Starting his career with the British satires “The 11 O’Clock Show” and “Da Ali G Show” to the gut-busting and cringe-inducing “Flight of the Conchords” and “Enlightened” — shows all intended for adults — director James Bobin isn’t the first name that would come to mind for children-friendly fantasy films.
Yet, with the commercial and critical success of 2011’s “The Muppets” and 2014’s “Muppets Most Wanted,” Disney Studios felt Bobin had enough comedic chops to make the dive into big budget franchise fare. Following up the billion dollar gross revenue of Tim Burton’s 2010 adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland,” Bobin is now releasing his first major blockbuster studio film, “Alice Through the Looking Glass.”
In an interview with The Daily Californian, Bobin states that making “The Muppets” or “Flight of the Conchords” isn’t different than bigger-budget films, such as “Alice.” “ … Humor’s a broad church,” he said. “I was just trying to make things look a number of levels. That’s what I think is consistent across my humor, so I like things that work for numbers of ways and can be appreciated by different people for different reasons.”
Regardless of the demographic age of his films, Bobin passionately believes that they must appeal to both children and adults to be successful on any level. It’s something Bobin attributes to being Carroll’s original vision for the nonsensical, hallucinogenic novels.
“With ‘Alice,’ it’s that same idea, whereby Lewis Carroll is a genius and a mathematical, incredible guy,” Bobin said. “And he was asked in a very interesting way, which meant that you could tell it as a story for children, but if you liked language and if you like the entomology (of the story), you’d like that in Lewis Carroll.”
Even with Bobin having a strong background in successful comedies, much of Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland” success stemmed not from the story or humor, but its wonderfully bizarre and fantastically beautiful visuals. In fact, with Burton’s well-known (and well-marketed by Disney) eye for all things gothic, “Alice in Wonderland” was nominated for three craft-specific Academy Award nominations: Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design and Best Visual Effects. It won two out of the three, only losing the Best Visual Effects Oscar. So how does Bobin try to distinguish his own cinematographic style from the one Burton set forth?
Well, he doesn’t. Regarding his own modus operandi in being able to cohabit with Burton’s long established one, Bobin said, “It’s both, really, again, Tim’s visual products. They’re strong and so beautiful. And I think really 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.” Yet, with the new movie playing with time and place and with “Ali G” star Sacha Baron Cohen playing the villainous “Time,” Bobin assures that the new film won’t rest on the laurels of the first. Especially with “a different location and different places we visit, which we haven’t been to before,” according to Bobin.
But geography isn’t the only way Bobin is expanding his voice and the world of Underland. Instead, as with any great comedian or dramatist, Bobin is trying to find the human experience within this exaggerated, highly CGI world. “Also to the degree the story itself in this film is more human than it was. And a more human — there are people in it. There were in Tim’s really, but there are courts here and they were unusual. This film has more of a sense of, I guess, family and all,” he said.
“There’s a certain, I guess, slightly more real element of it,” Bobin discusses further on the humanity on the film — something that was unequivocally lacking from Burton’s film.
And while reviews have been mixed thus far, Bobin has kept what worked from the first film and only helped elaborate on what didn’t.
At the very least, Bobin has proven to many that he’s ready for a return to franchise filmmaking: He’s directing the “Men in Black” and “21 Jump Street” crossover. Unlike the Marvel movies, which all exist within the same universe, Bobin will have the difficult task of blending two distinct visual worlds, with their well-established human characters.
This also makes it one of the most intriguing Hollywood experiments to be greenlit in recent years. Unlike “Alice,” he won’t have the same luxury of having an established design to follow. Yet, with two franchises known for their broad humor and wide audiences — along with Bobin’s recent success with sequels — it would seem that Bobin may be the best person to make it work.
Levi Hill covers film. Contact him at [email protected].