Review: Alice Through the Looking Glass

After the trailer reel ended and the lights dimmed, my showing of "Alice Through the Looking Glass" opened with a screening of the full music video for Pink's "Just Like Fire." The song was produced specifically for the film's soundtrack and the video borrows heavily from its distinct visual style. But by beginning the film with a thinly-veiled advertisement for the album, Disney exposes a nakedly profit-driven opportunism that also explains this candy-coated fluff of a sequel.

That isn't to say I hated "Alice Through the Looking Glass," but it's far more shallow entertainment than its 2010 forerunner. Say what you will about that film, but it offered something new in its wildly weird take on a world almost tailor-made for then-director Tim Burton. "Alice Through the Looking Glass" offers more of the same in a sequel-prequel mashup that reminds me of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disney World: a mechanical series of thinly-connected scenes that is mildly amusing and utterly free of impact.

Three years have passed since Alice Kingsleigh's last adventure in Wonderland. She's now an impossibly talented captain, leading expeditions all over the world aboard her late father's ship. She sails under the banner of a trading company which falls into the hands of her jilted ex-fiancé Hamish, who seeks to take her ship and humiliate her with a desk job. Distraught, Alice follows a familiar butterfly through a looking glass, returning to Wonderland.

But not all is well here, either. After finding a relic from his childhood, the Mad Hatter has come to believe his long-dead family is still alive. No one in Wonderland believes him, driving the once-colorful madman into a deadly seriousness. To save her friend, Alice must travel into the past to rescue the Hatter's family from their untimely deaths. Using an artifact stolen from Time himself, she sets off on an adventure across the oceans of Wonderland's past.

Borrowing its name but drawing no inspiration from the source material, "Alice Through the Looking Glass" plays out over backstory vignettes that seriously overestimate how much anyone cares about the lore of this particular Wonderland. In lieu of a compelling story, the film dwells on questions no one ever asked like "why is the Red Queen's head big," while dutifully reminding the audience of the first film's high points. This "Alice" is too indebted to its predecessor to feel original. Even its once-vaunted visual style fails to impress; we've seen it already.

Amidst a sea of colorful CGI confusion, Mia Wasikowska remains perfectly watchable as Alice, even if the story fumbles her treatment. In the opening scenes, her aptitude as a sea captain is shown with a stunt so unbelievable I thought it would end up a dream sequence. Alice's headstrong refrain aside, her ability to do literally impossible things in the real world utterly diminishes any threat she could possibly face in Wonderland.

Mishandling of characters isn't limited to Alice. Sasha Baron Cohen's Time is a welcome addition, but the script lacks the self-control required to avoid a deluge of temporally-themed puns. In one particularly gag-laden scene, he remarks "You think I haven't heard these before?" I felt he spoke for me. Johnny Depp returns as the obnoxious Hatter and begins to outstay his welcome before the credits roll. Anne Hathaway alternates between uncharacteristically somber and a scene-chewing warble with nonstop spirit fingers. At least the Red Queen is still fun.

"Alice in Wonderland" was a film that told girls they could do anything; that simple but empowering message was coherent and constant. Beneath the surface, this is a film barely about anything. There's some nice sentiment about the importance of family but it's tacked on and artificial. Without heart or aspiration to do more, "Alice Through the Looking Glass" coasts on the appeal of the first movie; not a terrible film, but the unmistakable shadow of a better one.

Score: 2.5/5

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  1. Ha. Yikes. This is exactly what I expected to hear/read but hoped I wouldn't. I so badly wanted this to be a great sequel, even though the trailer didn't look promising and I didn't have a fervent love affair with the first film, anyway. Alas, I'll take your word for it and skip this altogether. ;)

    1. Thanks for your comment! While this is probably a sure watch for kids and/or big fans of the first, if you're not either I'd recommend waiting for the DVD. It's harmless but there's much better stuff out.