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‘Alice Through the Looking Glass’ Review: Johnny Depp Plays Dress-Up and Has Daddy Issues — Again

This return to an effects-heavy Wonderland improves on its predecessor — but honestly, what wouldn’t?

There is perhaps no math nor pie chart to prove this, but just because certain movies become big hits, it doesn’t mean that anyone is clamoring for a sequel. Whatever perfect storm of inducements got people to buy tickets for “Snow White and the Huntsman” didn’t bring them back to theaters for “The Huntsman: Winter’s War,” and let’s not even get into the “Avatar” saga that James Cameron seems to believe the world is breathlessly awaiting.

Speaking of “Avatar,” it was mainly on that film’s 3-D coattails that Tim Burton‘s “Alice in Wonderland” became such a huge hit, although that noisy, jumbled 2010 film was a success along the lines of the “Macarena” dance craze — very popular for a brief moment, but now it’s hard to find anyone who will cop to having been a fan.

Nonetheless, Disney’s accounting department has demanded a follow-up and so, six years later, here comes “Alice Through the Looking Glass,” a sequel that improves on the previous film — but honestly, what wouldn’t? The visuals seem less muddled (the film was screened for trade press in 2D), and the plot isn’t just an excuse to stick another sword into the hand of another fairytale character, but it’s still a bright and shiny jumble of effects attempting to cover up the utter lack of interesting characters.

James Bobin (“Muppets Most Wanted”) slips into Burton’s director’s chair, borrowing not only his predecessor’s penchant for over-the-top stylization but also Burton’s affection for “daddy didn’t understand me” narratives. If you liked the misunderstood man-children of “Big Fish” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” now you get the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) lamenting that his father didn’t care for his outrageous taste in chapeau couture.

For her part, Alice (Mia Wasikowska) has been quite happy in the real world of 1875, sailing the globe as a sea captain. (She’s so well-scrubbed and sprightly, you’d be forgiven for thinking the early scenes of her ordering around a crew and saving her ship from pirates was an elaborate fantasy. But no.) Upon returning home, she discovers that her mother (Lindsay Duncan) has mortgaged the family estate, and that Alice’s piggish former fiancé Lord Ascot (Leo Bill) plans to foreclose either the ship or the house.

ATTLL_HBCAttending a party at Lord Ascot’s, Alice sees a blue butterfly (voiced by the late Alan Rickman) who leads her to a looking glass that brings her back to Underland (this series insists that Lewis Carroll’s Alice heard the name wrong) on a new mission — cheering up the Mad Hatter (Depp), who is convinced that his family perhaps did not die at the hands of the monstrous Jabberwock after all.

Making things right will involve stealing a time-travel device from Time (Sasha Baron Cohen) himself; Alice’s quest is complicated by the fact that Time’s girlfriend the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) has her own time-travel plans.

Screenwriter Linda Woolverton delivers the “you can’t change the past, you can only fix the present” homily with the subtlety of a walrus and a carpenter tied to a 10-ton rock, and she borrows a little from “Wicked” for good measure: Is the White Queen (Anne Hathaway) as good and kind as her reputation? Does the Red Queen perhaps have some reason to resent her?

The visual effects are a glorious smorgasbord of cutting-edge technology, which is about as much as I can say about them because, full disclosure: Jay Redd — who shares a visual effects supervisor credit with the legendary Ken Ralston (“Star Wars: A New Hope”) — is a friend. What “Alice Through the Looking Glass” constantly underscores, however, is that even the greatest cinema trickery serves little purpose without stories and characters to support. The pictures are pretty (or scary or awe-inspiring) but they ultimately don’t mean anything.

Wasikowska does what she can in a role that forces her to be the straight man to a passel of lunatic humans and talking animals, and Baron Cohen at least makes the plethora of time-related puns go down easier by delivering all his lines in a flawless Werner Herzog impersonation. Depp does what Depp does — as comedian Alec Mapa once noted, in movies like this, we’re basically paying to watch him go trick-or-treating — but it’s the bombastic Bonham Carter who steals the show, only partially because these movies make me want to scream as well.