Whether you found 2010’s “Alice in Wonderland” a delightfully trippy children’s fantasy or a garish mess built around yet another tic-driven performance by Johnny Depp, as the Mad Hatter, one thing was clear: Nobody but Tim Burton could have directed it. A filmmaker with an instantly identifiable Goth-pop sensibility, Burton doesn’t follow trends — he is one.
There’s little that feels original in James Bobin’s sequel, “Alice Through the Looking Glass.” It regroups most of the cast, including the elegant Mia Wasikowska as our heroine, Alice Kingsleigh, but it can’t replicate Burton’s unique weirdness. Instead, it borrows whatever’s been trending through the culture of late, with a bit of “Wicked” here, some lip-service to girl power there, plus a dash of steampunk and a dollop of fairy-tale darkness. The result owes less to Lewis Carroll’s book about a self-confident little girl than to Mary Shelley’s novel about a confused monster flailing its stitched-on limbs.
The film opens with Alice, in full maritime regalia, commanding the all-male crew of a British vessel as it sails through a storm with pirates close behind. It’s a whimsical start to this fantasy film, but the scene turns out to be reality. Alice, just 19 when we last saw her, truly is a ship’s captain — an astounding achievement in mid-19th-century England. What could another visit to Wonderland teach this preternaturally accomplished young woman?
Stepping through a mirror, Alice — and we — must try to muster affection for Depp’s Hatter, whose simpering affect and googly eyes (seemingly computer enlarged) have finally entered the realm of the horrifying. The Hatter is grieving for his dead family, whom only Alice can rescue by traveling back in time. Make that Time, personified by Sacha Baron Cohen as a bumbling grouch with a clockwork heart and a German accent. Anne Hathaway and Helena Bonham Carter return as the White and Red Queens, respectively. Their sibling psychodrama, involving a youthful lie and severe brain damage, strikes an oddly dark note.
All these characters seem ensnared by Linda Woolverton’s spiderweb of a script, while Bobin’s light comic touch on “The Muppets” is nowhere to be seen. “Alice Through the Looking Glass” feels as cluttered as an old curiosity shop, one filled with Burton’s discarded odds and ends.