Upon suddenly finding herself in Underland once again, Alice returns to her friends to be given most unpleasant news: the Mad Hatter, convinced that his long-lost family is still alive, is literally dying of depression. Believing that he’s actually lost his mind (more so than he already has), Alice decides that the only way to save him is to travel back in time to prevent the demise of his folks and, subsequently, stop his demise as well. Unfortunately, this will require robbing the powerful Time, who is being romantically manipulated by the banished Red Queen, who has become obsessed with getting revenge against her sister and everyone in her kingdom. Will Alice be successful in her mission, or will her meddling with the past cause for her to inadvertently destroy all of Underland?

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Tim Burton’s Alice In Wonderland was a massive box office hit when it opened in 2010, which has left a few scratching their heads as to why the sequel–titled Alice Through the Looking Glass–isn’t doing better than it is. Some are claiming that it’s because not many people liked the original, but the $1 billion it made in ticket sales more or less kills that argument. Although it divided some critics, Wonderland was probably one of the most “Burton” Burton films of the last decade, surreal, dreamlike, and full of delightfully twisted visuals and characters (our own Ben Simon wrote an extremely favorable review at the time). If anything, the disappointing returns can probably be attributed to Disney waiting too long to release a follow-up, combined with the fact that releasing any movie over the busy Memorial Day weekend is always a risky move. And it didn’t help matters that the film’s trailers were all rather confusing and, it turns out, very misleading.

This is all quite unfortunate since, for the most part, Through the Looking Glass ends up being a satisfying sequel, briskly paced, light on its feet, and almost surprisingly fun. While one might initially raise an eyebrow at the script’s decision to focus on time travel, the film makes good use of the plot device, largely because it makes Time into an actual character. A combination of a man and a clock, he looks like something straight out of a children’s book illustration, whimsical and mysterious. Perfectly played by Sasha Baron Cohen–in what may be his best performance in years–Time is an absolute delight, livening things up greatly every time he makes an appearance.

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As with the original, the film is visually spectacular. Although Tim Burton doesn’t return to direct this time (choosing to helm the upcoming Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children instead), James Bobin (The Muppets) is able to fill his shoes nicely, re-creating the look of the first movie while still making it his own. In fact, it’s hard to think of many scenes that aren’t displaying some level of imagination. Time’s castle, to provide just one example, is populated by tiny golden soldiers (“seconds”) that can combine their forces to transform into massive warriors (“minutes”). And those who felt that Underland looked too “bleak” in the last movie will be pleased to see that Bobin has crafted a much more colorful world this time around. Sequences that take place during the winter are especially striking, capturing the almost ethereal beauty of a Christmas card.

Once again, the cast is great. Of the newcomers, Cohen is easily the highlight, but Rhys Ifans also manages to make a decent emotional impact as the Mad Hatter’s stern but ultimately loving father. Depp is still terrific, but some may be disappointed that he spends the majority of his scenes not just depressed, but also showing signs of what is clearly meant to be seen as a form of dementia. Helena Bonham Carter is fun as the Red Queen–and is also able to provide her with a bit of emotional weight this time–while Anne Hathaway remains genuinely weird as her sister the White Queen. Mia Wasikowska is still engaging as Alice, and the wonderful Alan Rickman–in his last film performance–sadly only gets a few lines as the Caterpillar, although there is a certain poignancy that comes with his character quite literally having wings now (he also gets a touching tribute during the film’s end credits).

Alice Through the Looking Glass may not be a “perfect” sequel per se. There are certainly some debatable plot points (all the Red Queen needed all along was an apology?), and the movie makes the regrettable move of re-introducing Alice’s bumbling would-be suitor Haymish–now a borderline mustache-twirling villain–during the first act. But, overall, it’s a pleasing follow-up, and the film’s message–that time is something to be cherished, and that we should be grateful for what it gives us–is a positive one for both children and adults. Combine that with excellent eye candy and an exciting story, and you have a Trip Through the Looking Glass worth taking.

Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?

Alice Through the Looking Glass
Walt Disney Pictures
May 27th, 2016
113 minutes
Rated PG
Directed by James Bobin