It's been six years since Tim Burton's "Alice in Wonderland" crossed $1 billion and launched the re-imagining of Disney animated classics as live-action movies. But there's more pressure on "Through the Looking Glass" (May 27), which has a new director, James Bobin ("The Muppets Most Wanted," "The Muppets"), a new co-star, Sacha Baron Cohen as Time, and a more satirical tone.
"The great joy of this film is time travel and exploring Underworld more fully," said Bobin at a recent preview screening of select footage. "There's a certain Gothic tinge to Tim Burton that has already been established And I like the idea of the world being period in a magical way. There are more humans and it's more real world than the first movie."
Indeed, we find Alice (Mia Wasikowska) in her mid-twenties, the captain of a ship, who returns to England as an outcast and takes refuge once again in Underland, only to find the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) in a deep depression. And the only way to heal the Hatter is by traveling back in time to discover the cause of his pain, which she does by borrowing the gold-colored chromosphere that belongs to Time, who's half-clock and half-human and madly in love with the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter), who plots her return to the throne.
"It's a Hatter origin story and he is the narrative engine but on a larger scale it's about inter-generational conflict," Bobin added. "Alice represents a new generation of women fighting for equality with the formation of the suffragettes, who is at odds with her mother's philosophy of staying at home and having children. At the same time, Hatter is free spirited and creative and his father wants him to [pursue a career].
"I came up with the character of Time because it was already about time travel and I knew that when Alice meets the Hatter for the first time, he says to her, 'I've been stuck at this tea party since last March when Time and I quarreled.' And it's very English and very polite to ask permission to travel through time. And Alice asked and he said 'no.' But at the same time, I didn't want him to be just a straight out bad guy. I'd rather have him be a God-like buffoon. And I've worked with Sacha ['Da Ali G Show'], who is brilliant at playing the confident idiot."
"There was a very small thing in the second book that spoke to us about this idea of time," producer Suzanne Todd recalled: "How we spend it or how we waste it or how we don't necessarily pay attention on a daily basis to how precious it is until you're faced with something that makes you look at that."
Todd revealed that "Alice Through the Looking Glass" took several years to settle on a story by Linda Woolverton ("Maleficent," "Beauty and the Beast"), what with eight chapters about a chess game as the source material. But, in the end, despite a change in director and more comedy, it's still about Alice taking us down the rabbit hole to a more authentic version of ourselves.
Ironically, Bobin, who studied 19th century English politics, "never really considered the fact that [Lewis] Carroll was writing about a time when women were about to become franchised. He saw the potential in this character and in women. I think he really wanted to create a new type of character, a new person, for this world. He gave her bravery and a disdain and disregard for other people."
"It's really sweet seeing the role of women in this in a very small way," added Wasikowska. "She comes back from traveling and being a captain and is horrified that expectations are so low. And there's a small part where she's committed for having female hysteria, and the fact that that's satirized in this is really great because you can see how ridiculous the logic was a long time ago."
In fact, Victorian satire was the key for Bobin, who sees a direct link from Carroll (Charles Dodgson) to "The Goon Show" to "Monty Python" in terms of poking fun at British manners and mores. He even leveraged the look of "Alice" illustrator John Tenniel, the political cartoonist for Punch, which Blur Studio paid homage to in the 2D-animated end credit sequence.
It turns out that digital VFX were quite an adjustment for the director, who had done them in camera and then composited out on the two "Muppets" movies: "But I actually grew to love it over time because of the possibilities that it gives you and the chance to really build scale."
Sony Pictures Imageworks again handles the bulk of the 2,200 VFX (once more under the production supervision of five-time Oscar-winner Ken Ralston). They took advantage of new VFX advancements: the Tweedles, played by Matt Lucas, are still a hybrid, but with more mocap and shot on blue screen rather than green screen for more fluid movement.