Back in 2010, Disney’s Alice in Wonderland made a staggering billion dollars worldwide, including a whopping $334 million in the United States. In May 2016, Alice Through the Looking Glass opened. After 14 days in domestic release, the sequel earned $56 million, a staggering 175 million dollars fewer than the first film made in its own first two weeks, per Box Office Mojo. Furthermore, Looking Glass is projected to close with around $80-$85 million, which is around $30 million less than the original made in its opening weekend.
While many sequels fail to gross as much as their predecessors, a drop off this steep is still rare for a big-budget sequel which retains much of the original’s talent. With a hefty budget of $170 million, Alice Through the Looking Glass is certainly going to lose money for Disney.
Why did the film bomb so hard? Let’s take a look at the myriad factors which contributed to the lack of audience interest in this seemingly-promising, big-budget, family-friendly sequel.
Johnny Depp, Bankable Movie Star?
While Mia Wasikowska plays the titular Alice, the film was marketed with Johnny Depp front and center in posters and trailers – his dazzling make-up providing a striking image around which to build such a campaign. Plus, while Mia Wasikowska certainly has her fair share of respectable film credits (The Kids Are All Right, Only Lovers Left Alive), Johnny Depp is a bona fide movie star, having played a major role in making Pirates of the Caribbean a multi-billion dollar franchise. Additionally, Depp has been director Tim Burton’s longtime muse, starring in films like Edward Scissorhands, Sleepy Hallow, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, all of which were huge hits.
However, Depp’s star has dropped sharply in recent years; a re-team with Pirates director Gore Verbinski for The Lone Ranger brought Disney one of its biggest box office bombs of all time, and his most recent Tim Burton joint, Dark Shadows, also failed to reach a sizable enough audience to justify its inappropriate price tag of $150 million. Other recent high-profile Depp duds include Transcendence, Mortdecai, and The Rum Diary. Johnny Depp isn’t exactly box-office poison, by any means, but it’s clear that his movie-star bankability isn’t nearly as strong as many believed it to be.
Tim Burton, Missing In Action
The big question coming from many with the initial announcement of the film was, “Why?” This skepticism was only exacerbated with the announcement of a new director for the film, James Bobin, rather than Tim Burton, who was at the helm for the 2010 version. Bobin has a decent resume, having directed The Muppets and Muppets Most Wanted for Disney, as well as co-creating the Flight of the Conchords TV series at HBO.
Despite the weakness of the brand following the box office disappointment of Dark Shadows in 2012, a Tim Burton/Johnny Depp outing has a certain clout to it, and beloved franchises (Batman) have an unfortunate history of going downhill following the departure of Tim Burton from the director’s chair. Burton stayed on Alice 2 as producer, but it wasn’t enough for many would-be viewers to see this film as anything more than a cash-grab by Disney.
The Six-Year Sequel Gap
When it comes to the distance between sequels, how long is too long? What if it isn’t long enough? It’s tough to nail the timing on a sequel, and the box office often suffers as a result. Alice in Wonderland arrived in 2010, six years before Through the Looking Glass began its descent into the annals of box office disgrace.
This six-year gap definitely played a role in the film’s frosty audience reception; six years is too long for it to ring true as an immediate follow-up, but not long enough for the core audience to have fond and nostalgic memories for the original. It’s simultaneously “too little, too late” and “too much, too soon.”
A similar, though not nearly as disastrous, comparison comes with 2013’s Star Trek Into Darkness, which made its debut four years after J.J. Abrams’s 2009 quasi-reboot of Star Trek. Expectations were high for Into Darkness, which, while still very successful, failed to meet Paramount’s lofty expectations, in part due to the abnormally-long sequel gap which failed to capitalize on the momentum generated by the earlier film. Of course, Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness were received much more fondly by critics…
To an extent, big-budget tentpoles are largely immune to critical opinion. Look no further than critically panned blockbusters like the Transformers films, the Star Wars prequel trilogy, and the much-derided Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, which holds a mere 27% on the Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer. The lowest-grossing of all these films, Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones, brought in $640 million worldwide in 2002. Hardly chump change, by any stretch of the imagination.
Alice Through the Looking Glass currently sits at a paltry 29% on the Tomatometer, which helped to limit the film’s core audience to die-hard fans of the first film and the most ardent green-screen VFX enthusiasts. For a film already on thin ice due to its six-year sequel gap, the loss of the original director, and the fading star of leading man Johnny Depp, there appeared to be very little here of note, aside from a posthumous performance from the late, great, Alan Rickman.
Who Cares About Alice in Wonderland, Anyway?
2010’s Alice in Wonderland grossed a billion dollars worldwide, yet it is not remembered as a particularly revered or beloved film. In fact, the chief factor in Alice‘s box office domination is the unprecedented success of Avatar. In December 2009, James Cameron’s sci-fi epic blew the lid off of the visual potential for 3D movies and reignited the audience’s desire to be whisked away to impossibly beautiful foreign worlds. Audiences fell in love with Avatar‘s fantastical world of Pandora, to the tune of over 2.7 billion dollars worldwide, a record which still stands to this day.
By March 2010, Avatar-mania had begun to die down, but not a single 3D movie had emerged to take its place. Alice in Wonderland, opening on March 5th, 2010, was the very first 3D feature to open after Avatar, and audiences flocked in droves to get a brand new fix of that 3D magic. Unlike Avatar, which had been shot in 3D, Alice in Wonderland was a post-production conversion-job. Such after-the-fact 3D rigs are commonplace today (oftentimes even preferred), but back in 2010, the technology was still in its infancy, and the final theatrical product suffered for it. Despite attracting audiences in droves, many of them complained about the Alice‘s shoddy 3D effects and otherwise dark and murky visuals.
Yes, Alice in Wonderland was a huge money-earner for Disney, but it did not resonate with audiences, who felt betrayed by poor follow-through on its 3D promises, and had no interest in a return trip to Wonderland, or Underland, or wherever. A similar effect can be seen in the ill-advised Clash of the Titans remake, which arrived in April of 2010, the month after Alice‘s debut, and was the second live-action 3D film after Avatar. The movie earned largely negative reviews and was criticized for having a weaker 3D conversion than even Alice in Wonderland, but still managed to earn nearly $500 million worldwide. Clash was followed by a sequel, Wrath of the Titans, which is seen as superior to Clash in practically every way (particularly in its impressive 3D effects), yet it was a superfluous sequel which nobody asked for, and subsequently suffered at the box office.
Last but not least, Disney could certainly have done a better job with marketing this sequel. While televisions and billboards were plastered with images of Johnny Depp in his gaudy makeup, none of them successfully conveyed why audiences should care about another trip to Wonderland. No trailer reasonably made the case for Alice Through the Looking Glass being anything greater than “Alice: Doin’ it Again.”
Alice Through the Looking Glass may save some face with its international gross (the film currently stands at $181 million worldwide), but will likely join the ranks of John Carter, The Lone Ranger, and Tomorrowland as one of Disney’s recent high-profile duds. Regardless, the studio is having a banner year, with films like The Jungle Book, Zootopia, and Captain America: Civil War easily covering up for Alice‘s shortcomings.
From the jump, the writing was clearly on the wall for Alice 2, so we won’t hold it too hard against the people involved. Johnny Depp will surely bounce back with Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, and director James Bobin is lined up to call the shots on the highly-anticipated MIB 23. This doesn’t diminish the disappointing box office results of Alice Through the Looking Glass, but in Hollywood, as the saying goes, “You win some, you lose some.”
Alice Through the Looking Glass is in theaters now.