Alice Through the Looking Glass review: 'half-baked, time-travel codswallop usually reserved for Saturday morning cartoons'

Old pals: Johnny Depp and Mia Wasikowska return for 'Through the Looking Glass'

Chris Wasser

Good grief, was Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter always this terrifying? Indeed, if there’s one thing we learned from Disney and Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland — a disjointed yet colourful feast for the eyes, released all the way back in 2010 — it’s that Depp’s magical costume box runs deeper than any of us could have predicted.

Here we have a man blessed with the kind of good looks and acting chops that most performers would give their right arm for. And yet, Depp almost always looks happier playing a bumbling pirate. Or Willy Wonka. Or a singing barber.

Why does he do it to himself? The cash, probably. Alice in Wonderland grossed more than a billion dollars at the box office — a sequel was always going to take shape, whether we wanted it or not, and Depp certainly isn’t one to say no to a substantial pay packet. But seriously, this new and unimproved Mad Hatter is freakier than Edward Scissorhands.

Take, for example, the scene in Alice Through the Looking Glass in which Depp’s Hatter suddenly realises that not even his beloved Alice believes him when he tells his mates that his mum and dad (long thought to have perished in a mysterious tragedy) are still alive.

The eyes darken; the smile turns crooked — the red hair glows, and before we’ve even had a chance to hide our heads in our popcorn, Depp’s friendly neighbourhood nutter transforms into Pennywise the Dancing Clown’s troubled uncle, Hatta. It’s all kinds of disturbing, folks.

It’s also one of several jarring aspects in a sequel that rarely takes flight. Inspired by the works of Lewis Carroll, the lads at Disney have, once again, taken more than a few liberties with the source material, deploying the kind of half-baked, time-travel codswallop usually reserved for Saturday morning cartoon adventures.

The gist is that Alice Kingsleigh (Mia Wasikowska) — a new woman after her adventures in Wonderland a few years back — is now a bona fide captain of the seas. After returning from a lengthy trip to China, Alice is horrified to discover that the bloke she turned down in London has all but seized control of her house, and her ship. So, she does what anyone would do when faced with a great deal of stress.

Yep, Alice returns to Wonderland, the most magical, most exciting, most phantasmagorical place imaginable (nice metaphor there, lads). How does she get there? Why, she simply follows Alan Rickman’s blue butterfly through a mirror at a party (again, make of that what you will).

Back in Wonderland, and reacquainted with Tweedledum and Tweedledee (Matt Lucas), the White Queen (Anne Hathaway) and the rest of the gang, Alice is informed that her old pal Hatter is in a right-old funk, and the only way to snap him out of it is to travel back in time and save his family.

All of which means poor Alice will have to sneak by Time himself (Sacha Baron Cohen), nick something called a ‘chronosphere’ (a time machine) and try her best to avoid crossing paths with the Red Queen (she’s also in a permanent fouler). Cue lots and lots of lazy sci-fi hokum about the trouble with time travel (it’s frowned upon, apparently). Director James Bobin (Flight of the Conchords, The Muppets) takes over from Tim Burton (serving as a producer here), which probably explains why Alice Through the Looking Glass isn’t nearly as bonkers an adventure as its hazardous predecessor.

It’s still just as dull, mind, with Bobin hitting us over the head with one extravagant set piece after another in a colourful and, indeed, expensive attempt to distract us from an uninspired and downright sluggish screenplay.

Marvellous effects and all, but the story — a curious hotchpotch of patchy ideas, clunky exposition and tiresome one-liners — is a tad on the thin side. It’s like a charmless, fairy tale pantomime, and the performances are far from up to scratch.

Depp is merely on autopilot at this stage, Sacha Baron Cohen gives us PG Borat, Anne Hathaway is away with the birds and Mia Wasikowska boasts about as much screen presence and charisma as a moody teen who’s just been rudely awoken by her folks.

Mind you, Helena Bonham Carter’s Red Queen is still a hoot, but there are very few genuinely funny moments in a film that isn’t nearly as entertaining or as humorous as it thinks it is.

An incoherent and surprisingly underwhelming display, Alice Through the Looking Glass will probably make a fortune at the box office, but it’ll leave a sour taste in your mouth. And that Hatter fella is simply horrendous.