‘Alice Through the Looking Glass’
Director:
James Bobin
Stars: Mia Wasikowska, Johnny Depp
Rating: PG
1 Globe (out of 5)

“Alice Through the Looking Glass” has a tragic conceptual flaw, on top of being a sequel to one of the worst movies ever made: It asks you to care if our hero (Mia Wasikowska) can save a character who’s profoundly, spirit-crushingly, hands-stabbingly annoying. The story finds that Johnny Depp’s hepped-up nuisance of a Mad Hatter has become sad. That’s the plot. He’s so sad his makeup, which looks like a rainbow farted on his head, has turned ashen, as though his body was a mood ring. He’s bed-ridden, maybe soon to bounce off this mortal coil.

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But is death such a bad thing? For us it would mean less of Depp gesticulating and mugging and scraping the bottom of his weirdness barrel, which once overflowed with goodies. For Depp it would mean not having to return to one of the ugliest realms ever committed to screen. The age of CGI is the worst possible era to make a movie based on Lewis Carroll’s wondrous worlds. Once upon a time his two “Alice” books inspired Disney animators, at the peak of their powers, to go full loopy. Later Jan Svankmajer turned them into a stop-motion masterpiece, 1988's "Alice," meant to fuel nightmares. Tim Burton's Disney-driven abomination is a different kind of terrifying: a dim and dank hellscape of hideously malformed creatures, where charm and whimsy and even Carroll’s peerless wordplay go to die.

The first one ignored a perfectly milkable source for a disorganized, nonsensical, post-modern update. The second goes full fan-fiction, which at least means it’s technically not desecrating great lit. Alice returns to Wonderland, in part because even a wasteland where Helena Bonham Carter has a head inflated like a balloon is better than the oppressively sexist digs of 19th century England. Once she's crossed back to the other side, she has to find a cure for Hatter’s blues by jumping around in time. This means we get to indulge in another 21st century headache: backstories for iconic characters who never needed them. We find the why of Hatter, and the how of Carter’s Queen of Hearts, all while Lewis Carroll rolls his eyes in his grave.

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Burton skipped this round, handing the reins to James Bobin, who made two Muppets movies (including the underrated second) as sprightly as one would have hoped. He’s a mere bumbling traffic cop here, firing off a clatter of should-be miracles: a time ocean, a moving chess set, a pack of minion-y droids that can Voltron into a bigger robot. It’s a riot of corporate-approved movie magic, though it seems no single conjurer is at the wheels. When vegetable people swing by, all one can think is that someone somehow slipped a reference to Italian painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo past the powers-that-be. The lack of genuine creativity poisons even series newbie Sacha Baron Cohen, who plays Time, a humanoid with gears in the back of his head and a costume of exaggerated shoulder pads and funny hats that make him look like a particularly keyed-up Eurovision contestant. 

Cohen’s turn, like most in the overqualified cast, can best be described as “contractually obligated.” The exception is Wasikowska. She proves she can be if not engaged then about as strong while faking it. She’s the only thing in “Looking Glass” that seems real in a film so fake even its feminist bona fides feel about as genuine as its CGI, included because gender equality is finally actually in the news. Even its stabs at existential dread backfire. Late in, Time and Alice have a heady discussion about whether time is a thief or if we should be grateful of our brief existence and cherish it while we're here. The only sane response to this query is to anguish that you’re spending some of your alotted time watching “Alice Through the Looking Glass.”

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge