There is an Alice. She does step through a looking glass. But the rest of “Alice Through the Looking Glass” bears even less of a relation to Lewis Carroll’s second Alice novel than the 2010 “Alice in Wonderland” did to his first.
Carroll’s narrative, in which young Alice matures into a queen with adult cares and responsibilities – which she first desires, then rejects – has been kicked aside in favor of a science fiction/superhero story about turning back time to rescue the Mad Hatter’s family from a Smaug-like dragon. It’s as if a PG-rated Harlan Ellison, assuming there could be such a thing, had taken control of this cinematic clown car.
Infidelity to the source didn’t bother fans of the 2010 “Alice in Wonderland,” and it won’t trouble them here. (Do kids even read Carroll now?) Though Tim Burton gave up the director’s chair to James Bobin, he remains as producer and rehired some of his crew: writer Linda Woolverton, composer Danny Elfman, costumer Colleen Atwood. The new talent – cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh, editor Andrew Weisblum and production designer Dan Hennah – all carry on the “Wonderland” legacy.
So what went so wrong?
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First, the movie acts as if the 2010 film never happened. The once-beheaded Jabberwock (wrongly called a Jabberwocky) is alive and more dangerous than before; he’s the pet/servant of the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter), who has somehow come back from exile with special powers.
Second, pop psychology rules the day. The Hatter (Johnny Depp) turns out to have gone mad because he couldn’t please his daddy, and the Red Queen would stop trying to kill everyone if her sister (sleepwalking Anne Hathaway) would just apologize for a childhood lie.
Third, Woolverton’s script is a sloppy sack of empowerment clichés. Alice (Mia Wasikowska), first seen outrunning pirates off the coast of Malay as the captain of a sailing vessel, enters Wonderland again to escape her odious family. There she sets out to reunite the Hatter with his missing kin, outwits Time himself (Sacha Baron Cohen) and ends up saving the entire alternate universe. Then she comes back to our world to humiliate her priggish relatives.
Fourth, Sacha Baron Cohen. Though his character oversees life and death, Cohen has the gravity of a flea. He’s supposed to be menacing, profound, comic or pathetic by turns, but Time remains a dull chap with curled mustaches, curdled wit and the accent of a B-grade actor playing a Nazi in a World War II movie.
Fifth, the clunky dialogue. “Must you always be so headstrong?” Alice’s mother asks her. “No,” she replies. “But it’s more fun that way.” Or the immortal line by Time: “I have not ticked my last tock yet!”
Sixth, the same belief that infected the equally overblown “Pan.” Special effects and ingenious production design cannot conceal a spectacular hollowness at the core of a ruined childhood legend.
And at six, I stopped counting and stopped caring.
Alice Through the Looking Glass
Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Johnny Depp, Sacha Baron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne Hathaway.
Writer: Linda Woolverton.
Director: James Bobin.
Length: 113 minutes.
Rating: PG (fantasy action/peril and some language).
Raleigh: Brier Creek, Carmike, Grande, IMAX Theatre at Marbles, Mission Valley, North Hills, Six Forks. Apex: Beaver Creek. Cary: CineBowl, Crossroads. Chapel Hill: Lumina, Silverspot, Timberlyne. Durham: Southpoint, Wynnsong. Garner: White Oak. Morrisville: Park Place. Smithfield: Smithfield Cinemas.