Watching Disney's "Alice Through the Looking Glass," I marveled. Not so much at its production design, awash in a blur of rubbery CG landscapes, vaguely grotesque animated characters, and a color palette that mistakes "every crayon in the box" for an aesthetic. Certainly not for the performances that range from slumbering to overblown. Not at the story, which is senseless yet sanctimonious. Instead, I marveled that director James Bobin would take this job at all. The paycheck for helming such a tentpole is surely hefty, but what about the creative shackles of being so deeply indebted to one of Tim Burton's worst-reviewed offerings?
Bobin came up through quirky television comedy like Sacha Baron Cohen's "Da Ali G Show" and HBO's "Flight of the Conchords" before making his feature directorial debut in 2011 with "The Muppets," the charming romp that relaunched the flailing family-friendly brand. That he returned to the less-inspired, and ultimately less-acclaimed, sequel "Muppets Most Wanted" was forgivable if not understandable. However, to follow that with another abysmal sequel is galling. Burton is gone from the director's chair, yet the filmmaker's fingerprints are all over this "Alice in Wonderland" sequel, dragging Bobin down with an overwhelming array of prefab bad decisions. But credit where it's due, "Alice in Wonderland" screenwriter Linda Woolverton returned to heap on more bad and bland to this eyesore of a franchise, diving into backstories and a frivolous time-travel plot.
Ever wonder why the Red Queen's head is so big, why she so loathes white roses or where her "off with their head" catchphrase comes from? Perhaps you've pondered whether the Mad Hatter suffers from daddy issues? If so, you'll likely be thrilled with "Alice Through the Looking Glass." If not, you may -- like me -- be profoundly befuddled.
The sequel picks up years after the first film, with Alice Kingsleigh (Mia Wasikowska) as a daring sea captain whose ship is at risk because of a revenge-seeking ex (Leo Bill). She flees from her troubles through a massive mirror, back into Wonderland. There, her old friends are fretting over the Hatter (Johnny Depp), who has gone from mad to sad, listless over the long-ago deaths of his family at the jaws of the Jabberwocky. His grief is so deep that it turns his radiant red hair and white-and-bruised makeup to ashen grays. So, Alice must travel into the past and save the Hatter's family. Time himself (Baron Cohen) warns her that such a venture could destroy all time -- but existence be damned, because the most annoying character in this series is super-sad.
That "Alice Through the Looking Glass" is intended for children is made clear by the heavy-handedness of speeches about priorities, time and family, as well as plot holes so big they could swallow the Red Queen's bobble-head whole. By the end, it's clear that if Alice had listened closely to Time in the beginning, none of this Wonderland-threatening madness need have happened at all. That might make for a great lesson for youngsters, yet it's an infuriating revelation for grown-ups who wasted their time on this film.
Despite a wonky script and scads of willfully ludicrous line, Wasikowska perseveres with pluck and charm, bringing vital verve, whether she's acting against a crew of capering talking animals, clattering tin men, haughty English upper-crusters, or whatever Depp is doing.
Reprising the role of the Mad Hatter, Depp leans hard on his worst performance tics, relying on mugging, costumes and garish make-up (not to mention CG-enhanced green googly eyes) to shape character, instead of aspiring to any level of depth. Hamming it up as the hot-headed (and heart-headed) Red Queen, Helena Bonham Carter seems locked in an audience-taunting contest with Depp, to see which character's speech impediment can be the most indecipherable. But Cohen give them a run for their money, slathering on a thick German accent that turns V's into W's and words into "what did he mumble?" Oscar winner Anne Hathaway swans back in as the White Queen, giving dreamy smiles, finger waggles and not much else to this paycheck performance.
Kids might well be entranced by the colors and cartoonish performances here. But grown-ups will likely groan. Still, I was oddly charmed by Baron Cohen's take on Time. From the start, he mingles silliness and pathos, prat-falling right before stopping an old-timer's clock with a brisk yet thoughtful efficiency. Plus, brief bright spots are offered by "Sherlock's" Andrew Scott, who employs his menacing Moriarty smile when diagnosing Alice with "female hysteria." Rhys Ifans brings welcome subtlety and tenderness as the Hatter's stern father, and as Alice's polite mother, Lindsay Duncan grounds the stakes of the film's Austen-like bookends, set in an 1800s English society where women are expected to be scoffed at and married off.
And although much of the style choices in the character design do make me cringe, the animation team deserves a shout-out for the complex and captivating vegetable-made minions inspired by the court portraits of 16th-century artist Giuseppe Arcimboldo.
Yet for all the silliness, fantasy and star power of "Alice Through the Looking Glass," the film's greatest asset is its costumes, the crowning achievement of which is Alice's Chinese-inspired stunner seen in promos. Oscar-winning designer Colleen Atwood not only builds character with shape, texture and color, but also constructs complicated and ornate works of art that were far more visually thrilling than the movie's various set pieces and weirdly warped Wonderlanders. But of course, when I'm telling you the best thing about a big-budget fantasy is the costumes, there's a Jabberwocky in the room.
Despite its pitiful plot and one-too-many scenery-chewing leads, I enjoyed "Alice Through the Looking Glass" more than its rightly scorned predecessor, so cheers to Bobin on that count. But while sometimes fun, and sometimes pretty, this unessential sequel is nonetheless little more than an extravagant trifle.
"Alice Through the Looking Glass" opens Friday.