With “Alice Through the Looking Glass,” it’s official: The 150-year-old “Alice in Wonderland” universe has become just another theme park ride in our culture’s CGI franchise machinery. The movie is gaudy, loud, complacent, and vulgar. As such, it’s acceptable entertainment for 21st-century children and audiences who want to be treated like children.
The same could be said for 2010’s “Alice in Wonderland,” though, and that cleared more than a billion dollars in worldwide ticket sales; thus, the sequel. The new movie, which stays as far away as possible from Lewis Carroll’s 1871 book, keeps much of the original cast while replacing director Tim Burton (who’s still on board as producer) with James Bobin, who directed the two most recent Muppet movies. That the visual look is the same — Victorian-era steampunk meets the Teletubbies on opium — may have less to do with Burton than with returning art director Todd Cherniawsky. In any event, the film’s an overabundance of Day-Glo kitsch, as dazzling as it is hollow.
The “Alice” movies may be most notable for the way they pilfer from anything and everything in other big-budget family movies. “Wonderland” lifted plot points from “Lord of the Rings,” “Shrek,” “The Wizard of Oz,” and “The Princess Bride.” “Through the Looking Glass” adds “Pirates of the Caribbean,” “Hugo,” and “The Phantom Tollbooth” to the list of purloined properties, and its cloning of “Frozen” is so blatant that if this weren’t a Disney production, Disney would sue.
The movie opens with the grown Alice (Mia Wasikowska) as a ship’s captain fleeing from pirates on a dark and stormy night. A visit to her snooty former fiancé (Leo Bill) proves disastrous, as he holds the title to her ship and the purse-strings of Alice’s mother (Lindsay Duncan). All of this proves to be beside the point, though, as our heroine quickly dashes through the fiance’s looking-glass back into her beloved Underland (not Wonderland; as established in the first film, Carroll apparently made a typo) .
There’s trouble in Carroll city: The Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) is wasting away from prodigal-son grief; and to save him, Alice must go back in time, which involves “borrowing” the Chronosphere — it looks like Harry Potter’s Golden Snitch and turns into the chariot from 1960’s “The Time Machine.” To do that, she must first foray into the Castle of Time, an Oz-like structure overseen by Time himself, played by Sacha Baron Cohen as a fussy clockwork martinet who, inexplicably but amusingly, talks like Werner Herzog.
Every now and then a bit of Carrollian nonsense sneaks through. Time has little mechanical helpers called Seconds — they’re basically Minions without the yellow rinse — who band together to form Minutes and, ultimately, Transformer-like Hours. After much sound and fury, we’re back in the Underland past, where we learn of the primal emotional trauma that drove the evil Queen of Hearts (Helena Bonham Carter, still a blissful bobblehead) from her sister, the beatific and rather dull White Queen (Anne Hathaway). Little ones in the audience may burst into “Let It Go” through Pavlovian reflex alone.
In other words, the great, high nonsense that has kept Carroll’s books around for, oh, a century and a half, has been banished. (No “Walrus and the Carpenter,” oh woe.) The screenplay that replaces it has been written by a replication machine under the name of Linda Woolverton. There are moments to hold on to: Baron Cohen’s huffy Time, a bureaucrat whose gears are winding down; the voice of the late Alan Rickman — a ghost of a ghost — as the Caterpillar; frabjous digitized spectacles like the Halls of the Living and Dead made of dangling pocket watches and the Queen of Hearts’ living quarters, a baroque ball of roots. Depp stoops to conquer again, and he does, but you sense his knees are starting to ache.
In other words, to watch “Alice Through the Looking Glass” is to witness an army of smart, creative people dumbing themselves down into delivering what they think the market wants: back stories, character arcs, closure, the comfort of the computer-generated familiar. They’re probably right, but, then, we get the entertainment we deserve. “The night is fine,” the Walrus said, “Do you admire the view?”
ALICE THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS
Directed by James Bobin. Written by Linda Woolverton, based (not really) on the book by Lewis Carroll. Starring Mia Wasikowska, Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham-Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen, Ann Hathaway, the voices of Alan Rickman, Stephen Fry. Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs, Jordan’s Furniture IMAX in Reading and Natick. 113 minutes. PG (fantasy action/peril, some language).Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.