AliceSvankmajerThe 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 world’s 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 LITTLE OTIK (2000).

Young Alice is reading Lewis Carroll’s 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 can’t 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 Svankmajer’s first feature, but he’d been making shorts for over two decades, and it’s safe to say his overall style and vision were fully developed. It’s also evident that Svankmajer’s talents weren’t 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 Svankmajer’s 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 shouldn’t work but somehow does. Another odd element is Svankmajer’s near-obsessive attention to ritualistic 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 it’s an integral part of the Svankmajer lexicon. His approach is nothing if not distinct and individual.

Equally individual is Svankmajer’s use of sound, a vital component of his surreal universe. There’s 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.

Vital Statistics

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