Sometimes an explosion of eye candy can hit the sweet spot, like it mostly did in the Tim Burton 2010 blockbuster Alice in Wonderland. But the magic is missing in this sequel, as is Burton, replaced in the director’s chair by James Bobin (Muppets Most Wanted). Most wanted here is easy charm to counteract the hard sell. Everything is too much, making the movie look like Willy Wonka threw up all over his chocolate factory. The script by Linda Woolverton stays surface faithful to the characters created by Lewis Carroll, but the film has lost its soul.
Mia Wasikowska is back as Alice, now a ship’s captain eager to vanquish pirates. She dragged kicking and screaming back to London to affirm her Victorian-era feminist agenda by saving her mother’s livelihood and busting the balls (well, almost) of a nasty, former suitor (Leo Bill) who’s making life hell for mom. Alice also finds time to leap through a looking glass and return to Wonderland.
The gang’s all here, including Tweedledee/Tweedledum (Matt Lucas), the White Rabbit (Michael Sheen), the Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry) and the White Queen (Anne Hathaway). The late, great Alan Rickman, to whom the film is dedicated, voices the caterpillar-turned-butterfly Absolem with the wit and resonance that marked his career-long artistry. But Alice’s main concern is her friend the Hatter, again played by Johnny Depp, who makes eccentric madness look as natural as breathing. The Hatter, you see, is not himself. He’s dying of sadness, ravaged by guilt that he and not the evil, jumbo-headed Red Queen (the ever-delicious Helena Bonham Carter) is responsible for the death of his family.
What to do? Alice must go back to the past in a time machine stolen from Time himself, in the person of a frantic Sacha Baron Cohen, and set things right. Bobin keeps the plot gears grinding relentlessly and monotonously. The actors, except for Depp and Bonham Carter — for whom surrealism seems like a second home — merely go through the motions. As Lewis Carroll should have said: Efficiency is no substitute for enchantment.