“ALICE” (“NECO Z ALENKY”)— A Surrealistic Revision of Alice in Wonderland

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“Alice” (“Neco z Alenky”)

A Surrealistic Revision of Alice in Wonderland

Amos Lassen

I have my own feelings about “Alice in Wonderland” because when I took my foreign language exam to get my M.A., I was asked to translate a paragraph from French to English that turned out to be ”Jabberwocky”. It took me a while of struggling to realize that is what it was and it kind of soured me on the Lewis Carroll classic. However, now that I have seen Jan Svankmajer’s take on it, I feel that my language exam was not as bizarre as I thought. It is this film that is bizarre and beautifully so. How could I not help but think of Grace Slick belting out “White Rabbit”—“one pill makes you larger…”

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This film version uses one live actor, Alice, and a large variety of stop-motion animated creatures, which include the White Rabbit who is quite complex, and the very simple caterpillar (a sock and glass eyes and two false teeth). The Carroll classic is followed faithfully but there are digressions and while we hear in the opening narration that this is a film made for children, I do not think that children can enjoy all that is here. This version of “Alice in Wonderland” is darkly humorous, imaginative, surreal and even creepy at times. Using his usual tricks of blending a live person with puppets, clay-mation and stop-motion techniques, we see a fascinating fantasy/dream world where nothing makes sense. Instead of tunnels, they crawl through desk drawers, a caterpillar that burrows through the wooden floors, the rabbit and some creatures are stuffed dummies that leak sawdust when wounded, Alice turns into a doll when she shrinks, the food is dangerous and often contains nails, thumb tacks and cockroaches, etc. One of the many unforgettable scenes we see is, for example,  when a rat swims to Alice’s head and builds a campfire. But I found that the visual fun is somewhat ruined by the annoying, repetitive idea of showing a close-up of Alice’s lips saying things like ‘said the rabbit’ after every line of dialog is spoken.

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Jan Švankmajer is an artist whose vocation extends well beyond film into a fascination with puppetry, animation,  and bizarre collectibles of the Habsburg royals. He was a product of Soviet-ruled Czechoslovakia. The tight reins of the Soviet regime left this particular artist often banned from working due to works deemed unsuitable because of their surreal content. So then we might ask what is an artist working under such repressive constraints supposed to do to get his works past the censors?  One way would be to make his own visualization of Lewis Carroll’s famous Alice in Wonderland, of course.

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He did just that in 1988 and he mixed the live action of one young actress (Kristýna Kohoutová) as Alice with stop-motion animation.  In doing this he  created a parallel universe, the likes of which we have never seen before. As Alice says in the opening lines, “Now you will see a film… made for children… perhaps…” Perhaps, indeed. Alice is a brooding and surreal take on Carroll’s work. Švankmajer follows the story rather closely, but his visual aesthetic and foreboding sense of gloom can only be described as “creepy.” From the moment Alice witnesses the stuffed rabbit come alive and follows him down the “rabbit hole,” which, in this interpretation, has Alice falling through the floor in her house, the world becomes an ominous and fantastical universe. Alice, challenging authority figures  constantly changes in size – big, small, big, small – like a physical manifestation of her emotional state is even more corporeal here, as when Alice shrinks, she becomes a doll, at one point ripping her “human” self right out of the doll’s chest.

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The film is totally original and it is a beauty to watch. Wonderland filled with threatening stop-motion characters and uses Svankmajer’s deliberately crude style of animation, use of close-ups, and rich design work. These lend the film a pervading sense of unease and a menacing dream-logic that marries a sly visual wit with piercing psychological insight. It is certainly more loyal to Carroll than the Disney version we watched as kids. Here Wonderland is in a state of decay and filled with creatures there are terrifying and surreal. This film goes into the psyche of Alice. I read a review that likened the animation to alchemy. There is a sense of dread with that hangs over the movie but it is beautiful dread. There is also an undercurrent of psycho/sexual menace as we see the caterpillar penetrate the mind and there are also somewhat violent visuals (the white rabbit bleeding sawdust and then repeatedly licking it off his watch, scissor beheadings, the March Hare moving about in a rickety wheelchair). This is more than a movie—it is a total experience.

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