“The ‘why?’ cannot, and need not, be put into words.” So wrote Lewis Carroll in the introduction to “Alice’s Adventures Under Ground,” and his advice goes sadly unheeded in “Alice Through the Looking Glass,” James Bobin’s sequel to Tim Burton’s massively lucrative “Alice in Wonderland.” Taking Carroll’s anything-goes psychedelic setting and painting it over with a drab time-travel plot and thoroughly beige origin stories for otherwise colorful characters, this lackluster go-round is a mercenary backward step for Disney’s live-action excavations of its animated back catalog, which enjoyed a mighty leap forward only a few weeks ago with Jon Favreau’s “The Jungle Book.”
Though it’s unlikely to equal the billion-dollar-plus worldwide tally of its 2010 predecessor, “Looking Glass” should fare well enough commercially, thanks to its day-glow production design, busy CGI and assorted other shiny things. But as Carroll himself put it, “it’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards.” While he can’t really offer a substitute for the dark wit that Burton brings even to his lesser outings, new director Bobin is hardly out of his element. As demonstrated in his first two “Muppets” features, he’s got fine comic timing, and his ability to handle nonstop digital spectacle keeps “Alice” visually consistent and coherent even as it offers one spread of eye-candy after another.
The problem with “Alice” is its lack of narrative imagination. For example, in Disney’s first animated crack at the tale back in 1951, the Mad Hatter’s madness existed a priori; like his famous riddle, “why is a raven like a writing desk?” the point was that it has no solution. Yet “Alice” assumes we need the most literal of answers, retconning a whole parallel world distinguished precisely by its lack of logic and forcing it to comply with the most shopworn of templates. (Yet paradoxically, the plot is still often hard to follow.)
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The Mad Hatter, as in the last installment, is played by Johnny Depp with a shock of orange hair, clown makeup and pupils dilated to psilocybic proportions. Though his Wonderland home has been peaceful since the banishment of the evil Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter), he’s nonetheless fallen into a deep funk, struggling to deal with lingering Oedipal issues and the death of his family in an unfortunate Jabberwocky incident. To the rescue, eventually, comes Alice Kinsleigh (Mia Wasikowska).
When we first meet back up with our twentysomething heroine, she’s in command of a ship pursued by pirates. It initially scans as a dream sequence, with Alice employing some Tony Hawk nautical strategies to evade her pursuers, but this is indeed the real world: As hinted at the end of the previous film, Alice has been carving out trade routes to China as a sort of girl-power colonialist on her ship the Wonder, only to arrive back home in London to face some difficult real-estate negotiations with her foppish former suitor, Hamish (Leo Bill).
Fortunately, this real-world framing doesn’t take up too much time, and Alice soon slips through a mirror into Wonderland, reuniting with old friends Tweedledee/Tweedledum (Matt Lucas), the White Rabbit (Michael Sheen), the Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry) and the White Queen (Anne Hathaway). They’re all worried about the depressed Hatter, and the White Queen dispatches Alice to travel back into the past to save his family.
To unstick herself from time, Alice has to steal a steampunky gyroscope contraption called the Chronosphere, from its owner, Time itself (a mugging, mustachioed Sacha Baron Cohen). Occupying the film’s best new setting (a giant clock) and outfitted with its best new costume (including a giant clock breastplate), Time is a hulking, German-accented taskmaster, in command of a slew of bumbling brass minions who combine to form terrifying robotic henchmen when trouble arises. (Cribbing from the “Transformers” franchise is rarely a good look, yet here we are.)
The banished Red Queen is busy trying to sweet-talk her way to the Chronosphere as well, but Alice gets hold of it first, and meets up with progressively younger versions of the Hatter and his disapproving father (Rhys Ifans) as she time-travels. The young Red Queen is here in the past as well, and we get to see the origins of her evil, her catchphrase and her giant head – none of them remotely worth the trouble.
There’s nothing technically wrong with the film. The computer effects are loud and occasionally obnoxious, yet skillfully designed; Colleen Atwood’s costumes are lavish; and most of the performances (especially Hathaway’s dizzy White Queen) chew just the right amount of scenery. The question is simply why, given the wealth of possibilities in Carroll’s works, would you tell a story inspired more by “Back to the Future II” and Burton’s least successful additions to “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”?
Or, for that matter, “Return to Oz.” In this film’s wildest derivation from the tone of the source material, we see Alice, thrust back into the real world, strapped to a bed in a Victorian insane asylum. Even after she escapes, she’s still faced with a Sophie’s choice: In order to save her family’s home, she must sell her prized ship. “Sign over the Wonder,” she gasps, “and give up the impossible?” Alas, that ship has already sailed.