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Alice (Mia Wasikowska) returns to the whimsical world of Underland and travels back in time to save the Mad Hatter.

1.5 out of 4 stars

Alice Through the Looking Glass
Written by
Linda Woolverton
Directed by
James Bobin
Mia Wasikowska, Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter

In Disney's live-action sequel, Alice Through the Looking Glass, the Mad Hatter's tea party reconvenes – but now there's an unexpected guest.

Time himself shows up. He's a towering figure, half-human, half-mechanical and played by the typecast Sacha Baron Cohen as another preposterous tyrant, this one measuring lifespans and marshalling seconds. True, the Hatter once boasted of a nodding acquaintance with Time – "…if you only kept on good terms with him, he'd do almost anything you liked with the clock," he says in the first of Lewis Carroll's classic children's books – but this big dark clown seems out of place at the pastoral party where the pocket watch gets dunked in the teacup.

Out of place that is, until he makes the dastardly decision to freeze the action at one minute before tea: There the Hatter, the dormouse and the March hare will sit in perpetuity without ever managing to eat or drink. It's a pleasing nod back to the source material (where the tea partiers were stuck at 6 o'clock) but this delicate moment is rare and hard-won in a film that otherwise seizes on Carroll's chronological metaphors and pounds away at them with CGI in one fist and revisionist storytelling in the other.

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Tim Burton's hallucinogenic reworking of Alice in Wonderland in 2010 may have been overwrought and noisy, but at least there was a certain whimsy to its crazed aesthetic and a certain logic to its feminist script, in which a 20-year-old Alice (Mia Wasikowska) must return to the dream world of her childhood to escape an enforced engagement to a domineering bore. Now, as director James Bobin (The Muppets) takes over the franchise, the imagery hardens and the attempt to stuff the episodic Carroll into a three-act structure produces a narrative that is both complicated and unnecessary. Turns out that Burton's disinclination to direct this sequel was rather wise.

Here, Alice returns from the sea voyage to China on which she embarked at the end of the previous movie to discover that her former fiancé is ready to repossess her family home. If falling down the rabbit hole was a good way to escape the ghastly Hamish (Leo Bill), pushing through the looking glass seems like simple avoidance. So, screenwriter Linda Woolverton comes up with a torturous tale about the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) needing Alice to rescue him from despondency over the loss of his family to another dastardly plot by the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter).

Woolverton has done some interesting work reclaiming fairy tales from their sexist assumptions (Maleficent) but Alice was never a dozing damsel. In the books, she proved inquisitive, adventuresome and aggressively commonsensical, quick to challenge the upside-down logic of Wonderland. In these film versions, that argumentative girl has turned into a bold lady seemingly so Disney can market the movie to young adults as well as children.

Of course, a lack of fidelity to the original is no sin – many viewers won't have read the books – if the result is a compelling story with a unique vision. Instead, this sprawling tale trades yet again on cultural affection for Alice, the Hatter and the Red Queen without incorporating them into a story or a design that can stand on its own feet.

As Alice, Wasikowska, who has lost the injured look that made her so effective the first time out, creates a character who is fundamentally sweet, likeable and loyal. She's an admirable person but not a very interesting one, and if the Red Queen calls her irksome and slurvish, you'll just have to take her word for it that Alice could ever irritate anyone.

Playing the irascible queen, Bonham Carter's delicious performance as the ultimate mean girl is a welcome repeat, but as Woolverton piles up the back stories, the movie gets bogged down in the explanation of her lifelong enmity against the White Queen. (Anne Hathaway makes that character so delicate she threatens to evaporate.)

Meanwhile, Depp can do gleeful eccentricity like few others, but as the story forces the Hatter, and the maniacal actor, in a funk over the lost family, his performance dissolves into wide-eyed sadness and a once-amusing lisp becomes an affectation.

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All the pop psychology behind the Hatter's insanity and the Red Queen's wrath is revealed in scenes that take place in a Tudor village where the Hatter's family lives. It's a conventional, fairy-tale sort of setting that abandons Burton's more idiosyncratic vision to little effect.

The palace of Time, on the other hand, is the film's chief artistic achievement, a dark and vast place seemingly inspired by the infinite reflections of mirrors or the great expanses of the ocean. It's a cheerless if intriguing setting that plunges Alice into a world of haunting vistas and adult fears not successfully explored by the script.

And while Baron Cohen's Time is amusing, with his erratic pretensions, wavering accents and pathetic devotion to the Red Queen, the concept is stretched to the breaking point. When Time introduces his "seconds," they appear as a sweet little animated team of oil cans and watchmaker's tools, but soon, they gather together, climbing on top of each other to build a minute. And that is a figure of menacing violence, designed to stop Alice in her tracks. Bizarrely, it just looks like a retread from the Transformers movies.

A century and a half after Rev. Charles Dodgson began telling stories to the Liddell sisters, an inquiring child will still ask, "What would happen if time stopped?" These days, it seems that the only answer the adults can muster is, "Let's see what the computer effects department has up its sleeve."

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