In the mid 1980s, producer Irwin Allen mounted a two-part miniseries based on Lewis Carroll’s satirical Alice novels. In Allen’s hands, Wonderland was tackily transformed into a plush extended episode of Fantasy Island, featuring such oddities as Ann Jillian running at the speed of light, John Stamos flipping his pageboy back and forth at a unicorn, Carol Channing turning into a goat after promising a little girl jam tomorrow or yesterday but never today, and Patrick Duffy in furrie-kabuki makeup eating a tin can.
Tim Burton’s 2010 Disney-theme-park version of Alice in Wonderland made Allen’s masquerade-ball soap opera look like veritable CliffsNotes. Not just the low point in Burton’s filmography, but potentially in the entire history of American entertainment, the blockbuster adaptation exhibited crass commercialism at every turn. Though if one wanted to be charitable, they could quixotically argue that the film’s bombardment of 3D atrocities, culminating in Johnny Depp’s
Pennywise Mad Hatter crumping via David “Elsewhere” Bernal’s limber body, represented a distorted mirror image of our current pop-cultural identity.
No such devil’s-advocate arguments exist for the surprisingly long-delayed sequel Alice Through the Looking Glass. In place of the even halfheartedly episodic nature of the first installment, the new film does away with the format entirely for a noisome, time-traveling caper plot, which at the very least cuts down on the number of fresh annoyances, but sadly increases their amplitude. Carrying the torch for lip-service feminism, the film opens with Mia Wasikowska’s Alice Kingsleigh captaining her cargo ship, Wonder, through treacherous reefs to avoid marauding pirates—and closing the spiritual loop of corporate synergy by referencing, ever so obliquely, the studio’s Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.
With the starchy fiancé she left in the lurch now threatening to take over her beloved vessel and demote her to a clerical job more suited to a woman’s position in 19th-century London, Alice stumbles Narnia-style through a bedroom mirror that takes her back to Wonderland. Alice is informed that Hatter, Wonderland’s own pseudo-Ronald McDonald, is ailing. He’s convinced that his family, who he believed to have perished at the breath of the Jabberwocky years ago, is still alive.
Reiterating the first film’s assertion that no one else in the fantasy world matters half as much as Depp’s Mad Hatter, Alice decides instantly to bend the rules of time and space to help him. She travels to a castle containing the universal clock, which is watched over by Time himself (Sacha Baron Cohen, getting an awful lot of mileage from what ultimately boils down to a feature-length Werner Herzog impersonation). And, of course, bending the rules of time and space invites consequences that could destroy the fabric of all matter. No matter: The important thing is that Alice gets Depp’s sour puss to simperingly smile once again.
While at this point in his bastardized career, Burton is no longer a tough act to follow, Muppets director James Bobin doesn’t clear the CGI cobwebs or successfully anchor any of these new events with the emotional heft that would at least make the removal of Carroll’s sense of humor, brilliant caricatures, vivid imagery, and peerless wordplay somewhat tolerable. Attempts are made (the surprisingly short path by which Helena Bonham Carter’s Red Queen became an encephalitic dragon lady is presented in kid-gloves flashback), but genuine feelings will lose out against $170 million investments every single time.
The underlying message of the movie (voiced repeatedly by the heroine) is that it’s impossible to change the past, but one can always learn from it. That’s a message anyone who suffered through the first Alice in Wonderland debacle and still opts to catch its follow-up has already clearly ignored.