Stunning visuals can’t rise above scrambled storytelling

by Nancy D. Lackey Shaffer

Alice Through the Looking Glass

Directed by: James Bobin 
Starring: Mia Wasikowska, Johnny Depp,
Helena Bonham Carter, Anne Hathaway
Rated PG for fantasy action/peril and some language. 
1 hr. 53 min.

It must be lots of fun to be part of a Tim Burton movie. Flamboyant costumes, offbeat stories, talented cast members and scripts that beg for exaggeration and affectation are a performer’s delight. The fat salaries that accompany these big-budget productions can’t hurt, either. How else to explain the caliber of actors who consistently show up to take part in Burton’s spectacles, which for all their visual grandiosity fall short in most every other respect? 

Burton’s shtick hasn’t changed in years. What felt groundbreaking in 1988’s Beetlejuice or 1993’s The Nightmare Before Christmas is a bit hackneyed today. Yes, his films continue to look startlingly beautiful, but it’s been a long time since he gave us anything but eye candy. 

His latest, Alice Through the Looking Glass, is no exception. A sequel to 2010’s Alice in Wonderland, it’s even less faithful to its source material (the books by Lewis Carroll) than its predecessor. Not that that’s the problem with Looking Glass. Burton is the producer here, and has left the directing to James Bobin (Muppets Most Wanted, Flight of the Conchords) but the song remains the same: Like most Burton films these days, it’s all style, little substance.

The film picks up three years after Alice in Wonderland. Alice Kingsleigh (Mia Wasikowska) has been sailing the world, in the service of shipping magnate Lord Ascot, as the captain of her father’s ship, the Wonderland. Her penchant for believing in “impossible things” proves as useful on the high seas as it did down the rabbit hole; she makes a daring series of (nearly) unimaginable maneuvers to outrun a host of pirates. Upon her return to London, though, the mundane concerns of reality — chiefly finances and societal expectations — prove to be much rougher waters to navigate. On top of that, Absolem, a blue butterfly voiced by Alan Rickman (and the late, great actor’s last film credit), is beckoning her back to Wonderland to save the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp). 

Passing through a magical mirror, Alice returns to Wonderland to find the Mad Hatter going ’round the bend — for real this time, and that’s saying something. He is obsessed with his long-lost family and falling into illness and despair. Alice snatches a time machine called a chronosphere from the hands of Time (Sacha Baron Cohen) to travel back through history in order to save the family’s lives. 

It’s a madcap adventure, as always, with Alice revisiting the same cast of characters (the March Hare, the White Queen, etc.) in different places along Wonderland’s “compendium,” weaving in a few trips into “our” world as well. The Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) and her quest for revenge add a dose of darkness. She shows up, oddly enough, because she’s dating Time. Their romantic involvement remains unexplained, but that might be for the best: Looking Glass already has enough characters, plotlines and backstories to go around. There’s the Hatter’s troubled relationship with his father, the rivalry between the Red and White Queens, the accident that led to the Red Queen’s enormous noggin, the looming destruction of existence itself — the intricacies of the villainess’ love life is the last thing this film needs.

Looking Glass is not un-entertaining, but it’s a jumbled mess, and its themes tend to get lost amid all the backward and forward momentum. The movie’s efforts to say something profound about the importance of family, time, and responsibility are ham-handed at best, embarrassingly sentimental at worst. 

The colors, special effects and Burton-esque whimsy do not disappoint, and the talented cast has fun with the ridiculousness of it all — it might have been better to treat Looking Glass like a fever dream and call it a day. Instead, Burton has packed the tale with an overabundance of both meaning and madness, thus dooming it to sink under the weight of its own “muchness.”