"Alice Through The Looking Glass" Lives Down To Its Predecessor

Six years on from Tim Burton’s “Alice In Wonderland,” it’s clear that the film has an ally in inflation; it virtually guarantees that the Walt Disney production won’t remain one of the worst ever to gross $1 billion. Nevertheless, it’s a sum that means moviegoers have no one to blame but themselves for the bizarrely belated “Alice Through The Looking Glass.” Helmed by “Muppets Most Wanted” director and “Flight Of The Conchords” co-creator James Bobin, the sequel isn’t markedly worse than its predecessor – hooray! – but it won’t win back opponents of Burton’s film and its overall aimlessness is likely to disappoint fans. In other words, no one wins. Not even Disney, if early box office projections are on target.

God bless Mia Wasikowska for lending the picture its lone trace of humanity. Her Alice lights up the screen time and again, with the actress having grown significantly as a performer since her first go-round (when she was a virtual newcomer). It’s the kind of performance that would save a movie that had any narrative potency at all. Alas, the screenplay – again loosely adapted from Lewis Carroll’s novels by “Beauty And The Beast” scribe Linda Woolverton – puts an unimaginative time travel spin on Alice’s interdimensional travels, turning into a laborious attempt to locate a certain family of hatmakers.

In Alice’s absence from Underland, the typically bubbly Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) has become a model of grief. Upon finding a hat from his childhood – the first one he ever designed, as a gift to his father (Rhys Ifans) – the Hatter becomes convinced that his thought-to-be-deceased family is alive. But his tea-time gang insists that their pal has gone as mad as ever, leaving the Hatter’s search to end before it begins. Alice, too, is incredulous but moved by the depth her friend’s suffering, quickly resolving to do whatever she can to help.

This leads her to Time himself (Sacha Baron Cohen), a crotchety entity holed up in a cavernous clock tower. He possesses the Chronosphere, the only known method of time travel and Alice’s best chance for clues on the whereabouts of the Hatters. She steals it, of course, kicking off a transparently Dickensian trip that sees her through various past events featuring all the usual suspects: the White Queen (Anna Hathaway), the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter), Tweedledee and Tweedledum (Matt Lucas), the White Rabbit (Michael Sheen), the Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry), and more.

Halfheartedly bookended by a handful of “real world” scenes (Alice is the captain of her late father’s ship, desperately trying to keep her mother from signing it over to the crooked Hamish Ascot), there isn’t much muchness to the story. It makes all too much sense given that Carroll’s prose is famous for its nonsense, and it strings the usually ill-advised flashback narrative device into feature length. A few time travel films have done this effectively; “Alice Through The Looking Glass” is not one of them, tragically combining its picked-over-thrift-shop visual aesthetic with a shoulder shrug of a plot that feels straight out of a theme park ride queue video.

That’s not to say the film is without a handful small delights. It’s a pleasure to hear the late Alan Rickman’s voice (as Absalom the caterpillar) one last time, no matter how briefly. Moreover, some of the special effects are admittedly special, like Time’s clocktower and its adorable mechanical inhabitants. Baron Cohen’s take on Time is another relative highlight, a wonderfully bonkers Christoph Waltz impression with some moments of fun wordplay resulting in response his character. But they comprise the movie’s only laughs, microscopic upticks in fun surrounded by vast reaches of nothingness. Similarly, the pic’s finale brings with it a nice sentiment regarding the importance of family, but it feels unearned and at odds with Carroll’s original text.

Not even Bonham Carter’s horrible, screeching turn as the Red Queen deserves a series as dreary as this. Like its predecessor, “Through The Looking Glass” is cynical, bottom-line moviemaking at its flattest, a $170 million bauble that wouldn’t exist if not for the opportunity to appeal to Disney shareholders. Don’t oblige them.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ out of ★★★★★ (Not So Good)

Release Date: May 27, 2016
Studio: Walt Disney Pictures
Director: James Bobin
Screenwriter: Linda Woolverton
Starring: Mia Wasikowska, Johnny Depp, Sacha Baron Cohen, Anne Hathaway, Helena Bonham Carter, Rhys Ifans, Michael Sheen, Stephen Fry, Timothy Spall, Lindsay Duncan, Leo Bill
MPAA Rating: PG (for fantasy action/peril and some language)