It sounds like one of the Cheshire Cat’s slippery riddles: What is a Tim Burton movie with no Tim Burton in it? The Mad Hatter-haired fantasist seemed like a perfectly surreal match for 2010’s Alice in Wonderland, the umpteenth cinematic adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s curiouser-and-curiouser classic. And in some ways he was: The film grossed a staggering $1 billion worldwide and won two Oscars (for Art Direction and Costume Design), though some critics felt there was too little actual wonder beneath all its brain-whomping visual dazzle. Burton is billed as a producer on the sequel, but now he’s passed the directing reins to James Bobin (Da Ali G Show, Flight of the Concords, both recent big-screen Muppets reboots). Not that you’ll necessarily notice. For better or worse, Looking Glass loses none of the first film’s muchness, with Bobin mimicking both his predecessor’s wildly saturated style and his general disregard for plot and substance. (Though he does cast Da G himself, Sasha Baron Cohen, in a major supporting role as Time personified.)
As the story opens, Alice (Mia Wasikowska, still the fairest of them all; literally, the girl looks like she’s made of porcelain) has just returned from three years on the high seas and is already giddy with plans for her next adventure. But back in England she finds that her former would-be fiancé Hamish (the excellently squirrelly Leo Bill) has taken her dead father’s ship out from under her, commandeered the sale of her mother’s home, and is trying to railroad Alice herself into a lowly clerk position at his company. Still shell-shocked, she is visited by her old friend Blue Caterpillar (the late Alan Rickman in his final speaking role), who tells her she is urgently needed — “You’ve been gone too long, Alice. There are matters which might benefit from your attention” — and so she steps through the glass and tumbles down once more.
The pressing issue is the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp); he’s dying, apparently of a broken heart. The only solution, according to the White Queen (Anne Hathaway), is to go back to the past and help him recover the family he lost years ago, most likely due to the homicidal whims of her sister the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter). Enter Time (Baron Cohen), who is not exactly open to loaning out his Chronosphere — an electricity-conducting brass ball that looks like an old-timey compass and operates like a tiny spherical DeLorean. But Alice steals it anyway, whirling back through the years to find out where it all went wrong.
That’s more than enough intrigue for 108 minutes, but the movie feels oddly static and more than a little airless. It’s not the actors’ fault: Depp grimaces and prances in his mad Scottish-kabuki drag, Hathaway flutters like a glittery sparrow, and Bonham Carter brings bite and pathos to her Red Queen. (She hates because she hurts.) She and Baron Cohen both have some great lines, though Wasikowska, our supposed heroine, isn’t allowed to do much more than furrow her brow prettily and play a very 21st century take on 19th-century pluck. We get small doses of most of the novel’s most beloved characters, too: our White Rabbit and grinning Cat and the Tweedles Dee and Dum. And the film is a feast to look at, even if it sometimes feel like you’ll get gout in your eyeballs from the overwhelming CGI lushness of it all. It may just be that despite the epicness of Alice’s quest, the stakes feel low because the outcome itself never seems in question; of course loved ones will be reunited and good will ultimately triumph over evil, even in Wonderland’s topsy-turvy world. We can still lose ourselves in the extraordinary “unpossible” of Lewis’ imagination — but Looking‘s story, and our emotional engagement, stay behind the glass. B–