Often, filmmakers are seen as quite mad to try and create a sequel that lives up to its iconic original. In director James Bobin’s (“The Muppets”) case, filling Tim Burton’s shoes with the “Alice” series is a hefty weight to carry.
The Michigan Daily joined a conference call with Bobin, director of the upcoming “Alice Through the Looking Glass” film, sequel to Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland.”
“Looking Glass,” in theaters Friday, May 27, follows Alice’s second plunge into Wonderland where she tries to save the Mad Hatter from his past – from Time (Sacha Baron Cohen, “Borat). The whimsical world includes a star-studded cast of returning actors, such as Mia Wasikowska (“Crimson Peak”) as Alice, Johnny Depp (“Sweeney Todd”) as the Hatter, Helena Bonham Carter (“Sweeney Todd”) as the wicked Red Queen and Anne Hathaway (“Les Misérables”) as the fair White Queen. The Disney movie also boasts new cast member Baron Cohen.
Bobin read Lewis Carroll’s book countless times growing up in England, but he emphasized that the film is an original story. While capturing the “Carrollian” spirit, he attempted to reintroduce the 151-year-old story into something more relevant to modern-day audiences. Furthermore, he expounded upon the pressures of adapting such a classic story while putting his own touch on them.
“I feel both with ‘Muppets’ and ‘Alice,’ I have a very clear idea of what they mean to me (from my childhood). And then my implementation of the work and it arises from that,” Bobin said. “So (I’m) aware of the responsibility because obviously I’m not the only person who loves these characters; everyone loves these characters.”
While the iconic, seemingly inimitable Tim Burton directed the first “Alice in Wonderland,” Burton took just a producing role on the sequel. When asked about the pressures of following Burton’s unique style, Bobin described it as more of a decision to honor continuity.
“When you’re making a film which is a sequel, you have to stay true to the original design in the sense that it feels like the universe and it’s the same world,” Bobin said. “(The world of ‘Alice’) feels like it’s a fake place,” Bobin said. “(But, ‘Looking Glass’ is) set in a different place, set in a different time … It feels slightly more historically accurate, slightly more historically real, like it’s a place you could have actually visited once.”
Inspired by the mammoth sets from the original ’70s “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” Bobin made the creative decision to build a real-life set for Wit’s End, the town of the Mad Hatter’s hat shop and where the Red and White Queens grew up.
“Obviously you could do this in CG, but for me a lot of it, the fun of it has been (to) have the actors interact with that world,” Bobin said. “I think the idea of Wonderland to me is the idea of history plus magic.”
Bobin explained how he sketched many of his own drawings to design the sets, which were historically influenced by Victorian and medieval architecture mixed with science fiction. He wanted to make the sequel slightly more realistic than “Alice” — not to completely eradicate the fantastical, but to instead create the aura of a perverse dream rather than an alternate universe. There are also more live characters in this version than Burton’s — “more human,” as Bobin put it.
Bobin also discussed working with many returning actors from the first film. In the case of the late Alan Rickman (the “Harry Potter” series), Bobin was honored to have directed his voiceover in his final film role.
“That great thing about Alan is that he had that voice that was so recognizable, that from the moment he opened his mouth, you knew it was him. And I think that’s an incredible power to have,” Bobin said. “He played (Absolem, the caterpillar) so beautifully, and he’s done it before, of course so he knew the character inside out. And that, in this film, has developed into a butterfly from a caterpillar in the first one.”
In the case of Johnny Depp, who is known for playing eccentric Tim Burton characters such as Willy Wonka, Edward Scissorhands and Sweeney Todd, Bobin discussed how directing Depp in these roles involves evoking a human vulnerability within each.
“In ‘Looking Glass,’ what I loved about the way (Depp) played the Hatter, was that it wasn’t near sort of obvious, you know, that he’s crazy. He plays it in a very vulnerable way. And Johnny’s best characters, I find, are characters that have a great vulnerability about them. And so in this film they’re very keen to use that as a kind of emotional design to provide an engine for the movie.
Bobin also introduced a new character to the sequel: Time — a “likeable bad guy” whose persona stems from vulnerability, as well. The role is played by Baron Cohen, who Bobin worked with on “Borat.”
“I didn’t want (Time) to be the ultimate bad guy ’cause that was the Red Queen … It was very important to me that the character, actually, you felt sorry for him because I like the idea that Time is lonely … and therefore vulnerable,” Bobin said.
Bobin described how tragedy fuels both the Hatter and Time’s stories, and he decided to emphasize backstories in this sequel.
“The characters are so well formed by the first film, what this film tries to do is just (explore) why people are how they are. And so this, in particularly for the Red Queen and the White Queen, is explanatory, and suggests that things aren’t always as simple as good and evil … they’re far more meditated gray,” Bobin explained.
In exploring Alice’s story, Bobin noted that the original Alice Little was born in the same decade as Emily Pankhurst, a twentieth-century leader of the Suffragette Movement in England.
“I feel that Lewis Carroll was very perceptive of this changing role of women in society, and so I think he imbued (Alice’s) life with the way he saw girls and women at the time — as being capable of independent thought, not being defined by other people,” Bobin said. “I think that’s, in many ways, why (Alice) does make impact today, because it feels like an ideal which was very ahead of its time. And yet, it’s still relevant today.”
He continued, “Look at how many women’s protagonists there are in cinema — very few. And that needs to be addressed. And so I’m incredibly proud of the fact that the film has a theme of a female protagonist, because Lewis Carroll started this, and I think that he would be pleased with the progress that’s been made. But by no means has the job been done.”