The constant refrain in one's mind while "Alice Through the Looking Glass" is playing will likely be, "What is going on right now?" (perhaps with a choice swear word in the middle of it), and the question will not be unwarranted. This unnecessary sequel and companion piece to the perfectly dreadful 2010 live-action re-imagining of Lewis Carroll's "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland," taking inspiration as its title implies from "Through the Looking Glass," is often incomprehensible. It shrouds what might be a moving tale of one man rediscovering his family and two sisters reconciling past conflict that inspired one of them to be the villain of her story. But returning screenwriter Linda Woolverton wants instead to load the scenario with so much plot, most of it hinged upon a silly MacGuffin that is more trouble than it is worth, that the point gets lost rather quickly.
It is a marginal improvement over its predecessor, which took cheerfully nonsensical source material and literalized it for a generic story of fantastical warfare, in one major department, and that is its chosen visual aesthetic. Tim Burton was not able to inspire an iota of awe or majesty from his images, which lacked joy, so at least there are some creatively executed visual effects this time around, not the least of which is the lair of the major antagonist. That villain is Time itself--or, more accurately, himself, a half-man half-automaton played by Sacha Baron Cohen in what amounts to a Werner Herzog impression and not much more. The design of the character is as striking as his/its eyes are blue, but he/it is a passive figure in the story and Woolverton refuses to dig into what makes him tick (pun fully intended).
In fact, Time is as passive as Alice Kingsleigh (Mia Wasikowska), who is now the captain of her own ship, inherited from her late father and owned by Hamish Ascot (Leo Bill), the man from whom she refused a marriage proposal years ago. She returns to Underland, the not-fully-real world she saved from the Red Queen's (Helena Bonham Carter) Jabberwocky, just in time to learn that the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) is racked with terrible grief about the family he lost so long ago. Alice determines to reverse time (and Time) and save them by employing Time (and time), with the help of the Red Queen's whiter counterpart (Anne Hathaway), and using the Chronosphere, the key to running the Grand Clock that operates time (and Time). Or something like that. Timelines cross streams so often in Woolverton's scattershot, bloated screenplay that it's difficult to keep up.
There is nothing to engage in here, save for visual effects work that has been arbitrarily given a 3-D treatment, but even that only goes so far here. They don't even aid the action sequences, which are really just increases in the film's manic energy with some movement that causes temporary destruction or mayhem. The agency that should belong to Alice's character, meanwhile, has now been failed by two movies: Her passiveness as a heroine in the first film has translated to only being a "strong female" insofar as she is now a warrior type. It isn't depth, and that feeling is extended to the royal sisters (whose names we learn here, as well as the Hatter's, but it is of little matter), all of whose backstory comes across as inconsequential rather than tragic. For it to be tragic, it would, of course, need to pack some burst of emotion for the viewer. "Alice Through the Looking Glass" has too little distinctiveness and too much muchness to achieve that.
Mia Wasikowska (Alice Kingsleigh), Johnny Depp (Tarrant Hightopp), Helena Bonham Carter (Iracebeth), Sacha Baron Cohen (Time), Anne Hathaway (Mirana), Rhys Ifans (Zanik Hightopp), Matt Lucas (Tweedledee/Tweedledum), Lindsay Duncan (Helen Kingsleigh), Leo Bill (Hamish Ascot), Geraldine James (Lady Ascot), Andrew Scott (Dr. Addison Bennett), Richard Armitage (King Oleron), Ed Speleers (James Harcourt).
Featuring the voices of Alan Rickman (Absolem), Timothy Spall (Bayard), Paul Whitehouse (Thackery), Stephen Fry (Cheshire Cat), Barbara Windsor (Mallymkun), Michael Sheen (McTwisp), Matt Vogel (Wilkins), Paul Hunter (Chess King), and Wally Wingert (Humpty Dumpty).
Directed by James Bobin and written by Linda Woolverton, based on the books by Lewis Carroll.
Rated PG (fantasy action/peril, language).
Released on May 27, 2016.