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Alice shouldn't live here anymore

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'Alice Through the Looking Glass' a dull, dispirited mess

Sometimes, a sequel happens whether or not anyone really wants it to. A movie's success can be such that returning to the well simply cannot be avoided no matter how bad an idea that might prove to be.

Take 2010's 'Alice in Wonderland' as an example. Did you know that it is one of just 25 films to gross over a billion dollars? That's 'billion' with a 'B.' It benefitted from the exquisite timing of director Tim Burton's weirdly vivid vision and the novelty of then-new 3D technology, turning into one of those massive hits that, in retrospect, no one really liked all that much.

But hey that 'B' is a big deal. And so, far too late, we get 'Alice Through the Looking Glass,' an unwanted sequel that returns the original cast (apparently at gunpoint, judging from their performances) but not the director. James Bobin assumes the reins, turning out a film whose interesting visuals can't begin to overcome its lack of narrative cohesion.

Alice (Mia Wasikowska, 'Crimson Peak') is all grown up, serving as captain of her late father's shipping vessel. Unfortunately, her mother (Lindsay Duncan, 'Birdman') has sold her out to Hamish (Leo Bill, 'Mr. Turner'), resulting in her having to choose between her father's ship and her mother's home.

When she's led though a looking glass, she finds herself back in Wonderland. She reunites with old friends like the White Queen (Anne Hathaway, 'The Intern'), the Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry, 'The Man Who Knew Infinity') and Tweedledee and Tweedledum (Matt Lucas, 'Paddington'), but her dearest friend the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp, 'Black Mass') has been left incapacitated by the belief (instilled by an inadvertently-discovered paper hat) that his dead family is in fact alive.

In order to save the Hatter, Alice agrees to go to the castle of Time (Sacha Baron Cohen, 'The Brothers Grimsby') yes, Time is a person in order to get something called a chronosphere that she can use to travel back in time to keep the Hatter's parents from being killed and then they actually will be alive.

Or something.

Anyway, the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter, 'Cinderella') is being wooed by Time, but she wants the chronosphere herself as proof of his love. Instead, Alice steals it, inciting even more wrath from the Red Queen and causing Time himself to take off into the past after her.

She goes to various places in the timeline in an effort to change things to fix the present, but that goes about as well as you can expect. But while she struggles to exert her will on the past, she does learn some things that illuminate the realities of the now though if history gets broken, there will be no now at all.

Also, there talking animals and people with frog heads and assorted other Wonderland weirdness.

'Alice Through the Looking Glass' is what happens when literally no one involved in the making of a movie really cares about the quality of the final product. There's nothing inspired about the thing. The visual aesthetic is just lifted from Burton's version; it's lovely to look at, but you've seen it before. The story is barely coherent and superficially busy the little that actually happens doesn't make much sense. It's a connect-the-dots movie where no one thought to, you know, connect the dots.

It certainly doesn't help that everyone involved comes off like they should be holding up a newspaper with today's date as proof of life. Johnny Depp is a cartoon who has seemingly lost the ability to play a cartoon; his Mad Hatter is desperate and flop-sweaty and aggressively off-putting. Cohen can't be bothered to commit, instead choosing to rely on facial tics and a bad sketch-comedy German accent. Carter manages to be both shrill and disinterested, although she couldn't possibly come off as more bored than Hathaway, whose subtext consists entirely of mentally counting the zeroes on her checks.

Wasikowska is engaging enough, but even her charm isn't enough to penetrate the disinterested malaise that permeates this entire film. And while Lucas, Fry and the other voice-only performers Timothy Spall, Paul Whitehouse, Michael Sheen and the rest do their best, there's only so much they can do.

Despite a talented cast and some incredibly rich source material, 'Alice Through the Looking Glass' is little more than an ill-conceived and empty bauble, a candy-coated turd attempting (and failing) to pass as a delicious treat. Rarely has a movie made clearer how miserable an experience it was to make.

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