Say this for the Alice film series: Despite colossal budgets, elaborate fantasy world-building, and prominent summer release dates, no one involved seems to have worried much about plot. In Tim Burton’s 2010 adaptation of Alice in Wonderland, the titular heroine (Mia Wasikowska) was tasked with helping the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) remember how to do his favorite dance. In this year’s perplexing sequel Alice Through the Looking Glass, directed by James Bobin, Alice is summoned back to the CGI Wonderland to help with an even more pressing issue: The Hatter is in a bit of a funk, so maybe she can cheer him up.
Talk about nail-biting stakes. Alice Through the Looking Glass’s utter lack of a story reflects the larger senselessness of its existence: Though Burton’s 2010 film was an indisputable financial sensation for Disney, riding 3D ticket prices and Depp’s star-power to a billion-dollar worldwide gross, there’s been no detectable clamor for a sequel, probably because that film was an incomprehensible mess. Six years later, Alice’s return journey to Wonderland feels like a cynical cash-in from minute one, especially considering that its plot has nothing to do with Lewis Carroll’s novel outside of using its name and original characters. This time, Alice leaps through a mirror for no particular reason other than life in the real world has gotten a bit mundane. But if you care to dig deeper, the film seems to have some self awareness about its redundancy—not enough to recommend it, but enough to make it a bizarre curio rather than an utterly pointless franchise entry.
Bobin is, on the surface, an inspired choice for this sequel: An inventive television director, he made small-budget wonders out of the gently surreal musical comedy Flight of the Conchords on HBO, before helping to reboot The Muppets for the big screen. But he’s largely stuck having to ape Burton’s tiresome vision of Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland, which amounts to the most amped-up production design possible. Every green-screen location is laden with busy detail, every character caked in wacky makeup and embellished with CGI touches. Even Alice patrols around in a loud costume of clashing patterns and costumes, acquired in China on one of her naval voyages, since apparently she became a sea captain at the end of Alice in Wonderland (one of that film’s sillier plot developments).
There’s a laudable, if thuddingly obvious, note of female empowerment to Alice Through the Looking Glass—Bobin and the screenwriter Linda Woolverton smartly give Alice a lot more agency that she had in the original film, where she wandered blankly from set-piece to set-piece and smiled wanly at the antics of the Mad Hatter and all his friends. That film was an adaptation of both of Carroll’s Alice books, including Through the Looking Glass, though it took more direct inspiration from the 1951 animated Disney film.
For this film, Woolverton conjures a new plot from whole cloth: Alice is sick of the sexist skepticism her seafaring life faces in Victorian England, so she hops over to Wonderland to try and escape it, and quickly accepts the challenge of trying to cheer the Hatter up (he’s apparently feeling suddenly blue about the loss of his estranged family). Changing the minds of haughty 1860s high society seems so impossible that traveling back in time to reunite the Hatter with his father (Rhys Ifans) is a more plausible goal.
It’s a smartly cynical note to start a story with, but the film unfortunately has no follow-through, quickly descending into bland video-game plotting as Alice goes on her quest. She steals a steampunk time-travel device called the Chronosphere from the embodiment of Time itself (Sacha Baron Cohen) and starts zapping further and further into the past, trying to stop the Hatter’s family feud as well as reunite the film’s warring Red and White Queens (Helena Bonham Carter and Anne Hathaway respectively, giving about as much effort as they are contractually obligated to provide). Eventually—the film’s running time is a generously padded 113 minutes—she learns that you can’t change the past, no matter how hard you may try.
That’s all very well and good, but it’s also a maddeningly shruggy conclusion, so much so that I began to wonder if Bobin and Woolverton were having some sort of meta-textual fun at the audience’s expense. It helps that the most redeeming element of Alice Through the Looking Glass is its most prominent character: Cohen as the finicky, petty lord of time itself, a clockwork tyrant who consistently warns Alice that he cannot be outrun forever, despite her own fears of growing up and missing out on her lofty life goals.
If Bobin and Woolverton are trying to tell a tale of the immutability of aging and the disappointments of life, they’ve succeeded: Alice Through the Looking Glass took forever to reach screens, at considerable cost (a reported $170 million), and the efforts expended on it feel largely absurd. Perhaps the intention was to make a sequel so forgettable it made a grander point about its own silly existence. More likely, though, Alice Through the Looking Glass is just extra fodder for the growing trash-heap of weary franchises.