“Poor, poor little Alice!” the critic G.K. Chesterton lamented of Lewis Carroll’s most famous character.
“She has not only been caught and made to do lessons; she has been forced to inflict lessons on others.” He was talking not about her Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, but about the meanings and ideas that had been assigned to her in the decades since the nonsense classics’ publication. And so the repurposing goes, with the latest big-screen iteration a clunky composite of visual extravagance and Hollywood commonplaces about a life well lived.
A sequel to Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland,” the James Bobin-directed feature is just as overstuffed a phantasmagoria of CGI and makeup as the 2010 film.
Its imagery can be striking or merely distracting, yet rarely transporting. Bypassing child-friendly charm for backstory psychology, its dreamscape is weighted with yadda-yadda-yadda about being true to yourself, honoring family and being loyal to friends. But there’s no question that the Johnny Depp-starring spectacle, going out in an assortment of 3D formats, will, like its billion-dollar-grossing predecessor, attract fans worldwide.
As “Alice Through the Looking Glass” kicks off its message-laden adventure, the title character (Mia Wasikowska) is a brave and capable ship’s captain. Back in London but eager to return to the frothy fray, she learns she’s facing foreclosure on her vessel thanks to a bit of desperate deal-making by her mother (Lindsay Duncan) with the spiteful upper-class twit (Leo Bill) whose marriage proposal Alice rejected.
Putting aside the matter of her colonialist exploits, Wasikowska’s Alice Kingsleigh is a convention-defying, self-actualized Victorian female.
But in case we haven’t appreciated the depths of her fortitude and accomplishment, Linda Woolverton’s screenplay informs us that the word “impossible” is anathema to Alice. Colleen Atwood’s splendid jewel-bright outfits reflect her travels through China and emphasize her worldliness against the conformity of London society. But though Alice’s beloved ship is rather pointedly named The Wonder, the movie offers only a paucity of the same.
Woolverton, whose revisionist reading of a femme-centric fairy tale had a potent intensity in Maleficent, here puts her heroine on a time-traveling quest to rewrite history. At stake is the very survival of Alice’s friend the Mad Hatter (Depp), who’s dying of depression and regret over his missing family, the specifics of their fate a tormenting mystery for him.
Depp is convincingly vulnerable and forlorn, all while maintaining the Hatter’s otherworldly eccentricity, and Wasikowska has the requisite grit. But Alice’s mission feels as manufactured as the story’s whatsits and doodads, as Bobin struggles to infuse make-believe with emotion (something he managed winningly within the comic realm of The Muppets).
The story, which has nothing to do with Carroll’s episodic 1871 book beyond its title and a clutch of key characters, plays out as a blenderized mix of standard fantasy action and Burtonesque Gothic-alia. Its other key ingredients: a Wicked-reminiscent look at the roots of sibling rivalry and unpersuasive reminders that there’s no place like home.
Leading Alice away from home and back to Underland is the film’s fleeting glimpse of ethereal playfulness, the former caterpillar Absolem, now a blue butterfly voiced with plummy richness by the late Alan Rickman (to whom the picture is dedicated). Other returning Brits deliver fine voice work as well: Matt Lucas, as the rhyming Tweedles, Stephen Fry (Cheshire Cat), Michael Sheen (White Rabbit), Timothy Spall (Bayard the bloodhound), Barbara Windsor (Dormouse) and Paul Whitehouse (March Hare).
But center stage, or a good part of it, belongs to the psychodrama between the warring queens, played again by Anne Hathaway, in frosty pallor, and Helena Bonham Carter, a magnificent amalgam of digitally enhanced malevolence and wounded inner child.
Her irascible Iracebeth, better known as the Red Queen, has a new ally this time around: Time himself, played by Sacha Baron Cohen (who worked with Bobin on Da Ali G Show). A sort of grim reaper with an Austrian accent — or is he channeling Christoph Waltz? — Time has ice-blue eyes, a man bun and a skull filled with clock workings. Besides his Transformer-ish goons, his underlings include a collection of anthropomorphized metal contraptions led by the mustachioed Wilkins (Matt Vogel).
That these small clanking employees are Time’s “seconds” is a nice bit of wordplay, and, along with Time’s thesaural speech, it’s one of the movie’s few nods to Carroll’s inventive infatuation with language. But these conceits, like so much of the film’s details, get lost in the exhausting race against, um, Time.