats life and death as peacefully unavoidable. Cohen’s always been uncommonly charismatic in roles like these; his work here recalls his vulnerable turn in Hugo as a guard who only continues to do the work because it’s all he knows and nobody else can. As Alice’s joyride in the Chronosphere begins to dismantle time itself (and himself), as well as the great clock keeping the world spinning, Cohen finds a weary sadness that lends Looking Glass a humanity and thematic depth it otherwise woefully lacks. It’s yet another reminder that the Borat actor is capable of depths few filmmakers have ever aimed to explore.
But even Time cannot avoid the trappings of a Disney endeavor that struggles against its pointlessness for most of its 113 minutes. His relationship subplot with the Red Queen accomplishes little, and that’s still more than most of the film’s other backstories manage. The conflict between the sister queens is beyond dull, and is hardly bolstered by Hathaway’s barely-there performance and Carter’s carryover shrillness. And as the Hatter, Depp once again has to go out of his way to draw as much attention to what’s ostensibly a secondary character as possible. He’s also weirdly non-present for much of a film that ends up being about him and his family woes as much as its titular heroine. Even Alice, who at one point ends up in an asylum during her parallel universe-tripping, ends up working through the paces of a well-meaning but rote empowerment story that amounts to little.
Alice Through The Looking Glass is endemic of the current blockbuster model in all the wrong ways. It mistakes half-drawn clichés for emotions and drama, and foregrounds spectacle above all else. It’s hardly the worst film you could watch this year (or even this month), but its easily digested, forgettable display of studio millions almost feels worse in a way. Looking Glass is a fine tech reel (Bobin comes out looking the better in all of this, for what it’s worth), but there’s a strange disconnect between the wild brand of whimsy at which the film aims and the thin facsimile for which it eventually settles. It’s like being handed a bright, colorful balloon that deflates a little more every second you hold on to it.