Disney has been in the spectacle business for more than eighty years now, and its fantasy movies, both live action and animation, tend toward visual extravaganzas, especially in the modern summer blockbuster season. In this regard, Alice Through the Looking Glass does not disappoint. There are maybe half a dozen glorious set pieces designed to pop your eyeballs right out of your skull. That's all you really need to know before springing for the 3-D version, which is the version to see if you're going to see it at all.
Mia Wasikowska returns as Alice, reprising her role from director Tim Burton's 2010 adaptation. The new film, directed by James Bobin (Muppets Most Wanted), includes a few visual nods to Lewis Carroll's original book, but the script is largely the invention of rock-star Disney screenwriter Linda Woolverton (Beauty and the Beast, Maleficent). Alice returns to Wonderland via mirror to discover that the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) is in crisis. It seems that his family needs rescuing, and the only way for Alice to save the day is to travel back in time.
Time is personified, by Sacha Baron Cohen, as a kind of extra-temporal clockwork deity who rules from a mansion of mechanical marvels. His realm is the first of several fantastical locales we visit, and it's a triumph of inventive visual design. It's so difficult to present genuinely new images on the silver screen these days, but Disney's design team conjures fever-dream wonders: Constellations of stopwatches hang in a perpetual golden dawn. Colossal steampunk ironworks are tended by skittering mechanical imps.
Digital effects are stitched seamlessly into the Victorian-era costumes and sets, which incorporate location shooting and historical artifacts, including some scenes aboard amazing nineteenth-century seafaring vessels. Alice's temporal adventures involve navigating the Ocean of Time, where the 3-D effects pay off. Sit back and enjoy.
Wasikowska and Depp anchor the film with lovely performances. Depp is especially compelling this time around, as Hatter spirals into a darker kind of madness and despair. Disney's team of artisans mixes practical and digital effects with makeup design, and many of the film's most arresting visual compositions involve extreme close-ups on Depp's tortured visage, or on Helena Bonham Carter as the villainous Red Queen.
Alas, the story never achieves the mythic resonance of the imagery. The movie often feels choppy and episodic, rushing from one set piece to the next. It’s best enjoyed on a scene-by-scene, beat-by-beat basis. Depp and Baron Cohen find some very funny moments with their characters, and there's a stealthy through-line of feminist thinking. I also very much liked the film's central theme of unconditional loyalty. To help her friend, the Hatter, Alice is fierce and courageous and willing to put the entire time-space continuum at risk. She's pure heroine, as Ms. Yelich-O'Connor might say.
Kids aren't likely to register the sophisticated thematic and visual artistry on display, but they'll like the swashbuckling adventure and aforementioned eyeball-popping elements. Anyway, this kind of storytelling is good for kids in a cultural-mythology, eat-your-vegetables kind of way. If you're escorting wee ones this weekend, don't let them talk you into that Angry Birds movie. Alice Through the Looking Glass is the healthier option, and besides, who's paying for the popcorn?