Alice Through the Looking Glass: a more focused affair than Tim Burton’s first effort

They’ve still thrown every possible idea at the wall, but this time some of them stick.

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Sometimes artists need to be relieved of their own creation to allow it to flourish and evolve. The Star Wars series felt moribund until George Lucas was out of the picture. Now it has a fighting chance. And Alice in Wonderland looks in far better nick now that Tim Burton has switched roles to become the producer of the sequel rather than its director. Of course, Alice Through the Looking Glass isn’t Burton’s baby at all but Lewis Carroll’s. (Look closely in the new film and you’ll see a pocket-watch made by “Carroll’s of London”.) But it was the spectacular box-office success of Burton’s 2010 incarnation of the story – which also included another Carroll character, the Jabberwocky, grafted onto the climax – that has made this follow-up inevitable.

Whereas the first film was a mish-mash of ideas, effects and tones, the new picture is a more focused affair. It would be wrong to call it disciplined – it’s still made by filmmakers who throw every damn idea at the wall. This time, there is at least a chance that some of them will stick. The director James Bobin, whose credits include the recent, splendid Muppets movies, as well as the TV series Flight of the Conchords, plots a steady course through a sea of wackiness and eccentricity; thankfully he lacks the propensity for distraction that has made Burton so cavalier with narrative.

The screenwriter Linda Woolverton fell foul of the same problem with the first Alice that Joss Whedon did with the original Avengers movie: there were so many characters competing for our attention that the script felt more like a list of the dramatis personae. This time around, Woolverton can take her time exploring a satisfyingly chewy double-plotline in which two characters separately require time travel to correct a modern-day wrong. Like most good therapy sessions, it all comes back to the parents.

The Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) is convinced that his family, presumed slain by the Jabberwocky, is still alive. His clue is the discovery of a tiny coloured hat, which he made as a boy for his father, concealed in the forest undergrowth. Meanwhile, the fearsome Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter, channelling Miranda Richardson’s Queenie from Blackadder II more than ever) knows that a lie told in the past has shaped irrevocably her destiny. If she can swipe the Chronosphere – a bauble that turns into a time machine – from the possession of the part-clockwork Time (Sacha Baron Cohen), who presides over the life-spans of every living creature, then she may be able to put things right. Alice (Mia Wasikowska) gets to the Chronosphere first, in her efforts to help the Hatter, but becomes vital also to the Red Queen’s quest.

Baron Cohen is a refreshingly dark addition to the previous picture’s candy-coloured world – it’s a nutty thrill to see him and Depp trying to out-weird one another in a scene in which Time is taunted with temporally-based wordplay (“Time is on my side… I can’t find the Time…” etc). His scenes are also the most visually arresting, even if many of the ideas seem to have been purloined from Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. (Gilliam himself was influenced by Carroll – his 1977 debut film, after all, was called Jabberwocky. No one could blame him for gnashing his teeth now that his personality is stamped all over these blockbusters.)

The scenes featuring Time are also the only ones to make a real virtue of 3D. Time strolls along a jetty into a sea of dangling pocket watches, each one hanging from a chain that goes all the way into the heavens. They are agape like clam-shells until Time chooses which unfortunate soul is to have his or her life stopped, and snaps shut the corresponding watch. The use of perspective and foreground is masterful, so that we feel we are wandering alongside him through this ticking jungle.

There is a similar attention to detail in the characterisation this time around, with the White Queen (Anne Hathaway) now more jaded in her jauntiness: she’s like a Head Girl who has come to despise the privileged position she once craved. Even the crowd-pleasing Hatter is permitted to reveal new shades of doubt, sullenness and vulnerability.

The bad news is that the new movie is still steeped in computer-generated imagery. A certain downgrading of expectations has become necessary since CGI overwhelmed fantasy cinema. The technology still hasn’t solved problems of weight and solidity that were apparent more than 20 years ago in the likes of Terminator 2: Judgement Day, Jurassic Park and The Mask. Everything in the CGI world continues to look provisional, as though the screen were a child’s Etch-a-Sketch that could be shaken up and returned to Square One at any moment.

Rather than the problems being solved, audiences have instead had to resign themselves to the shortcomings of the form. CGI has become an impediment to our suspension of disbelief, rather than the facilitator it was meant to be. We haven’t even been given the choice to like it or lump it. It’s lump it or leave. At least in Alice Through the Looking Glass there is enough pleasurable material to make viewers resist the latter option.

Alice Through the Looking Glass is released in the UK on 27 May

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.