Alice (Mia Wasikowska) returns to Wonderland through a magic mirror to discover a dying Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp). Seeking the help of Time himself (Sacha Baron Cohen), she embarks on a quest to save him.
Rest easy: Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter does not body-pop in this sequel to Tim Burton’s unexpectedly all-conquering 2010 Alice In Wonderland. Does that seem like a small thing? Perhaps, but it’s one of the reasons this is a more enjoyable film. But only just – it’s a narrow margin, and despite its financial success, the earlier film is hardly a classic.
It's Sacha Baron Cohen who elevates proceedings, making the interesting choice of a Werner Herzogian German accent.
This time, we drop in on Alice (a spirited Mia Wasikowska) after some years spent adventuring on the high seas – a wildly implausible opening nautical chase bodes well. She returns home to a vaguely sketched commercial dispute, but before she gets in too deep, she’s whisked back to Wonderland via the looking glass of the title, where Depp’s Mad Hatter is dying, haunted by how his family were killed by the Jabberwocky.
Quite why she embarks on her quest to save him, when Depp is almost as irritating as he was in the first film, is unclear, but he and fellow returning big-hitter Anne Hathaway (the White Queen) aren’t around for long. Their lack of screen time would lend proceedings a somewhat half-hearted feel if they weren’t making room for Sacha Baron Cohen as the personification of Time, from whom Alice must swipe a plot device to travel back to save the Hatter’s family. And it’s Cohen who elevates proceedings whenever he’s onscreen. Eccentric and funny, he makes the interesting choice of a Werner Herzogian German accent and lends individual lines a blend of menace, absurdity and demi-godly indifference. After the disaster of Grimsby, it’s nice to have him back on form.
The person responsible for this is Ali G and Flight Of The Conchords man James Bobin, who continues the recent trend of TV comedy directors making surprisingly adept hands at tent pole juggernauts (see also the Russo brothers). His Wonderland looks familiar, but Time’s castle — a gothic construction at the centre of a giant clock, populated by clockwork minions and containing impressive rooms of infinite hanging watches – is a design triumph. It’s just a shame the film it decorates only occasionally enchants.
Wasikowska gives it her all, and Cohen shines, but while this is a better film than the first, that was a low bar to reach.