Mia Wasikowska returns as Alice, helming her dead father’s ship, the Wonder. In the first five minutes, we’re treated to a thrilling chase sequence, the crew surviving against all odds thanks to the ingenious and calculated efforts of our heroine. By all appearances, this film feels like it’s going to seize the reins of the old, Imagineering Disney mojo, but the story squanders that with a rehash of Burton’s film — and by presenting Alice as selfish and annoyingly obstinate.
When Alice returns to London, she finds that her mother has sold their home and can only get it back if Alice sells the boat. As in Burton’s film, Alice doesn’t want to be trapped — a totally reasonable position and a comment on women’s “duties” in Victorian England. But Alice lashes out at her mother, not the guy who put her in that position. Bobin keeps the camera on Alice, directing allegiances to her, but her tantrum is irksome, the kind of thing that might lead a kid to say, “Why’s she so mean to her mommy?” Alice doesn’t stop to think that leaving her mother back home for years with no job or family might, ya know, make her pretty desperate for money?
Still, all of that seems to set up a somewhat passable story: She's a faulty heroine who must learn the error of her ways. But when Absolem (the late, great Alan Rickman), a caterpillar-cum-butterfly, steals Alice away to Underland through a mirror, she takes the selfishness to the next level.
In Underland, Mad Hatter (Depp) is all boo-hoo sad Hatter after finding a paper hat he made as a child. He’s convinced himself that his family is still alive and not a long-gone breakfast snack for the now-dead firebreather Jabberwocky. Alice decides she’ll go back in time to save his family. She steals something called a Chronosphere from Time (Sacha Baron Cohen) — who is both the embodiment of time and, like, a guy — so that she can time travel back to the Hatter's past. Time gives her plenty of serious warnings of the dangers of this, and she does it anyway, putting the lives of everyone in Underworld on the line. Yeah, Alice risks destroying an entire world because her friend is sad. And her idiot buddies — Mirana (Anne Hathaway), Tweedledee/dum (Matt Lucas), Bayard (Timothy Spall), Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry), etc. — encourage her to do it.
The last Alice movie had goofy, rambunctious supporting characters cracking wise. Here, they disappear pretty quickly, their screentime filled in with convoluted plot. Baron Cohen, fortunately, is the saving grace of silly. As Time pursues Alice through an ocean of memories to get the Chronosphere back, he delivers one-liners (“Time waits for no man,” “Time is not on your side”) that are pun-funny apt for an Alice movie, but do get a little old and tired as they go. Oh, Time! He does wear on.
Now, Carroll wrote implausible, illogical stories for the pleasure of them, but a tentpole Disney movie must fit tidily into a hero’s-journey structure. Trying to make a movie whose fundamental basis is that things don’t have to make sense just doesn’t jibe with the precise story turns of a blockbuster arc. Still, this story as Woolverton wrote it might have worked as a Carroll knockoff if it hadn’t been for the tone, which is really trying to hit home a moral lesson through drama. That’s antithetical to the whole spirit of Carroll’s work, and the two are forever at odds here, with neither the moral lesson nor the nonsensical elements getting the time to coalesce into something either meaningful or memorably wacky.
This all might have been funny and weird in the way the original Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory was. It's certainly a visual delight, with the kind of Technicolor out-of-this-world design only Disney could produce. It’s so gorgeous you can sometimes forget the train wreck of a story. But only sometimes. Worst of all, this is Alan Rickman’s last film, and his caterpillar/butterfly only has a few measly lines. That’s worth a Pool of Tears.