Directed by James Bobin
Written by Linda Woolverton
Starring Johnny Depp, Mia Wasikowska, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne Hathaway, Sasha Baron Cohen, Rhys Ifans, Matt Lucas, and the voices of Alan Rickman, Stephen Fry, Timothy Spall, Paul Whitehouse, Barbara Windsor, Michael Sheen and Matt Vogel
Runtime 113 minutes
Sequels are tricky things. They exist to put characters that were beloved in one film into new situations and also to introduce new characters so the audience doesn’t get bored with the old ones. They look to continue the adventures of a character or cast of characters without necessarily continuing the story from the previous film (this is in stark contrast to something like the Star Wars or Lord of the Rings franchises who have subsequent parts to one long story). The trouble comes when the film is a sequel to a movie that was based on a book. If there were more books in the series, then it should be simple to just adapt the next book into the sequel, but occasionally, studios take the characters and create a largely (or entirely) original screenplay with the characters and just take the follow-up novel’s name, as in The Lost World: Jurassic Park and now Alice Through the Looking Glass.
The story starts with Alice (Mia Wasilkowsak), now a ship’s captain for her father’s former company (taken over by his business partner in the last film, where he made Alice an apprentice when she refused to marry his son), and quite a good one at that. She returns home from three years at sea, exploring China, to find the man she rejected in charge of the company after his father’s death while she was at sea. Hamish (Leo Bill) advises Alice that her mother Helen (Lindsay Duncan) has sold her stock in the company and has a bond on their house that is secured by her ship (which was her father’s) and she is to sign over the ship and take a clerk’s position in the company or the bond on the house will be revoked and her mother will be homeless. Alice runs off, refusing to sign and encounters Absolem (Alan Rickman, in his final performance) who leads her into the mirror (or looking glass) back to Underland where Hatter (Johnny Depp) is in trouble.
Hatter believes his family, who he thought were killed by the Jabberwocky many years earlier, are still alive. His friends Tweedledee and Tweedledum (both played by Matt Lucas), Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry), The March Hair (Paul Whitehouse), Dormouse (Barbara Windsor), Bayard (Timothy Spall), The White Rabbit (Michael Sheen), and The White Queen (Anne Hathaway) don’t believe him and think he’s going mad…well, madder, because nothing they do can make him come back to his former self. Alice doesn’t believe him either, so they decide the only way to save Hatter is to have Alice go back in time and save his family. This requires stealing the chronosphere from Time (Sasha Baron Cohen) and changing history. Then it is literally a race against Time (as he is pursuing her across time) to save Hatter’s family and get back before all of time is undone because the chronosphere is what keeps time moving.
The screenplay beats us down with explanations galore and throws us into the pre-Alice past of Underland with reckless abandon. Written by Linda Woolverton, who wrote the previous film Alice in Wonderland as well as Beauty and the Beast, Maleficent, co-wrote The Lion King and many others, the script is not short on exposition and filling in the whys of the previous story in the Wonderland universe. The trouble is she gets so bogged down in explaining why the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) is the way she is and her relationship with the White Queen and why Hatter is the way he is, that she doesn’t bother with any real character development or give us any reason to care about the story unfolding before us. The entire film is basically backstory for the previous film, which didn’t need it to make you care about the proceedings. As maligned as Alice in Wonderland was in 2010, it’s a masterpiece compared to this slapdash offering. The whole story is driven by Alice wanting to help her friend. That’s fine, but she uses that as a reason to tamper with time as if Hatter’s name will have the same resonance with Time as it does for her and it just isn’t the case. The whole premise is half-baked at best and is largely an excuse to explore possible reasons for why these established characters, who were little more than architypes before, are the way they are. The film ultimately feels like a method actor’s preparation than a coherent story for a film.
Visualizing this barely-thought-through screenplay is director James Bobin, best known for directing The Muppets and Muppets Most Wanted. He makes a good show of it, doing what he can with a largely green-screen set and actors who seem like they are there to fulfil a contract and not out of love for the story or characters. Bobin’s sense of humor and wit that were on wonderful display in his two Muppet movies are nowhere to be found here. The story is treated so gravely and seriously that there is no fun to be had. He keeps his direction so straightforward it drags the picture down further from where the screenplay started. He offers no visual flair, instead opting to let the effects take the place for inventive directing. This may not have been his fault, though. It’s possible that Disney and the producers wanted a specific thing and he was just hired to execute something they’d already planned. It certainly wasn’t in keeping with Tim Burton’s style from the first picture (which for him was oddly muted as well) and it wasn’t designed to make the picture lively either.
Alice Through the Looking Glass is a tired test of patience. It goes by quickly (mercifully), and it doesn’t feel like a waste of time while it’s playing, it just never particularly engages and the stakes are so minor that there is no involvement by the audience whatsoever. Everything just happens and when it’s over, you walk out of the theater and barely give the film a second thought. It’s not anger-inducing bad, it’s forgettable bad and that may be worse in the long run because it can’t even muster that most basic of emotions.