'Alice Through the Looking Glass'
‘Alice Through the Looking Glass’ is a sequel that actually improves on its predecessor. However, the last movie was pretty bad despite the billion dollars it made at the box office suggesting otherwise. So, the improvement means that this one is merely forgettably mediocre rather than downright crappy.
Not that it matters. All anyone seemed to want out of this blockbuster take on Lewis Carroll last time were pretty pictures and Johnny Depp flailing around in the name of silliness. That undemanding audience might very well be thrilled by the follow-up. Or they’ll have learned to not care in the years between the movies. Either way, there’s no swaying anyone on this sequel. You either drank the Kool-Aid and want more or wouldn’t even consider setting foot in a theater playing the film in the first place. In both instances, your motivations are correct.
In the years since Alice (Mia Wasikowska) triumphed in battle in Wonderland, she’s become a swashbuckling sea captain. Well, at least that’s true until she returns to land and learns that her mother has sold off property that will cut Alice’s adventuring dreams short and possibly even force her into a dull marriage. Once again imbued by vaguely feminist motivations, Alice dives through a (wait for it) looking glass and back into Wonderland. There, she sees the old gang (Tweedledee and Tweedledum, the White Rabbit, the Caterpillar, etc.) for what amount to little more than extended cameos.
This is a Johnny Depp franchise now, so the plot simply must be centered on the Mad Hatter! Turns out that since Alice left, the Mad Hatter has been in a real rut of depression. He’s slowly falling apart into death, convinced that his family might somehow still be alive even though everyone in Wonderland thinks that’s impossible. To find out, Alice will have to climb into a giant clock and get a time machine from (who else?) Time (Sacha Baron Cohen). Next thing you know, the flick is flying through the past to serve as both prequel and sequel. Sure, it’s absolutely nothing like the book that this is theoretically based on, but that’s fine. All the producers really wanted was a title that sounded vaguely familiar.
Tim Burton passed off directing duties to James Bobin (‘The Muppets’, ‘Da Ali G Show’), but the rainbow fart aesthetic remains. Everything is weirdly proportioned and absurdly colored. That’s for the sake of good old-fashioned Lewis Carrol surrealism of course, but in an empty way that feels more suited to mass produced T-shirts than anything resembling artistic expression. Still, there’s a certain beauty to the digital diarrhea splattered across the screen. It sure looks colorfully expensive.
Performances range wildly in quality. On the plus side is the always excellent Helena Bonham Carter, whose raging Red Queen remains the highlight of the franchise. Mia Wasikowska is talented enough to bring genuine human emotion to half-cocked screenplays while acting against green screens and sticks. On the downside is Johnny Depp at his most self-parodically goofy. (I spent the whole movie wishing I could tell him to calm down. We’d still like him with half the quirks.) I still can’t figure out what the hell Anne Hathaway thinks she’s doing in these movies. New addition Sacha Baron Cohen is welcome, given that his clownish performances are practically living cartoons anyway. Granted, the children’s film setting robs him of his filthy strengths, but that’s OK. Maybe some kids will think to research Cohen after this movie and feel thoroughly corrupted.
Even though Linda Woolverton’s screenplay couldn’t care less about retaining anything in Lewis Carroll’s books that made them special (which is at least consistent with the last movie), the story is slightly stronger this time. It has higher emotional stakes than “good guy beats bad guy” and the time-twisting narrative actually contorts itself into a couple of intriguing plot beats. Bobin even uses his considerable experience in comedy to sneak in a few genuine laughs.
‘Alice Through the Looking Glass’ is about as cynically constructed a crowd-bait blockbuster imaginable, but it has a handful of moments of beauty, laughs and humanity within all the commercialism. That’s not exactly enough to make it worth rushing out to the theater. However, anyone depressed that they’ll be forced to endure another CGI nightmare for the sake of their kids can at least expect a mildly less painful experience this time around. In other words, it could be worse. In fact, with this franchise, it already has been worse. Maybe the next sequel will be great. Or even better, maybe there won’t be a third movie at all. Dare to dream.