How can so much have so little impact?

Alice Through the Looking Glass, the follow-up to Tim Burton’s global smash hit Alice in Wonderland opens in wide release this weekend. This time, it’s director James Bobin in the chair and he delivers a film that is every bit the equal of its predecessor from a visual standpoint, but is every bit of nothing from a story standpoint.

Alice (Mia Wasikowska) has spent the last three years sailing the high seas. She’s traveled the entire world, escaping pirates and living the life of an adventurer. She returns home to find her father’s estate in ruin and the potential to lose her ship to a jilted former suitor a very real possibility.

While dealing with this, she notices a strange image in a looking glass and walks directly through it and back into Wonderland. However, the realm is much different from the one she left in the previous film. A state of melancholy hangs over everything as the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) has become a more serious type of mad after he becomes convinced that his dead family actually survived the attack of the Jabberwocky.

Alice decides she must travel through time to the day the Hatters’ family’s demise in order to rescue them so that they can be delivered to the Hatter in the present and all can be set right in Wonderland once again.

Through her journey backwards, forwards and across time, Alice encounters new characters including time himself (Sacha Baron Cohen) and more psychedelic imagery than a Pink Floyd/Grateful Dead mashup happening inside a Spencer’s Gifts. It’s loud, it’s colorful, it’s beautiful, but there’s nothing to it.

It’s hard to point to a single thing to dislike about Alice Through The Looking Glass because it’s hard to point to a single thing about it at all. It’s so thoroughly focused on the whiz-bang nature of its 3D technicolor world that story and character are utterly set aside.

So much so, that it’s an excellent example of a worrisome trend that’s happening in film – they’re starting to feel more like episodes of television than they are standalone stories. In Alice we’re shoved right into the world with no backstory and quickly run past characters that we’re supposed to know. Sure, seeing the film’s predecessor should be required viewing for any sequel, but to treat characters like utility is very troubling. And to deliver a story without a proper beginning, middle and end, just feels like it’s coming from a different medium. Even worse, it makes the story feel so much smaller in scope than the vision that’s presented onscreen.

Alice certainly isn’t a terrible movie. It’s hard to have a reaction that strong to it. That’s because it’s much closer to a non-entity than something that actually inspires a response at all. It’s got more in common with an amusement park ride than it does a film. There was a lot of thrilling stuff that happened and it was certainly an experience for all my senses, but I don’t really remember a moment from the thing.

The best films deliver impact through story and character rather than spectacle. The third piece is essential in delivering an immersive big-screen experience, but it’s a hollow experience when you sacrifice the elements of drama that serve as the fundamental basis for film and storytelling.

That’s where the true wonder comes from.