Somewhere in the middle of Alice Through the Looking Glass, I started doing math in my head.
My brain, so exhausted and assaulted by everything happening onscreen, threw up a surrender flag, crawled into a bunker, and started amusing itself by trying to run calculations on how far a clock's hour hand travels over certain periods of time. That's how desperately I wanted out of Wonderland.
So it goes with Looking Glass, one of the more unnecessary sequels in an age of unnecessary sequels. (Its predecessor, 2010's Alice in Wonderland, made a boatload of money, which is why this film exists.) And the sad thing is that for as bad as Looking Glass is, it's probably better than the original film. At least it has a somewhat coherent plot, even if it seems blithely unaware of the fact that its protagonist very nearly destroys an entire universe just for fun.
And as my mind wandered while I watched, I kept coming back to questions that sort of had bearing on the movie and sort of didn't. So here are five things I wondered to myself during Alice Through the Looking Glass. Maybe you can answer them for me.
1) Would you risk all of space and time to save one of Johnny Depp's more irritating characters?
Johnny Depp's Mad Hatter is the nadir of his post–Jack Sparrow approach to character — a funny voice, a series of flourish-y gestures, and a collection of costume pieces. But where Sparrow (or even The Lone Ranger's much-derided Tonto) is the real deal, a character grounded in something deeper than the surface-level whimsy, the Hatter is all frippery.
With his ghost-white makeup, his alien eyes encircled by strange purple lines, and his tufts of orange hair — all atop a body clothed in the finest shabbiness — he's like a sentient version of the "Kids can craft, too!" aisle at a Hobby Lobby that's decided to destroy its creators.
He speaks with a lisp. He yearns for his long-dead family (a frequent characteristic of Depp's over-the-top weirdos). He's an overgrown child whose "madness" mostly manifests itself as the kind of mass-market eccentricity that reassures parents nothing too crazy will happen, so their children can safely watch the film 100 times daily on DVD. Both Looking Glass and its Hatter reimagine the dangerousness of Lewis Carroll's original character, or at least the author's concept of madness, in a way that can be safely commodified.
Anyway, the entire plot of the film is that he's so sad he might die, so Alice has to travel back in time to save his family from the Jabberwocky, despite repeated warnings that changing the past will either not work or destroy the future and the fact that the time machine she steals is vital to the continued maintenance of space and time itself.
So the plot of Alice Through the Looking Glass is that the "villains" are trying to keep the universe from imploding, while the heroine risks destroying everything in the name of saving Johnny Depp. I'm not sure even Johnny Depp would make that trade-off.
2) What screensaver are the film's visuals ripping off?
Director James Bobin is a frequently sprightly lenser. His Muppets films, his Flight of the Conchords episodes, even his Enlightened installment — they're all generally interesting to look at, with a nice sense of pace.
If Looking Glass is better than its predecessor, it's because Bobin mostly keeps the story on track, while Wonderland's Tim Burton seemed to be going through the motions.
But where Burton's depiction of Wonderland was a little too gray — or maybe it just seemed that way because the film was converted to 3D in post-production, which darkens the image — Bobin's is hypersaturated in a way that makes it occasionally garish and hard to look at, like someone turned the color levels way, way up.
Meanwhile, the film's sky-high color levels only serve to underline just how fake its computer effects seem — especially compared with Disney's other recent children's film The Jungle Book, where the computer effects were seamless. The only way I can describe it is to say that Looking Glass looks like a mid-'90s video game featuring full-motion video, where actors move stiffly in front of fake, obviously digital backgrounds.
Though at least in a game, you'd get to tell Alice what to do (like, say, not worry about saving Johnny Depp?).
3) What has Hollywood done to Mia Wasikowska?
When Mia Wasikowska broke out as a suicidal teenager in HBO's 2008 series In Treatment, she was a revelation, plumbing the depths of a complicated, troubled character and finding every possible nuance. And she's been very good in the many independent and arthouse films she's appeared in since then, from Jane Eyre to Stoker to The Double. Hell, she was even very good (if not her best) as the center of 2015's great ghost story Crimson Peak.
And yet for the most part, Hollywood doesn't know what to do with this very real, rare talent. Often Wasikowska is tossed into girlfriend or wife roles, and when she's not she's playing Alice in these movies, which mostly ask her to smile with wonderment at things that aren't all that wonderful.
I don't ever want to besmirch an actor for taking a role that will allow her the financial freedom to pursue more artistically exciting work, but these movies give Alice the trappings of agency, in that she seems to be taking her destiny in her own hands, and then forget all about it in the name of batting her between various CGI creations that actually control her destiny. What a shame.
4) Come to think of it, why did anybody agree to this thing?
Through the Looking Glass has the unfortunate distinction of marking Alan Rickman's final onscreen appearance — if you count him voicing the Caterpillar (now butterfly) as an "onscreen appearance." He sounds bored.
Maybe it was catching. The movie's cast is full of actual stars — like Anne Hathaway as the White Queen — and great British character actors voicing Wonderland's many inhabitants, including Stephen Fry as the Cheshire Cat, which should be instant gold. But nobody seems all that invested in the quest to save the Hatter, perhaps because it's only slightly more interesting than taking a nap.
The only two actors who seem at all bothered to emote are Sacha Baron Cohen as Time (a clockman who inspired my musings on math) and Helena Bonham Carter, who returns as the Red Queen (she of the enormous head). But with that said, the "emoting" they do is mostly yelling in "funny" voices. Be forewarned.
5) If you can travel through time, should you kill baby Hitler?
I started giggling almost uncontrollably around the film's midpoint, when I realized it contains an accidental plot on the ethics of killing baby Hitler; Looking Glass simply subs in the villainous Red Queen for history's most famous dictator.
Could Alice perhaps stop her from becoming the "Off with their heads!" tyrant of literary fame, thus preventing her from sending the Jabberwocky after the Hatter's family? Of course not — this is Time Travel 101 — but that doesn't mean she won't try! And the results, for a few minutes at least, play like a weirdo combination of a Ray Bradbury short story and the fifth season of Lost, with the addition of a disappearing cat.
Sadly, Looking Glass mostly lets go of this particular plot thread before fully engaging with the twisty philosophical problem it opens up. And then you find out the Red Queen is evil because when she and the White Queen were children, the White Queen blamed her for stealing some cookies and she never really got over it.
Seriously, that's a plot point in this movie — which, again, is about risking the very fabric of the universe to save Johnny Depp and/or killing baby Hitler. Please go see it, so that Disney might next produce Alice Has to Cross a River with a Chicken, a Fox, and Some Grain; Can You Solve the Puzzle?
Alice Through the Looking Glass is playing in theaters nationwide. Memorial Day weekend is one of the best weekends of the year to go outside. Doesn't that sound fun?