Alice Through the Looking Glass begins with Alice (Mia Wasikowska) dodging pirates on the open seas, as captain of her father’s ship. She has just been on an unexpectedly long expedition to China, and she returns to London as headstrong as ever, intending to set up a new expedition. She instead finds that the company has been taken over by a jilted suitor, who intends to take her ship away. Before any of that happens, however, Alice is drawn back to Underland, where she is tasked with saving the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) by finding his family.
In order to do this, Alice seeks out Time (Sacha Baron Cohen) to ask to borrow the Chronosphere, a device that can take her back in time so she can learn of the ultimate fate of the Hatter’s family. When Time refuses to help her, Alice instead steals the sphere, piloting it through the Oceans of Time, and along the way learning much about the history of the denizens of Underland. But unbeknownst to her, taking the Chronosphere has grave consequences, and the Red Queen (Helena Bonham-Carter) is still looking for revenge.
There’s a lot of narrative business to get through. This isn’t so much a story, however, as it is a canvas for the film’s digital visual effects. The movie doesn’t seem to care much about telling a coherent story with characters worth caring for. It just zips through as many strange visuals as possible, trying to fill the screen with enough wonder and whimsy to fit the brand. And so we follow Alice into a castle in the middle of a clock, and into a roiling ocean representing the time stream. And through most of this thing, of course, Alice is wearing an outlandish outfit that’s supposedly good enough for the dowager Empress of China. Because whimsy. And wonder.
There are always many of things on screen, but the film never makes any of it matter. It doesn’t seem to know how to develop any of its thread into anything meaningful. We get several stories: origins of both the Mad Hatter and the Red Queen, and Alice’s struggles as a strong woman in 19th century London. But these characters play second fiddle to the terribly artificial plot, which basically has the heroine bumbling through an adventure without any real knowledge of what she’s supposed to be doing. When conflict is resolved, it just feels like it’s because the movie doesn’t really have any time left.
The visuals are impressive enough, though the designs feel a little lazy at this point. The reliance on digital effects makes everything feel a little colder than it ought to be. Mia Wasikowska is perfectly watchable as Alice. The film attaches the most surface level of feminism to the character, and it would feel really deficient if it weren’t for Wasikowska’s innate ability to make something like that work. Johnny Depp returns as the Mad Hatter, though in a greatly reduced role. Sacha Baron Cohen gives it comedic all as Time, creating a strange character that’s part Groucho Marx, and part Hans Landa. He is the most memorable part of this picture.
Alice Through the Looking Glass certainly puts on a spectacle, but there just isn’t much behind it. It is basically just a two-hour ride through some trippy visuals, every bit of emotion of drama coming off as little more than an obligation for this blockbuster. Whatever affection the filmmakers have for Lewis Carroll’s original books just doesn’t shine through in this movie. It feels cold and distant, an exercise in digital wizardry at best. It forces in the wonder and the whimsy, unable to make the audience feel anything at all.