Instead of going forward and finding ways for the characters to grow and change, Looking Glass is permanently backwards looking – literally – as Alice decides to travel into the past to learn whether the Hatter’s family survived the depredations of the Queen of Hearts (Carter). It’s an unfortunate metaphor for much of the film itself, trying to squeeze just a little more from old plot points because it can’t or won’t do anything new. The only truly new idea is the living embodiment of Time, who chases Alice from age to age after she steals a magical time-traveling orb from him and inadvertently initiates the destruction of the universe. As performed by director James Bobin’s old “Da Ali G Show” cohort Sascha Baron Cohen, he is whimsical, mysterious and a little dangerous – exactly what a Wonderland character should be. The clockwork world he lives in is as beautiful as ismuch of Wonderland itself, though the idea of time as an ocean to be flown through just creates a frame for several pointless effects sequences where the action is often impossible to follow. It’s like watching a lush children’s book spring to life but not in a good way as it makes very clear there’s no real heart driving it, just a brain with little on its mind beyond a paycheck.
Alice Through The Looking Glass is the worst kind of sequel; one with no reason to exist except that it does. It has as little to do with the Lewis Carroll book it is named for as it’s forebear, 2010’s Alice In Wonderland, instead picking up where that film left off with Alice (Wasikowska) exploring the world as a sea captain and having a grand old time. Leading a life of excitement and adventure in the real world doesn’t offer a lot of reason to return to the fantasy realm of Wonderland, and none of the creatives involved with the new Alice have either given serious thought or come up with a serious
answer to this problem. Rather than answer the vital question of‘what is this story about,’the filmmakers have just started telling it and quickly paint themselves into a series of ever-shrinking corners. Realizing a successful, independent Alice is a difficult character to create realistic drama for,returning writer Linda Wolverton instead takes her ship from her and puts her back more or less in the same starting circumstances as the first film, and all just in time for Alice to be called back to Wonderland as her friend the Mad Hatter (Depp) is wasting away to nothing.
The more Looking Glass goes on, the more desperate it begins to become, throwing Carter (who is still a more than capable Queen) into the mix because it seems to suddenly remember there is no antagonist driving the central conflict. By the time Alice finds herself in the Queen’s dungeon, it would be easy to forget what it was she was initially doing in the first place. Each one of the scenes works well enough of themselves, and there are some semi-successful attempts to give the Queen of Hearts some real pathos, but none of them add to much.
It’s most evident in the strong supporting cast, particularly Depp’s Hatter, who frequently stand around searching for a reason to be in their scenes beyond the fact they were in the previous film. No one does a notably bad job, just repeats character ticks from the first film over and over. Adding time travel to Wonderland turns out to add nothing but an excuse to revisit favorite bits from Alice lore again as the titular heroine observes the various other characters at different ages to learn why and what they’ve done before. Alice herself is in the same problem as the studying-the-past nature of the plot leaves her watching things happen rather than interacting with the plot much of the time. Through The Looking Glass is 90 minutes of backstory, 20 minutes of villainous plot and 10 minutes of hastily crammed-in character work at odds with everything else. It creates a muddled central message about putting the past in the past and moving on with your life while Alice spends all her time trying to put right old wrongs. No one knows whether they’re coming or going.
Filled with cliché after cliché and lacking what little whimsy the first had, Alice Through The Looking Glass reeks of perfunctory professionalism. Everyone involved knows their job and is certainly capable – there’s nothing inept in Alice, just a dreary lack of heart or joy or anything like life.