It’s hard to imagine that anyone was asking for a sequel to the Tim Burton edition of Alice In Wonderland, but even harder to imagine that it made over a billion dollars. That last fact ensured a follow up was coming and here it is, like it or not. Though nominally one might assume that this is an adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Through The Looking Glass, that’s barely the case. The previous movie may as well have carried the credit “inspired by” and that’s the case again here. Yep, this is another big, loud, obnoxious, colourful, star-filled, and above all expensive trip up Burton’s private rabbit hole. It’s not a particularly good film by any stretch of the imagination, though chances are that you already worked that out for yourself upon learning of the sequel’s very existence. However, it is one of the rare sequels that is better than the original, even if in this case that’s only the difference between fair and crap.
Things kick off on the high seas where Alice (Mia Wasikowska) is now a swash-buckling sea captain for some reason. Before you can wonder how that could possibly happen, the movie jumps back to dry land where Alice is about to have her captaining career torn from her due to debt and misogyny. That puts Alice all in a tizzy, so she goes ahead and jumps through the titular looking glass and back into Wonderland. She soon runs into the old gang from her last adventure, but they make it clear that something is rotten in the state of Wonderland. Since this is a Johnny Depp franchise, obviously it all springs from The Mad Hatter. He’s heartbroken to the point of near-death, convinced that his family must be alive even though no one believes him. To set things right, Alice must travel back in time. This requires a trip to a giant clock where she meets Time (Sacha Baron Cohen, naturally), steals his time machine, and ends up in a battle against that new villain and the old one The Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter, still the best part of these movies).
Yep, that’s the plot. As far as forced sequel stories go, there have been worse and better. It doesn’t make much sense, but moves by quickly enough while spitting out enough gags and striking images that you might not necessarily notice. Directing duties slipped from Burton’s hands (though he still produced and likely did some design work) and onto Brit James Bobin (The Muppets, Da Ali G Show). Bobin delivers a few more stable comedic beats as a result. In particular, his collaboration with old buddy Sacha Baron Cohen makes for a surreal clowning performance in a villain role that’s at least unpredictable if not always hilarious. Wasikowska once again does a far better job at sticking a human performance in a CGI eye-fuck world than should be possible and Carter is absolutely hysterical as the Red Queen, screaming and preening in ways that are impossible not to at least smirk at. The time-travel plot does plunge into some unexpected corners of Wonderland and well, that’s about all of the positive notes to mention.
Once again, the blindingly bright and nauseatingly candy-striped visuals of this Wonderland are a bit much and a bit obnoxious at feature length. It’s aggressively quirky and looks like the work of people trying to intimidate Burton rather than the real thing, not to mention the fact that the color patterns typically look like a tie-dye fart. Beyond that there’s very little substance to the story. Just the usual, “believe in yourself” sentiment filtered through origin stories that no one ever cared about (Want to know why the Red Queen’s head is so big? I didn’t think so, but you’ll find out anyways!). Most of the clever cameos like Matt Lucas as Tweedledee/Tweedledum feel completely tacked on this time, especially Anne Hathaway’s White Queen whose oddly posed performance doesn’t work any better on round two. But worst of all is Johnny Depp in his most irritatingly mannered performance (yep, even worse than Mortdecai…I said it). The Mad Hatter was a role actually suited to his particular brand of excessive mugging, which I guess is why he decided to throw a bunch of his old ticks together without rhyme or reason and call it absurdity. It’s even harder than last time since he’s required to deliver a number of dramatic scenes while dressed like a party clown and speaking like a poorly conceived cartoon character. It’s awkward.
So, this is a sloppy blockbuster in terms of storytelling and a disappointing representation of one of the most imaginative worlds in all of children’s literature. However, that was certainly true of the last entry in this franchise. So I suppose it’s consistent and if there are people out there who still cling to the fantasy that the original movie works, then they can continue to live out that strange little dream here. For anyone else, the fact that the sequel plays mildly better than the original shouldn’t be a big deterrent one way or the other. It’s not better enough to be worth diving back in if you were disappointed last time or strong enough to be worth investigating on it’s own. The movie has its audience though and should do just fine. Would it be nice if it did poorly enough to guarantee there would be no third entry in the series? Well sure, but don’t hold your breath. It is mildly better than the last one and perhaps the next one will be even better (possibly even good). I hope I’ll never find out, but based on Alice Through The Looking Glass, at least I can approach the next one of these things with a little less dread.