What links Disney’s new family flick Alice Through the Looking Glass with the infamously bawdy Borat? Not what you’d expect, director James Bobin suggests.
Inheriting the original cast of Tim Burton’s box office smash Alice in Wonderland—think Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, and Anne Hathaway—Bobin was quick to place his own stamp on Underland for the second instalment. Reimagining Lewis Carroll’s original book by creating “Time”, his own character, Bobin opened the door for long-standing associate Sacha Baron Cohen to breathe new life into the franchise.
“Making a new Lewis Carroll character is hard,” says Bobin, speaking to the Straight in a suite at the Hotel Georgia. “But Time was really Carroll’s idea, at base. If you look at the Alice in Wonderland book, Alice first meets the Hatter when he’s frozen in a moment at his tea party. He says to her ‘I’ve been stuck at this tea party since last March when Time and I quarrelled.’ To the Hatter, Time is a person—and I thought that was a great basis for this movie.
“The Red Queen is already such a fantastic villain, I didn’t want to create another one,” he continues. “So I decided to make Time a twit—and I instantly knew Sacha would be perfect. Having worked with him on Borat, Ali G, and Bruno, I knew we were great at creating these completely new characters, and making them totally plausible. We went into the real world telling strangers that Sacha was a journalist from Kazakhstan—and not once did anyone say to us, ‘I don’t believe you.’ Sacha definitely used that experience from Borat to bring Time to life in the same, entirely credible way.”
Credibility is the key to Alice Through the Looking Glass—and not just in the depth of its characters. With critics denigrating the first movie’s landscapes as “frictionless and whimsical” or, even worse, “dull”, Bobin faced an uphill battle to reimagine the franchise’s stodgy visuals. Finding new inspiration from Carroll’s original suggestions, Bobin creates settings that are both vivid and believable by drawing on the book’s historical context.
“I’ve always loved the first illustrations by John Tenniel. They were a huge influence on the aesthetic,” Bobin describes. “They allowed me to build on Tim [Burton’s] foundation with Tenniel’s really Victorian flavour—that weird style that blends historical periods. You can see it in our design of the houses and costumes, and especially in Time’s castle, which is based on a combination of Medieval and Gothic architecture. Think Reims Cathedral meets Notre Dame. It’s a very strange mixture.”
Unable to achieve that visual richness in two dimensions, Bobin swiftly converted much of his computer generated (CG) work into 3D. Revitalising scenes like Alice’s perilous escape from the second hand of a giant grandfather clock, saving a Victorian ship from dashing against the rocks, and falling through the sky back into Underland, Bobin’s direction steers his protagonist through a minefield of special effects—and proves his own versatility behind the camera.
“A lot of my films up to now have been very anti-CG,” Bobin says. “Take the Muppets for example—it’s all about puppetry, and making imaginary characters real with physical manipulation. In things like Flight of the Conchords or Ali G, I hadn’t really used CG either. On this project, I wanted to challenge myself as a director and test the limits of what I could do. The pressures of thinking of ideas are the same—it’s just the execution that’s different.
“I knew the scale of Alice would support 3D in an interesting way,” he continues. “When you’re switching from Victorian England and a timeless fantasy world, 3D lets you differentiate between those environments to a much bigger degree. We all see the world in three dimensions, and that’s how we wanted to make the film—so you feel like you are actually in Underland. But at the same time, I’m a big believer in 3D looking organic. I don’t want to do 3D for 3D’s sake, not ever, and I think we’ve done a good job of making it feel natural.”
Filled with splashy effects and big-budget visuals, the flick has more than enough fireworks to keep the kids amused. But Bobin is quick to point out that his version of Alice Through the Looking Glass is about so much more than spectacle.
“The real Alice Liddell, who the film is based on, grew up in the same generation as someone like Emily Pankhurst, one of the suffragettes in England,” Bobin says. “That generation of women changed the world, because they wouldn’t accept that women had no legal status, couldn’t have an opinion, and had no right to vote. Carroll created a girl who was brave and curious and adventurous, and who believed she could do anything she set her mind to.”
“Carroll realised the world was changing, and that’s a really strong idea,” Bobin says. “For me, that context is the heart of the film. And that’s the message I want people to take away.”
Alice Through the Looking Glass opens Friday (May 27)