In 2010, visionary filmmaker Tim Burton took on Lewis Carroll’s classic fairy tale Alice in Wonderland. Some people loved it—enough for it to make over $300 million in North America alone and a billion worldwide—but to some (i.e. me), it was one of Burton’s worst movies to date. Plus, it began the slow spiraling downfall that was his frequent collaborator Johnny Depp’s career. Unfortunately, when big money is being made, bad decisions like Alice Through the Looking Glass will eventually follow.
Burton remains on as producer for this sequel-slash-prequel, as does much of his original cast, but It’s hard to believe this franchise placeholder took the name of Carroll’s follow-up book and ignored everything good about it by transforming Through the Looking Glass into a convoluted mess of a plot involving time travel.
It starts off well enough with a glorious sea battle where we’re reintroduced to Mia Wasikowska’s Alice Kingsleigh, now the captain of her father’s sea vessel The Wonder. Since we last saw Alice, she’s grown into a strong, commanding young woman. But when she returns home, she learns a lot has changed. Just as she’s trying to deal with those changes, a blue butterfly leads her into a mirror (known as a “looking glass” back in the 19th century), which takes her back to Wonderland where things have also changed.
Most notably, the Mad Hatter (Depp) seems to be in a funk, believing that his family, killed a long time ago, are still alive. With her friend’s condition growing worse, Alice is urged to go back in time and try to change the past that caused Hatter’s state.
By returning to Wonderland, we’re immediately forced back into Burton’s world of zany characters spouting nonsense with exaggerated performances that quickly grow tiring. Depp’s outlandishly clownish Hatter only has a few moments onscreen before he’s replaced by the even worse Sacha Baron Cohen as the personification of Time, who controls everything, including who lives and dies. Alice steals Time’s “Chronosphere” to travel back in time, which begins to create the type of paradoxes and confusion normally reserved for science fiction films.
There are times when this is far darker and scarier film than the original movie, which tends to detract from any sort of wonder or adventure, and it makes you ponder whether a director like Terry Gilliam might have done a better job than director James Bobin (of The Muppets and Flight of the Conchords fame). All that Wonderland craziness makes you wish you could return to the “normalcy” of the real world, but we only return briefly before we’re thrust back into the disastrous chase across time.
Mia Wasikowska has matured tremendously as an actress since the first movie, and there’s hope the woman we meet at the beginning will remain once she’s back in Wonderland, but Alice quickly turns into a confused ditzy little girl once there. Of the other actors, Helena Bonham Carter probably makes the most out of her crazy big-headed Red Queen, being able to pull off that sort of exaggerated performance better than Anne Hathaway, Cohen, or Depp.
The saddest part of watching Through the Looking Glass is hearing the voice of the late Alan Rickman as the blue butterfly, which as you may have guessed is the new form of the blue caterpillar. That character only appears briefly and then quickly vanishes, making it even sadder.
Eventually, the movie transforms itself into a prequel to the initial Lewis Carroll story, essentially showing the origin of some of the characters. But did we really need to know about the Mad Hatter’s daddy issues or how the Red Queen got such a big head? This is where it becomes obvious that diverging so far from the source material wasn’t a good direction to go down, and it’s not helped by the Red and White Queens and Mad Hatter being called by their less than memorable real names throughout much of the film.
Whenever you’re hating a movie as much as this one, you desperately try to find and cling to anything favorable that you can. One can certainly compliment director Bobin’s team, especially production designer Dan Hennah (borrowed from Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit movies) and a team that helps ground the crazy amount of CG with large-scale sets, colorful costumes, and make-up. Much like the previous film, Through the Looking Glass takes full advantage of the 3D environment to help enhance all its spectacular visuals, though six years gone, 3D just doesn’t have the same draw or appeal it once did.
The shame of it all is that the movie actually has a really nice ending. Following an impressive display of visual FX in the film’s big climax, the characters are finally given the heart and warmth they were desperately missing for the entire running time up until that point.
Yet, by then it’s too late and sadly, Alice Through the Looking Glass ends up being nothing more than another needless tinkering of the Lewis Carroll mythos that’s grueling to sit through at its worst—which is most of it.
This review was originally published on May 17.