When Tim Burton’s 2010 live-action version of “Alice in Wonderland” raked in a billion dollars, there was no question that Disney would pounce on the opportunity for a sequel.
Helpfully, Lewis Carroll did write a second book about Alice and her adventures in Wonderland, “Through the Looking-Glass,” but it proves to be only a suggestion for the film, which arrives this weekend, to a very diminished return.
It feels reverse-engineered to fit a release date, with a story that, although it takes wild liberties with the book’s plot, manages to feel largely unimaginative and low-stakes.
These films have grown Alice up into a young lady, played by Mia Wasikowska. The real-world framing device places Alice in a business quandary with the Ascot family. She’s been off captaining ships in China, but finds herself, her house and her ship subject to their business whims, and they expect her to conform to a more appropriate career for a lady. So she escapes through a mirror to the magical alternate universe where her friends the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) and the White Queen (Anne Hathaway) share a wary coexistence with the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter).
The filmmakers have cooked up a problem for Alice to solve. Hatter, who thought his family long dead, has reason to believe they may still be alive, and the realization has thrown him into a deep depression. In order to save her friend, Alice goes back in time via a steampunk time travel orb that she steals from Time himself (Sacha Baron Cohen), skittering around in a sea of days to find the Hatter family.
In the first film, Depp’s take on the Mad Hatter became a culturally ubiquitous phenomenon, a fact that becomes curiouser and curiouser when you realize that Depp is essentially doing a clownish drag performance of Helena Bonham Carter — who is already in this movie doing something like drag herself (the Red Queen’s eye makeup has shades of the late, great Divine from “Pink Flamingos”). On top of that, Cohen’s performance as Time is just a Christoph Waltz impression stuffed inside one of Lady Gaga’s rejected costumes, and the less said about Hathaway’s overly affected and distracting hand acting, the better.
The premise is so thin that it wears out its welcome before the first act is up, and not even the visuals can save it. Time, as one might imagine, lives inside a giant clock, operated by what are essentially vintage BB-8 robots. But it’s dour and dark, and the days that Alice visits are set in rooms and houses and streets that don’t offer any glimpses of the nonsense world that makes the stories themselves so unique.
But the real problem is that there isn’t enough whimsy in the world to save this unengaging story.