Alice Through the Looking Glass may bear even less resemblance to anything Lewis Carroll wrote than its predecessor, Tim Burton’s 2010 flick Alice in Wonderland, so perhaps it’s not surprising that it follows up on the adventure that Burton’s adaptation hinted was in store for Alice, something that Carroll would never have imagined for her. Glass opens with adult Alice Kingsleigh (Mia Wasikowska: Crimson Peak, Madame Bovary), now captain of an English merchant ship in 1847, executing a daring escape from pirates on the high seas. It’s a thrilling sequence, not least because Alice’s all-male crew appears to have no trouble following the orders of a young woman, even when those orders sound less than reasonable. (A female Horatio Hornblower! I’d love to see that movie.) Alice’s fearless brilliance saves all of their lives, and saves the ship: she is a hero.
And then that is all forgotten because that is not the sort of fantasy Glass is interested in. It has to get Alice back to a vaguely Carroll-esque alternate world because there’s nothing threatening in that place, safely far removed from anything approaching reality. (Lewis Carroll injected some elements satirizing his real world into his fiction; there is no such resonance here, and there really needs to be if there is any hope that this will serve as something more than an ad for a Disney theme-park attraction.) Alice, once back on land, runs away from men — and a few women, such as her mother (Lindsay Duncan: Birdman, Le Week-end) — trying to enforce a strict code of What Is Proper For Young Ladies by jumping through a magic mirror and heading back to the Underland, where she is less a hero in charge of her own life and more a pawn of forces outside her control, though no one either onscreen or behind it seems to realize that this isn’t a much better place than her Victorian London. Myriad Carroll avatars — Tweedledee and Tweedledum (Matt Lucas: Doctor Who, Paddington), the Cheshire Cat (the voice of Stephen Fry: The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows), etc, all charmless yet all serving the purpose of creating a chaotic Carroll theme-restaurant atmosphere — inform her that Hatter (Johnny Depp: Black Mass, Mortdecai) is out of sorts and needs her help. It seems he is convinced that his family is still alive, when everyone knows they were killed in a Jabberwocky attack. Alice is determined to help, because “Hatter is my truest friend,” she insists.
We have no idea what Alice means by that — it’s not like anyone here approaches being a real character with plausible motivations — but this is the sort of movie that believes six impossible things because they’re in the script. Alice’s plan to help Hatter involves time-travelling to the past to save his dead family — though it gets a lot more wibbly-wobbly beyond that — which she will do by stealing “the Chronosphere” from Time (Sacha Baron Cohen [Grimsby, Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues], channeling, for some reason, Werner Herzog). This will apparently threaten the fundamental soundness of the universe — amateurs shouldn’t mess with time travel — but she goes blithely along threatening the fundamental soundness of the universe because of that incredibly profound friendship of which we have no evidence.
It’s all a bit like a rejected script from Doctor Who…and Doctor Who has not been noted lately for rejecting much of anything.
Glass wants to be about a lot of big emotion — family, devotion, friendship — and those aforementioned high stakes, but it does nothing to earn any of it. What I said about Burton’s film applies here too: “This isn’t so much a movie but the coffeetable book about the movie’s production design…” Returning screenwriter Linda Woolverton (who cannot seem to write anything that approaches the grandeur of her Lion King script, though mostly it was the animation and the music that made that one work so well) and new director James Bobin — mostly a TV veteran, though he directed The Muppets and Muppets Most Wanted — carry on a tradition full of sound and fury, and signifying precisely nothing. There is no soul here, just some dull, hoary tropes about time travel — don’t mess with it, basically — and Helena Bonham Carter’s (Suffragette, Cinderella) oversized noggin, as the genericized Carroll character who’s part Red Queen and part Queen of Hearts, in your face in 3D IMAX. She shouts “Off with your heads!” so there’s that. It’s not much fun.
Carroll, in his Alice fiction, proposed a riddle for which there is no answer (How is a raven like a writing desk?). The existence of this movie is almost an invocation of that, if an accidental one. And it’s just as infuriating as Carroll’s Alice found it to be.