For all of its narrative faults and condescension towards modern sensibilities, Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland still possessed enough of his unique visual eye and thematic obsessions to prove interesting in spots. Alice Through the Looking Glass suffers from the loss of him, but also from fully removing any semblance of narrative tether to the source material. What we have here is an entirely original (I use that term loosely) story that just so happens to involve the immortal characters from Lewis Carroll’s works.
This is simply a garnish, gaudy, eye-searing mess. A cacophony of action buffeting against the screen for nearly two hours that signifies nothing it makes you wonder why it even exists at all. Of course, Burton’s film ranking in over a billion guaranteed the presence of a sequel sooner or later, and it’s downright shocking that it took six years for it to happen, but that doesn’t mean it needed to. I can’t imagine anyone playing devil’s advocate for this thing.
The film opens with Alice captaining a cargo ship and you’d be forgiven for mistaking it as the opening salvo for the latest entry in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. Does this close a loop on Disney’s “brand deposits,” or is this the cinematic equivalency of watching a studio act as its own Human Centipede? The answer quickly leans towards the second option as the story interminably chugs along.
One of the worst offenses in Burton’s film was Johnny Depp’s gonzo Ronald McDonald variation of the Mad Hatter, and Alice Through the Looking Glass never blushes away from orientating the narrative around him. It means more of Depp’s exhaustive mugging for the camera, and more of watching a once great actor increasingly cease to give a shit about his craft or quality of work.
We meet the Mad Hatter’s extended family here, and for some reason, they all appear with normal pallor while Hatter looks like a Goth kid got a neon makeover. This detail alone doesn’t make any sense, and neither does the rest of the time travelling narrative or the mystery of why the Hatter is the most important person in Wonderland. Other than the fact that he’s played by the biggest star in the cast, there’s never a good reason given behind centralizing the narrative around him and routinely hinting at a creepy, limp romance between him and Alice.
He’s not the only character we get the back story on, as the Red and White Queens long-time rivalry is revealed to go back to a dumb childhood fight. We don’t need tragic histories for these characters to invest in them. They’re creatures of pure imagination and fantasy, and they should remain that way. Trying to humanize them makes them woefully uninteresting, even if Helena Bonham Carter’s over-sized toddler reading of the Red Queen is still a riot of entitled rage. Alice Through the Looking Glass continually makes these lazy contortions towards human emotion, but they’re always lost amid the garnish CGI displays and flaccid character motivations.
Nothing works here. The greatest irony is that the mistakes of the first film are not only repeated, but blown-up into gigantic proportions all the while we’re hammered with the theme of the past being impossible to change but necessary to learn from. I see that Disney learned the wrong lessons and merely chased the dollars. They threw more money than I could dream of into this thing but forgot the simple, important things like story, characters, motivations, and coherence.