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REVIEW: ‘Alice Through the Looking Glass’ all smoke and mirrors

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Alice Through the Looking Glass, the Tim Burton-produced sequel to Burton’s 2010 re-visioning of Disney’s animated film based on Lewis Carroll’s classic stories, delivers all the visual splendor one might expect given its predecessor’s colorful sights and characters.

However, it’s all smoke and mirrors, eye candy meant to distract from a pedestrian sequel concept and a weak script. It’s slow and stiff at the start, and though it does manage to get rolling halfway through, by then it’s too late to salvage the film experience.

What’s it about?

After years at sea captaining her late father’s trading vessel, the Wonder, Alice Kingsleigh (Mia Wasikowska) returns to London to find her father’s legacy as well as her own future imperiled. While at a loss as to how to face that real-world crisis, Alice finds herself drawn through a magical looking glass by an old friend, the butterfly Absolem (voiced by the late Alan Rickman) and returned to “Underland”, the place of her fantastical childhood adventures.

Once there, her old tea party companions — the Tweedles, Dee and Dum (both voiced by Matt Lucas), Bayard the Bloodhound (Timothy Spall), McTwisp the White Rabbit (Michael Sheen), Mallymkun the Dormouse (Barbara Windsor), Earwicket the March Hare (Paul Whitehouse), and Cheshire the Cat (Stephen Fry) — and White Queen Mirana (Anne Hathaway) beg her to visit the Hatter (Johnny Depp), who has become “mad” with melancholy over a discovery from his past.

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That discovery and Hatter’s malady puts Alice on a quest through and against Time itself, literally, as the embodiment of Time (Sacha Baron Cohen) seeks to prevent her from re-writing the past in order to save her friend. Along the way, an old enemy, Iracebeth the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter), rears her heart-shaped head hoping to use Time’s powers for her own purposes, and Alice must face the possibility that even for her, there are some things that may truly be impossible.

Alice Through the Looking Glass one sheet

Not enough madness

In Alice Through the Looking Glass, screenwriter Linda Woolverton (Maleficent, The Lion King) makes sure to utilize all the wondrous toys she previously re-tooled and put to use in her script for Alice in Wonderland. She also promises in the film’s set-up to build some backstory for audience favorites Hatter and Iracebeth, while also creates a memorable new bauble in the character of Time. Sacha Baron Cohen clearly enjoys his time in the role, but audiences may enjoy even more all the opportunities for puns and one-liners at Time’s expense.

But even with all those exquisite toys at his disposal, director James Bobin (Muppets Most Wanted) chooses to play it safe with the material. Unlike Burton, who has never shied from at least intimating some undercurrent of darkness to his visual feasts, Bobin keeps things light, kid-friendly, and unsophisticated in Alice Through the Looking Glass. There’s no edge, not even a trace of real “madness” to be found, even in scenes featuring the Hatter, who’s more sad than “mad” for most of the film, and the once-murderous Red Queen, who is simply sullen and shrill here.

The rest of the returning cast is more or less walking, talking window dressing, with Anne Hathaway’s presence easily the most wasted here. There’s simply not enough for everyone to do, and their inclusion in the story feels obligatory. Yes, the characters would be missed if they were absent, but as constructed, Alice Through the Looking Glass makes them feel shoehorned in as little more than glorified cameos.

Tea party for the eyes

Where Alice Through the Looking Glass does not disappoint is in its visuals, which benefit from the ongoing improvement of CGI and motion capture technology. Make no mistake, must of the film looks and feels as though it was shot in front a green screen, but that’s the standard that was set with the 2010 film, and thus its to be expected here.

Taken for what they are, there’s much to enjoy in the spectacles delivered on screen, especially if seen in 3D. Sequences built around Alice traversing the Oceans of Time, or she and her allies making their way through Iracebeth’s gargantuan fortress make for memorable set pieces. Note that these sequences take place later in the film, helping Alice Through the Looking Glass overcome its relatively slow and stilted start.

Worth seeing?

If you were a fan of the first film, then yes, Alice Through the Looking Glass is worth seeing, and further, its worth seeing in a premium venue, such as IMAX or IMAX 3D. Better that way to enjoy all that visual whimsy, and be fully immersed in the world crafted by the film’s truly talented special effects and production design teams.

But if you’re looking for depth beyond all the eye candy, or if you were just hoping for something a little more Johnny Depp or Helena Bonham Carter-centric this time around, best to wait for video.

Alice Through the Looking Glass

Starring Johnny Depp, Anne Hathaway, Mia Wasikowska, Rhys Ifans with Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen. Directed by James Bobin.
Running Time: 113 minutes
Rated PG for fantasy action/peril and some language.

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Felix Albuerne
One-time Blockbuster Video manager, textbook editor, trivia host, and community college English/Humanities teacher. Now a digital media producer, part-time film critic, amateur foodie, semi-retired beer snob, unabashed geek, and still very much a work in progress.