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Alice Through the Looking Glass: why did they make a sequel to 2010’s ​terrible​ Alice in Wonderland?

A tale of money, the global box office, and Johnny Depp.

Alice Through the Looking Glass
Alice is all, "Not this again."
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Alice Through the Looking Glass finally arrives Friday, May 27, 2016, more than six years after the original Alice in Wonderland stormed into theaters and delighted millions upon millions, thanks to Johnny Depp's eternally beloved turn as the Mad Hatter.

What? That's not how you remember it? That's fair. By far the most frequent comment attached to Looking Glass is "They made a sequel?!" And indeed they did, and without the original film's director, Tim Burton, returning to helm it. Alice in Wonderland has become a bit of a punchline, both an example of how Hollywood no longer has any new ideas and a bit of an instant relic.

Its dated visual effects and poorly handled 3D images (the movie was not filmed in 3D but instead converted to 3D in post-production, which results in a markedly murkier picture) are a sad reminder of a time not so long ago when putting pretty much anything in 3D was considered a surefire strategy for success. And yet back in 2010, the film's box office performance suggested that people really loved it.

So you might have guessed that, yes, Alice Through the Looking Glass exists because there's money to be made. But you might not have realized how much money there is to be made, or how much Disney (the studio releasing the film) is banking on viewers having nostalgia for a movie that's mostly remembered as a trivia answer.

See, at the time of its release, Alice in Wonderland was one of the five most successful films ever made.

Alice in Wonderland was just the sixth film in history to make over $1 billion worldwide

When Alice was released in March 2010, it quickly racked up an impressive $334 million in the United States and Canada — along with a truly remarkable $116 million opening weekend. (In those days, movies simply didn't make that much in one weekend in March.) It ended up being the second biggest film released in 2010 domestically, behind Toy Story 3.

But for as much money as Alice made in the US, it swamped that total overseas, where it pulled in $691 million. That gave the film a global total of $1.025 billion.

Nowadays, movies cross the billion-dollar mark at the global box office fairly frequently. Twenty-five total titles have earned over $1 billion worldwide, with the still-in-release Zootopia having a shot at becoming the 26th. (It's currently at $983 million.)

But when Alice came out, only six movies had ever crossed $1 billion — Avatar, Titanic, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, Alice in Wonderland, and The Dark Knight. (Post-2010 re-releases would push 1993's Jurassic Park and 1999's Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace over the mark as well, but at the time, they were still south of it.) You'll notice two of those films star Johnny Depp. Keep that in mind.

So why was Alice so huge? Three reasons.

Reason 1: Avatar withdrawal

It seems easy to forget from the vantage point of 2016, but Avatar and its 3D visuals were a sensation in late 2009 and early 2010. And the film remains far and away the worldwide box office champ, with nearly $2.8 billion to its name. (For comparison's sake, the US box office champ, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, just barely crawled past the $2 billion mark worldwide.)

Yet after seeing Avatar numerous times and luxuriating in its far-off, 3D world of Pandora, audiences were hungry for something different. And Alice in Wonderland, if nothing else, offered a dire warning that most 3D films were going to look very ugly. (Say what you will about Avatar, but its visuals are pristine.)

And yet Alice experienced lower-than-average drops each weekend it was open, reflecting audiences' sustained interest in 3D filmmaking. The technique wasn't yet seen as a ridiculous gimmick, as it often is today, and viewers wanted something that would offer a sort of secondhand Avatar high. Alice wasn't the best possible substitute, but it was what the studios had on offer.

Reason 2: Johnny Depp

Alice Through the Looking Glass
The world's favorite actor.

US audiences have cooled on Depp in recent years, but he's apparently beloved overseas (though possibly not in Australia). Fully three of his films — from two different franchises — have raked in more than $1 billion. I already mentioned Alice and Dead Man's Chest, but consider 2011's Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, the fourth and most recent Pirates film that was greeted with a shrug from critics and audiences in the US.

And yet it made $1 billion worldwide, with nearly 77 percent of that total coming from the international box office. Those are the sorts of numbers the latest Transformers sequel — belonging to a franchise long thought to represent a global love of movie franchises America increasingly doesn't much care for — received.

The answer is clear: If you want to make a lot of money with your weirdo fantasy film and don't mind a central performance that's more a collection of affectations than actual acting, Johnny Depp is your man.

Reason 3: The family audience

This one is more of a no-brainer, but it bears repeating: A film that can credibly appeal to an entire family is generally going to do better than a film targeted primarily at kids or their parents.

And I'm really stretching the definition of "appeal" for Alice, one of the worst blockbusters ever made. (It's so bad that Through the Looking Glass is probably a better film, and it's a catastrophe.) But by wedding a time-honored classic tale for children to, uh, a gigantic action fantasy epic in the style of the Lord of the Rings movies, Burton and his collaborators created something that looked like it would appeal to everyone in the family.

Of course, they could have simply adapted Lewis Carroll's classic novel of the same name — which, though it looks like a children's book, has lots of sly wordplay and satire for adults. But hey, then they wouldn't have had an elaborate CGI dragon to roar at the audience in 3D. It's important to keep those priorities straight.

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