Tim Burton’s 2010 Alice in Wonderland was a forgettable, unsavory mess, but at least it had a few redeeming qualities. The filmmaker’s eye-popping visuals and imaginative production design kept Disney’s live-action version of their 1951 animated feature mostly bearable.

The same can’t be said of its sequel.

In Alice Through the Looking Glass, which borrows only the title of the Lewis Carroll novel, Burton takes a backseat as producer while James Bobin (The Muppets) takes over as director. The movie finds Alice back in the magical world of Underland for her most boring adventure yet. When caterpillar Absolem (voiced again by Alan Rickman in his last role) finds Alice in London, he leads her to a mirror transporting her back to Underland, where she reunites with the loopy tea-drinking animals from the first movie. They warn her that the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) has fallen ill with depression. The Hatter tells Alice that his family, the Hightopps, were killed years ago by the Red Queen’s (Helena Bonham Carter) Jabberwocky, the dragon Alice slayed in the first movie. But after finding a tiny hat the Hatter gave his father as a boy, he’s convinced his family is alive. Now she must steal the Cronosphere, a time-traveling device that looks like the Harry Potter snitch, to save the Hatter’s family.

The problem with Alice Through the Looking Glass is that there’s really no reason for this movie to exist. Alice already went to Underland, she met the majority of the characters from the books and she restored peace by fighting the evil queen. So why return? In this movie her only purpose is to travel to the past to help the Mad Hatter get back his “Muchness.” Adding in a time travel story to a world as whimsical as Underland dilutes and limits the creativity Bobin and his screenwriter Linda Woolverton can explore, and the plot’s far too thin for a two-hour-plus sequel.

The wobbly narrative also brings up some unaddressed questions like: If the Hatter is so convinced his family is alive, why doesn’t he do something about it rather than just mope around? If they’ve been dead for so long, why is he so depressed now (he seemed fine in the first movie)? And why are the other characters so concerned about helping him considering the fact that going back in time could risk their lives? As Sacha Baron Cohen’s Time explains, traveling to the past has major consequences, like freezing the present and ending Underland forever. Even after this is revealed, no one seems too worried that the Hatter’s selfish needs are threatening the fate of the universe. It’s safe to say this version of the Mad Hatter is Depp’s most pathetic character to date.

As much as I appreciate Depp toning down the zany antics (thankfully there’s no more dancing), his depressed Hatter is a total bore. Mia Wasikowska’s Alice is roughly six years older and working as a sea captain, but is still just as lifeless. When not directly quoting Carroll’s books, Wasikowska’s dialogue is mostly tedious exposition. Anne Hathaway still overacts as the White Queen, with melodramatic stares and gravity-defying hand gestures bordering on camp. While Helena Bonham Carter is still perfectly cast as the explosive Red Queen, her performance feels like a rehash from the first film.

It’s also a shame the sequel gives so little screen time to the first movie’s most charming minor characters. There’s hardly any of Stephen Fry as the voice of the Cheshire Cat, just one scene with Absolem (which could be due to Rickman’s death), and a forgettable cameo from Michael Sheen’s White Rabbit McTwisp. The anthropomorphic animals, plants, and objects are the ones who make the fanciful world of Alice in Wonderland such a thrilling place to visit; the sequel has no interest in any of them.

The only actor who seems to have fun with his role, and who gives the film its few delightful moments, is Baron Cohen. A god-like entity who controls time, he manages the worlds of the living and the dead symbolized by hanging pocket watches, all in a castle encased by a giant ticking clock. Though Cohen looks ridiculous in his jester-like costume (and sounds even sillier with his goofy German accent) he fully commits to the character.

Though based on the world conceptualized by Burton, the filmmaker’s touch is missing from Alice Through the Looking Glass. The 3D visuals distract from the scenery, particularly the scenes showing Alice flying through a sea of time with crashing waves. Where Burton brought a richness of color and detail to his Alice in ways that accentuated his characters’ idiosyncrasies – the Red Queen’s blood red, heart-shaped castle, Absolem’s dreamlike hazy blue introduction – Bobin’s visual palette merely hikes up the contrast of every scene, as if enough color might mask the frail narrative beneath. It’s probably a good thing Carroll’s fantastical world is called Underland in these movies, because Alice Through the Looking Glass has no elements of wonder.


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