“Time is a thief and a villain,” explains Alice (Mia Wasikowska) to her mother (Lindsay Duncan) in the new Disney sequel to 2010’s Alice in Wonderland, Alice Through The Looking Glass. But even though the part of Time is played by a somewhat villainous Sacha Baron Cohen, the real thief of this follow-up tale is writer Linda Woolverton. She’s stolen the title to Lewis Carroll’s second Alice novel and written her own, manic story, presumably by studio direction and design, that bares little to no resemblance to the original. And it’s all over the place.
Alice still climbs up onto the fireplace mantel and steps through the large mirror on the wall to see what might be on the other side, but her reasons for doing so are altered, plus what she finds has little to do with the world of Lewis Carroll. There’s an initial reference to a chess board – a theme throughout the book but not the film – where the chess pieces come to life, but they’re there solely to supply the punch line to clumsy Alice’s action after she’s accidentally knocked Humpty Dumpty (John Sessions) off the table. The king orders all of his horses and all of his men to get down there and help put Humpty back together.
In the film, the reason why Alice climbs through that mirror tends to be the most interesting aspect of the whole affair. Having returned from some thrilling adventures on the high seas as captain of her own sailing ship, Alice returns to London to find that her father has passed away and her mother will lose her home if Alice doesn’t sign over her ship to the man she scorned at the end of the first feature, Hamish (a suitably obsequious Leo Bill).
Determined not to hand over her vessel, Alice runs throughout the house and escapes the clutches of Hamish and his snotty, all-male board members by following her old friend Absolem the caterpillar, now a butterfly (Alan Rickman to whom the film is dedicated) into the magical mirror. Once on the other side, she becomes embroiled in an adventure revolving around an ailing Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) who’s depressed and missing his family, and a race against time. Having stolen a time traveling device called the Chronosphere from an imposing half-human clock, Time himself, Alice returns to Wonderland’s past in the hope of altering certain moments that will change the future, only to discover that time can never be altered without creating the most disastrous of events. It’s all very complicated – young audience members will have no clue, guaranteed – and appears to have its story-telling inspiration not so much from Lewis Carroll but from Back to the Future Part 2, and it’s just as annoyingly manic.
The CGI imagery is as you’d expect, imaginatively stunning – Alice flying in her craft over what appears to be the sea of time is simply remarkable – but computer imagery alone is not enough. Audiences are no longer dazzled by CGI spectacle once it’s piled on, scene after breathless scene, without a cohesive story to engage, as is the case here.
Considering just how wonderful Carroll’s absurdly creative source material is, you have to question why director James Bobin and writer Woolverton took this overbearingly frenzied approach. The message that, “The only thing worth doing is what we do for others,” as Alice tells Time, is certainly a worthwhile theme, but it’s a message that becomes buried under all the mayhem.
Set pieces can’t help but remind you of other films, not only the already mentioned Back to the Future Part 2, but also Disney’s own 1985 Return to Oz in an insane asylum and, heaven forbid, even Transformers when Time’s mini-metal servants group together to make one, large, threatening chase and attack metal monster. Plus, the film breaks Carroll’s intentionally nonsensical, illogical world by giving answers to questions that no one – certainly not Lewis Carroll – would have asked, like how did Helena Bonham Carter’s evil Red Queen become so vindictive and why is her head larger than the rest of her body? Why do this?
Two answers. First, the studio wanted to make a sequel that looked like Tim Burton’s first but bigger while incorporating as much of top-billed Johnny Depp into the story as it could, and second, because this charmless, overly busy and unengaging film really doesn’t get Lewis Carroll at all.
MPAA Rating: PG Length: 108 Minutes Overall Rating: 4 (out of 10)