Thursday, June 9, 2011

Through the Looking Glass

Films: Neco z Alenky (Alice)
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.

Some stories stick around forever. Every few years, it seems that a new version of “A Christmas Carol” shows up (although for my money, none will ever be better than the one with Alistair Sim) to retell a classic tale in a new way. The works of Lewis Carroll are similar in that respect. Generations of children have gone through the looking glass, and generations more will continue to go through. For as much hype as the Tim Burton version got, and for as stylized and bizarre as Burton’s version is, there is no stranger place than what is found down the rabbit hole of Jan Svankmajer’s Neco z Alenky (Alice).

I’m going to say this right off the top here: I’m not going to even try to summarize this film. Svankmajer’s vision here is completely off the charts weird, and yet completely accessible, provided one is at least remotely familiar with the story of Alice in Wonderland. It follows the basics of Carroll’s tale without feeling at all like it is in any way derivative of anyone else’s vision of this tale. There is a thick, creamy layer of surrealism in this film that makes for a very interesting viewing experience, to say the least.

Our only human character in this film is Alice herself (Kristyna Kohoutova). The other characters in the film are bizarre creations that sometimes approach the well-known characters from the story. Everything but Alice, and sometimes Alice herself, are depicted as stop-motion animated things—taxidermy animals, socks with over-large eyes, and cardboard cutouts. Alice is often depicted as a stop-motion character herself; parts of the film look as if Svankmajer removed a couple of frames per second, while other pares are obviously as animated as the non-human characters. Frequently, when Alice shrinks, she is depicted not as the actor playing her, but as a doll.

Alice, both the actress and the doll version, is a straw-haired little waif with that odd look that appears in so many Slavic children. She has a young/old face, still obviously a child, but with eyes that appear to have seen a great deal of privation. Her pale coloration and faded pink dress only add to the oddly washed-out look of a great deal of this film. Few things are vibrantly colored, and even those things (like the White Rabbit’s red coat) seem somehow faded.

The creatures of this disturbing wonderland are the stuff of nightmares. The best analog I can think of for these creatures is to think of them as the hybrid toy creations of the toy nemesis Sid in Toy Story. To truly get the effect of what these beasts look like, though, substitute taxidermy animals and skulls for toys. The White Rabbit, for instance, is a taxidermy rabbit with horrifyingly large googly eyes. A carriage is driven by some sort of taxidermied beast with a miniature human skull (a monkey skull?), with the carriage pulled by chickens with the skulls of different animals. For adults, these creatures are bizarre representations of real things. For children, these would be the things of nightmares. Of these, the White Rabbit is perhaps the most horrible, if only because he gets the most screen time. His teeth jut forward from his head, and the large gap in his chest constantly leaks sawdust, forcing him to ingest sawdust to replace the loss.

Svankmajer enjoys the idea of repetition. One continuing event, for instance, is Alice being unable to open drawers. Repeatedly, she pulls off the knob of a drawer and then is forced to wedge the drawer open with either her fingers or a knife. Nothing here is what it seems. Tin cans are opened to reveal live cockroaches, while pots reveal living, moving meat that crawls from place to place. Alice in fact enters Wonderland by crawling into a drawer that is far too small to hold her, revealing a much larger place once she gets inside. At one point, Alice returns to the room she begins in, although this new version is a doll house that appears at least on the outside to be made of stone building blocks.

This is not a film to watch without a basic idea of the story that spawned it. With no knowledge of Alice in Wonderland, this film is nothing more than a series of weird images. Svankmajer loses almost all of the intelligent wordplay of Carroll’s story, favoring visual storytelling. While this presents a very different vision of the story, it is not so different that it can’t be recognized.

A few things are worth noting here. First, the stop-motion animation is really good. While obviously animated and surreal, it comes across quite well. It’s not as polished as, say the more recent Aardman films like Chicken Run. Actually, it’s very reminiscent of Aardman’s first “Wallace and Gromit” short films. On the other hand, there is a disturbing trend throughout the film to show close-ups of Alice’s mouth. The entire film is narrated by Alice, who speaks the dialogue of the other characters. Each time she speaks a line of dialogue for someone else, we see her mouth in close up. Alice’s voice says, “Why is a raven like a writing desk?” and then we see her mouth say, “said the Mad Hatter.” While I got used to the bizarre creatures and animation, I never got used to this.

Neco z Alenky plays like a full length short film. That’s as close of a description as I can think of for this film. It’s the kind of thing you’d expect to see as an animated short created by a particularly visionary and gifted film student. It’s just close to 90 minutes long.

While visually fascinating, I got a bit tired of this film eventually. It’s too much to take in, and despite the fact that it is less than 90 minutes long, I felt overwhelmed by it at the end. It’s an experience and worth watching for its unique visual style. Don’t think about putting this in front of kids, though. And don’t look for the Cheshire Cat; he’s not in this.

Why to watch Neco z Alenky: A unique and singular vision of a unique and singular story.
Why not to watch: It’s a direct assault on your cerebral cortex through your eyes.


  1. Jan Svankmajer is one of my favourite directors and a pioneer in stop Motion animation. Little Otik aka Greedy Guts, his famous shorts, Conspirators of Pleasure and especially the incredible Faust, his works are incredibly original, twisted even, and can genuinely inspire, and none are so famous as Alice. I saw this when I was 18, and I was forever enamoured by stop motion from that day on. It's by far a film I would reccomend to everyone, but if someone I know liked this film, it's a real sign to me of their obscure-loving avant-garde side. Alice is a perfect film for seeing what kind of friends you have, art-wise. Those who genuinely love it are few and far between, and I know I'll just get along with them great.

    I gathered that you enjoyed this just enough to give Jan another chance. If you're not too busy focussing on 'The List', try Faust, it's absolutely amazing.

  2. I did like it, but I eventually felt overwhelmed by it. It's such an assault on the senses that I couldn't help but be tired by it at the end. It's the kind of thing that, had it been 30 minutes long, would have been a revelation to me. At 86 minutes, it was an embarrassment of riches--too much to take in.

    I will watch more Svankmajer, though. You're right that I'd certainly give him another chance.