At a certain point during Alice Through the Looking Glass, I thought to myself, “Wait, haven’t I seen this before?” And not in the cute “This movie is about time travel and we revisit scenes” kind of way. The movie got so monotonous, I literally felt like I’d seen a scene before in the same film.
Alice Through the Looking Glass is the sequel to Disney 2010’s smash Alice in Wonderland. Tim Burton directed that film, but he’s merely a producer this time. James Bobin (The Muppets) is now at the helm, and he’s inherited an absolutely stellar cast, most of which are quickly squandered in an ambitious, but misguided, attempt to continue the story.
This time around, Alice (Mia Wasikowska) is brought back to Wonderland to save a mysteriously sick Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp). The only way to make him better, however, is to travel back in time to find out what happened to his family. Thankfully, that’s possible because Time is a person, played by Sacha Baron Cohen. He has a device that makes time travel possible but it could also end all existence. So the film becomes a race as Alice tries to help the Hatter, pursued by Time, with the Red Queen and others popping in and out.
If that sounds a like a fun premise, I can assure you the execution is not. The film starts with Alice in the real world, as a ship captain, fighting the gender and social politics of 1874. She’s got real problems at home, both personal and financial ones, but pushes them aside to go to Wonderland anyway.
So the movie starts with one story and totally shelves it for the Hatter thing. However, to explain all of this—why the Hatter is sick, how time travel is possible, where all the characters are now—the film drags through what feels like an infinite amount of exposition and talking. Alice and the Hatter stand in one place and exchange information. Alice and the White Queen (Anne Hathaway) stand stationary and exchange information. Alice and Time share a conversation filled with, you guessed it, extraneous information. It’s all in beautiful settings but it’s a textbook instance of telling instead of showing.
The things that Bobin does show us, however, are quite nice; everything about this movie, 3D included, looks wonderful. The action in it simply doesn’t match. For instance, when Alice starts going back through time, she’s traveling over a robust, majestic, literal sea of time, going from one time period to another, piecing together the narrative puzzle. But because the rules of the film don’t allow time cannot be changed, Alice is basically just jumping from one mini-movie to another and watching them. None of the scenes have any dramatic consequence to match the visual grandeur.
On the plus side, it’s a movie with an impressive cast who are obviously trying. Johnny Depp feels oddly at home returning to the Hatter, Helena Bonham Carter is having a blast as the Red Queen, and Sacha Baron Cohen tries to bring a duplicitous nature to Time. It just so happens none of them really have much to work with. Even Wasikowska tries her best to be charming and dramatic, but none of it ever lands because the story around them is repetitive and bland. There’s lots of dialogue to deliver, but not much meaningful interaction.
Things do improve slightly in the third act. Once the “mystery” is solved and the Queen of Hearts forcefully inserts herself into the narrative, the movie picks up considerably, setting up some actual, propulsive action and consequences. By that time, though, the film has been such a chore that you probably won’t care.
And of course, that first, real world story gets roped back in at the very end but it feels completely superfluous and without consequence. In a way, that’s Alice Through the Looking Glass in a nutshell. It’s an inconsequential piece of family entertainment that looks great, has a solid cast, and is completely unnecessary.