Sometimes more is less.
The sequel to Tim Burton’s 2010 mega-hit “Alice in Wonderland” is loud, frantic, stunningly unfunny, off-putting and riddled with mediocre, out-of-tune work from normally outstanding actors.
It’s one of the great movie disasters of 2016.
The problems begin with Mia Wasikowska’s mousy, undistinguished turn as Alice. Now in her 20s and fresh off years of exploring the world as the captain of the ship once owned by her late father, Alice should come across as vibrant and worldly and filled with a sense of adventure. Granted, she’s a sweet, honorable young woman, but she also comes across as a bit dopey, naïve and stubborn. Mostly, she’s dull.
James Bobin takes over the directing reins from Burton and is clearly an advocate of the go-big-or-go-home school of filmmaking. Working with a bloated, nearly laugh-free screenplay by Linda Woolverton, Bobin assaults the senses with overlong chase sequences, pounding action scenes and big explosions, leaving precious little time for the few (and admittedly entertaining) scenes involving familiar Lewis Carroll characters engaging in surreal and quite nifty wordplay.
Once Alice escapes the sexist, oppressive London of 1875 by diving through the looking glass, she’s reunited with Mirana (Anne Hathaway); Tweedledee and Tweedledum (Matt Lucas nimbly plays the brothers with the help of some cool CGI work); the Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry) and a number of other friends from her last journey to Wonderland. (The blue butterfly Absolem, voiced by the late and beloved Alan Rickman, facilitates Alice’s trip through the looking glass.)
Just about everyone is happy to see Alice, but they have dire news: The Mad Hatter (a fluttering, muttering Johnny Depp, in one of his least effective and most affected performances) has gone even madder, possessed with the seemingly delusional belief his family is alive, even though everyone believes they were slaughtered long ago by the evil Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter).
Alice embarks on a hare-brained scheme to visit Time himself (Sacha Baron Cohen) and take possession of the Chronosphere, a magical gold ball that enables one to cross the Ocean of Time and go back in history to change the course of events.
And that’s when “Alice Through the Looking Glass” really nosedives.
Sacha Baron Cohen is an immensely talented performer, but from the moment he clomps his way into the film as Time, employing an exaggerated semi-German accent and shamelessly mugging his way through the role, it feels as if we’re doomed.
Despite Time’s warnings to Alice and other characters about messing with the timeline, especially if one sees a younger version of oneself (perhaps Time once traveled forward and saw the “Back to the Future” movies), Alice rolls the Chronosphere like a bocce ball, which causes it to turn into a golden space vehicle— and Alice is a natural at piloting the Chronosphere, because as you’ll recall she was the captain of her dad’s ship back in the real world.
Cue another action sequence, with Alice warding off the attacks of mechanical enemies that look like precursors to “The Transformers.” (And yes, I know the Jabberwock from the poem Alice reads in Carroll’s “Through the Looking Glass” is a winged chimera and was certainly the inspiration for the fire-breathing dragon in the movie.)
The attempts at sentiment are heavy-handed. The Mad Hatter has Daddy Issues. Alice has Mommy Issues. The Red Queen has Sister Issues. Ugh.
Of course the “Alice” adventures should have a freaky, creepy, unsettling look, and on that count, director Bobin and the special effects team succeed. Helena Bonham Carter’s giant head makes her look like an image from one of those disturbing social media apps. Tweedledee and Tweedledum are morose yet endearing. Humpty Dumpty has a pretty great fall.
But other than some fine voice work, most of the performances in “Through the Looking Glass” feel tinny and flat. Anne Hathaway veers in and out of some sort of regal accent. Bonham Carter chews up the scenery. Depp’s performance is all costume and makeup and contact lenses and wigs; there’s no there there.
And there’s nothing to see here
Disney presents a film directed by James Bobin and written by Linda Woolverton, based on characters created by Lewis Carroll. Running time: 108 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for fantasy action/peril and some language). Opens Friday at local theaters.