Question: Is the exhausting, utterly uninvolving “Alice Through the Looking Glass” somehow worse than Tim Burton’s execrable “Alice in Wonderland”?
Answer: Probably. While the two are cinematically on par – that’s not a compliment – the sequel to Burton’s Lewis Carroll adaptation is certainly more unnecessary, more scattershot, and created with far more cynicism.
It’s worth remembering that 2010’s “Alice in Wonderland” was easily the worst film in director Burton’s mostly disappointing career. Yes, worse than “Planet of the Apes,” “Dark Shadows” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” (I’m a “Mars Attacks!” fan, so back off.)
That first “Alice” was a clumsy, ugly, heavy-handed chore of CG-eye-gouging silliness. Sure, there were some joys to be found, especially a lovely opening 10 minutes (pre-Wonderland) and a typically manic Danny Elfman score.
But it wasted a stunning cast – Mia Wasikowska, Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne Hathaway – with a strained, unfunny, unimaginative script and overstuffed visuals. It was a massive worldwide hit, of course.
Now comes “Alice Through the Looking Glass,” with the same returning stars, a new director (Burton is just a producer this time around), the addition of Sacha Baron Cohen, and, well, that’s about it.
As “Looking Glass” begins, Alice (Wasikowska, doing what she can) is now a sea captain finally ready to return home after several years away. Her travels have taken her around the world, and given her an appreciation for lands beyond the U.K.
This is even more true when she sees how things have changed during her absence. Hamish, the dullard whose marriage proposal Alice turned down, holds her family’s fate in his hands, and a difficult decision looms.
This opening chunk is compelling. Like Burton’s original, the less manic scenes of Alice at home in London were charming and even droll. Even the over-the-top Hamish was enjoyable.
Soon the caterpillar Absolem (voiced by the late Alan Rickman) appears, and Alice is led back to Wonderland. So far, so-so, especially the first few minutes of her return.
However, any hopes for a successful film are dashed with the appearance of Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter. Looking like a cross between warbling songster Tiny Tim and a cadaverous Carrot Top, sounding like someone “Black Mass” gangster Whitey Bulger repeatedly kicked in the groin, he is nearly unwatchable.
And of course, since this sequel is dependent on Depp’s (fading) starpower, the plot must revolve around the Hatter. After finding evidence that his long-ago departed family may, in fact, be alive, the Hatter has become a man obsessed. Alice’s friends – Anne Hathaway’s White Queen, the White Rabbit, the Cheshire Cat, and Tweedledum and Tweedledee – turn to her with a plan that could bring the Hatter back to sanity.
But to accomplish her mission, Alice must outwit Time (Sacha Baron Cohen) and the devious Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter, nearly as unwatchable as Depp).
This is a needlessly confusing, infinitely overplotted storyline, one with little mystery, occasional laughs and almost nothing memorable.
So … Depp. The years since “Wonderland” have seen the actor stuck in a shocking artistic dry spell, one with only a couple of bright spots – the so-so Whitey Bulger biopic “Black Mass” and Funny or Die’s fab parody video “Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal: The Movie.”
Two steps forward, one step back. Thankfully, Depp has yet another “Pirates” flick waiting in the wings.
There are hints of his past successes here, not to mention his “Ali G” star Sacha Baron Cohen. In fact, Cohen’s mugging performance is one of the film’s high points. But he’s brought none of the emotion that made his Muppets films more than just a Henson-aping retread. It’s hard to criticize him for taking on a major gig like Alice, but it’s still a creative stumble.
By the time “Alice Through the Looking Glass” mercifully ends, it’s difficult to even recall how it began, why we’re watching and what made Carroll’s original tale so delightfully memorable. Children may enjoy the sight of winking cats and vegetable guards, but try asking them what to describe their favorite scene.
They’ll likely scratch their heads, and so will you.
Title: “Alice Through the Looking Glass”
One and half stars
Starring: Mia Wasikowska, Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne Hathaway, Sacha Baron Cohen
Director: James Bobin
Running time: 108 minutes
Rated: PG for fantasy action/peril and some language.
The lowdown: Alice returns to the whimsical world of Wonderland and travels back in time to save the Mad Hatter.