Alice through the Looking Glass review: “It doesn’t make sense, but its weirdness is a virtue”

Mia Wasikowska's headstrong heroine returns to Wonderland where Johnny Depp's Hatter needs her help, in another phantasmagorical fantasy inspired by Lewis Carroll's creations

109094

★★★

Guaranteed to aggravate purists, this sequel to Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland has almost nothing to do with Lewis Carroll’s classic children’s story. 

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Those evil masterminds in Hollywoodland have merely snatched his beloved characters and trapped them inside a more mainstream movie with chases, time-travel and Johnny Depp in another silly wig doing another silly voice. It still doesn’t make complete sense, but its weirdness remains a virtue. 

To start, with Mia Wasikowska, returning as Alice, is the unlikeliest sea captain you’ll ever see. She has stepped into her father’s shoes to explore the world on his trusty ship, The Wonder, but alas her mother (Lindsay Duncan) is a practical woman who is just about to sign it away to a sneering toff (Leo Bill) to keep them out of the poor house. 

Being a bit of a brat (“headstrong” is the word often used), Alice snaps at mum before storming off straight through a mirror back into Wonderland. Despite James Bobin being in the director’s chair, this is still emphatically Burton’s vision – just as gloriously garish as before, although with fewer darker, shadowy parts. And in his house, shaped like a top hat, the Hatter (Depp) is also having issues.

Psychology never figured much in Carroll’s books but, here – because it’s Hollywood and they love a backstory – the Hatter is driven mad by the disappearance of his family long ago. They were presumed dead, killed by the Jabberwocky under the command of the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter), but now Hatter has reason to believe they’re still alive. 

Everyone thinks he’s doolally, naturally – that’s Anne Hathaway as the White Queen (dazed-looking rather than ethereal), the Tweedles (Matt Lucas in double-vision), the White Rabbit (voiced by Michael Sheen) and the Blue Caterpillar (Alan Rickman, to whom the film is dedicated) – but they beg Alice go back in time to find out what happened anyway.

Sacha Baron Cohen brings another intriguing dimension to the story as “the personification of time”, part-man, part clock (there are cogs in the back of his skull) who denies Alice access to the “Chronosphere” – a sort of mechanical capsule that rides the waves of history – because, he warns, “you cannot change the past” and any efforts to do so could be cataclysmic. Of course, she steals it anyway. She’s a curious, “headstrong” girl and that hasn’t changed. Meanwhile, the bad blood that exists between the White and Red queens also comes under scrutiny, explaining why Bonham Carter’s head is so magnificently swollen. She wants the Chronosphere, too, for the purposes of world domination and to set things straight on a childhood trauma.

Bobin (who worked with Cohen on Da Ali G Show and also made the recent Muppet films) has a lot of balls to juggle, and though his heroine is strong-willed, she often charges off without a clear plan. Carroll’s Alice was in some ways more passive – pin-balled around and having to react – and that made the dreamlike qualities of her adventure even more intense. In contrast this Alice stamps her feet a lot, often to no avail, but that at least gives her scope to learn a lesson with the words of Time ringing in her ears. 

There is an overall arc to Alice’s journey rather than the zigzagging artful nonsense that just wouldn’t translate from Carroll’s work to the screen – not without alienating that part of the audience who don’t take umbrage on his behalf.

This is by no means a well-oiled machine. Some parts are as clunky as the rusting clock of Time (breaking down after Alice hijacks the Chronosphere), but Wasikowska is a good anchor, bringing the requisite vulnerability to keep Alice from being insufferable, while Depp, despite the scary eye make-up, is full to the brim with Mad Hatterish charm. 

Even if some are left wondering why this sequel was made, kids of all ages are more likely to take the film as they see it and simply enjoy the ride. 

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Alice through the Looking Glass is released in cinemas on Friday 27 May