The high point of “Alice Through the Looking Glass” comes early. A blue butterfly named Absolem — voiced by Alan Rickman — beckons Alice back to Wonderland. How wonderful to hear the late actor’s marvelous baritone one more time.
Then, just like that, Absolem is gone — along with any pleasant feelings about this joyless jumble of a sequel.
For this second desecration of Lewis Carroll’s prose, producer Tim Burton has passed directing duties to James Bobin. The players remain the same, including Mia Wasikowska as the film’s heroine. Ever the iconoclast, Alice first appears as a ship captain in 1874, on the run from pirates in the Straits of Malacca. As it turns out, she’s a keen strategist, nearly capsizing her boat in order to evade the brigands. Since every scene and snippet of dialogue hits you over the head with foreshadowing, we know that her talent for improvised disaster control will come in handy later.
Indeed, once she makes her way back to Wonderland, through a mirror, she agrees to a dangerous mission. The Mad Hatter — Johnny Depp, hamming it up to a nearly unwatchable degree — is so depressed that he can’t leave his house. He’s convinced that his family, who he once thought were killed by the Jabberwocky, might be alive. But no one believes him.
Alice doesn’t either, but she’s always game to disprove the impossible. (In case you have any doubt, she warns her first mate, “you know how I feel about that word.”) She’ll need to travel back in time to save the Hatter’s family from the fire-breathing menace. To do that, she steals a machine from Time himself, played by Sacha Baron Cohen. (The actor is a pal of Bobin, who wrote and directed episodes of “Da Ali G Show.”)
For once, Cohen isn’t the loopiest overactor in the cast. Between Depp, Helena Bonham Carter as the raging Queen of Hearts and Anne Hathaway — practically floating as the ethereal White Queen — the man who played Borat has stiff competition.
With dazzling blue eyes and sporting a man bun, Time is part man and part clock. The back of his head reveals ticking gears, and he has a clock face where his heart should be. The character, like a lot of visual elements in “Alice,” is a sight to behold. There was clearly a lot of thought put into making the movie look spectacular. When Alice is ricocheting through history — on a contraption that conveniently operates just like a ship — memories embedded in waves rise up to meet her. It’s a gorgeous metaphor for how recollections of the past wash over us.
If only as much care were put into the slipshod story. Do we even care about these people? Nothing in the movie compels us to. Screenwriter Linda Woolverton (who was assisted by Bobin) is more satisfied answering questions that nobody asked. How did the Queen of Hearts’ head get so big? If you’ve ever wondered, you’re in luck.
But wondrous visuals only go so far, in a film that turns out to be lethally dull. “I fear I may never see you again,” Alice laments to the Hatter toward the end of the movie. After one sequel too many, we can only hope she’s right.
PG. At area theaters. Contains scenes of peril and some coarse language. 112 minutes.