The first feature by the Czech animator Jan Svankmajer was this
bizarre take on ALICE IN WONDERLAND, notable for its unflagging
invention and oppressive atmosphere.
Jan Svankmajer has been one of the worldís top
animators since the 1960s, having created unforgettable shorts like THE
LAST TRICK (1964), THE FLAT (1968), DIMENSIONS OF DIALOGUE (1982) and
FOOD (1992). Svankmajer attempted to make several features before ALICE
(NECO Z ALENKY) appeared in 1988, among them CONSPIRATORS OF PLEASURE
and LUNACY (both productions were halted by Czech authorities, and
eventually made in 1996 and 2005, respectively). Other Svankmajer
features include FAUST (1994) and the unforgettable
Young Alice is reading Lewis Carrollís ALICE IN
WONDERLAND one day, and undergoes her own AIW inspired adventure. Her
pet rabbit commences the odyssey by pulling a pocket watch out of its
belly and running off on two legs. Alice follows it into the drawer of a
desk that takes her into a series of dark corridors. These lead to a
freight elevator that drops Alice into a subterranean realm bordered by
a tiny door she canít get through.
Luckily Alice discovers a brand of blue ink that when
imbibed causes her to become a (literal) doll; but then she gobbles a
cookie that turns her back into a normal child. Alice finds the
situation so sad she cries, and her tears fill the room with water that
trickles out to form an outdoor stream. Alice is swept outside, where
she continues pursuing the rabbit.
She enters a tiny house made of building blocks.
Outside a band of malevolent stuffed animals fire things at the
structure, making it impossible for Alice to leave--despite the fact
that the interior of the house is far too small for her.
Alice eventually busts out to confront snake-like
socks, one of which forms itself into the caterpillar of AIW. Alice also
takes part in a tea party held by a stuffed animal queen who, in true
AIW fashion, orders several of her subjects beheaded. There are also
life-sized animated poker cards to deal with.
Eventually Alice wakes up to find herself back in her
room, filled with building blocks, poker cards, a writing desk and
stuffed animals. Her pet rabbit, alas, has escaped.
This may have been Jan Svankmajerís first feature, but
heíd been making shorts for over two decades, and itís safe to say his
overall style and vision were fully developed. Itís also evident that
Svankmajerís talents werenít suited to a feature-length format; ALICE,
with its ultra-minimalistic narrative related through the point of view
of a character who stands apart from everyone else, probably would have
worked better as a short (an attribute shared by nearly all Svankmajerís
subsequent features, which despite their brilliance suffer from uneven
narratives and overlong runtimes).
But the succession of eye-popping terrors and wonders
are compensation enough. The film mixes live action and old fashioned
stop motion animation in an unpredictable, crazy-quilt fashion that
probably shouldnít work but somehow does. Another odd element is
Svankmajerís near-obsessive attention to ritual and detail. His
insistence on showing --and repeating--the doings of his creatures down
to the most seemingly insignificant acts (i.e. numerous lingering
close-ups of the rabbit brushing sawdust off the face of a watch) may
seem pointless or excessive to the uninitiated, but itís an integral
part of the Svankmajer lexicon. His approach is nothing if not distinct
Equally individual is Svankmajerís use of sound, a
vital component of his surreal universe. Thereís no music or background
noise in this ALICE, and very little dialogue (what speech there is all
comes from Alice herself, who speaks for all the characters via
intercuts of her mouthing their lines). What Svankmajer provides in
their place is a lexicon of absurdly over-amplified aural effects
(another stylistic trademark) that help create an atmosphere of stark
Euro-flavored claustrophobia. Far from the celebration of childhood
wonders of most ALICE adaptations, this one is grim and foreboding, a
true fairy tale for grown-ups.
ALICE (NECO Z ALENKY)
Channel Four Films/Condor Films
Director: Jan Svankmajer
Producer: Peter-Christian Fueter
Screenplay: Jan Svankmajer
(Based on ALICE IN WONDERLAND by Lewis Carroll)
Cinematography: Svatopluk Maly
Editing: Marie Zemanova
Cast: Kristyna Kohoutova, Camilla Power