Sunday, December 8, 2013

Alice / Neco z Alenky (1988)

I’m starting to realize I have a weakness for filmmakers who have their own distinct style, the type I could easily recognize even if I didn’t know what movie I was watching.  After having a blast watching several of his short films on YouTube, I became hooked on a lot of the inherent, and consistent, characteristics of Czech surrealist animator Jan Svankmajer’s films. He’s a hero of sorts of the stop animation technique, bringing inanimate objects like food and clay sculptures to life in very perplexing ways. What really got me, after watching a particular short film by Svankmajer, simply titled Food, was the way actual human actors were utilized in stop motion sequencing, something known as pixilation, which created a super strange reality, where people seemed to hover around and move like androids, and eat like monsters. Of course, stop motion has quite often been used by many filmmakers, but Svankmajer’s surreal style tends to lead to pretty morbid and bizarre visuals that are also amusing and humorous (the fourteen minute short Virile Games (1988) comes to mind).

After making short films for twenty years, Jan Svankmajer made his first full length movie, Alice, inspired by Lewis Carroll’s novel Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), a book that is supposedly for kids but still works for adult readers too, especially ones still in touch with their inner child. The anthropomorphic creatures of Carroll’s dreamland present a perfect opportunity for Svankmajer to create a unique vision with his distinct stop animation style. It’s also that much creepier and a tad bit disturbing that most of the creature models used were once living animals, like the skulls, the stuffed White Rabbit, or the barracuda head.

Just about everything we know from the book is done with a different interpretation, here. Perhaps the simple title of Alice is fitting enough, for her dream doesn’t really feel quite like the Wonderland we all know. In this case, the title Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland could be modified to something more like “Alice’s Nightmares in an Animator’s Workshop.”

The dialogue in Alice is delivered with a surreal voice over by voice actress Camilla Power who sounds a little older than the child playing Alice (Kristýna Kohoutová). This single and only voice we hear in the movie is supposed to be Alice’s voice, who also voices all of the other characters. It is strange hearing a little girl’s voice when the caterpillar or the rabbit talks, but it does make the uncanny creatures inhabiting Alice’s dream seem more like creations from her imagination, or subconscious.

Not only is Alice’s voice used to indicate character speech from the first-person narrative, but a close up of her talking mouth is intercut during dialogue to give third-person reference: “thought Alice to herself”, “said the White Rabbit”, “shouted the Queen of Hearts”, etc. It happens a lot, and I was suspicious at first that this style might get a little redundant, but I ended up thinking it was brilliant and very much a part of what makes Alice such a unique experience.

The girl that plays Alice (Kohoutová) does a good job at looking bored during that familiar moment from the book, with her and her older sister along the river bank during a mundane afternoon. A close up of Alice looking pretty disenchanted with reality certainly signifies a child more interested in the wondrous imaginings of the childhood mind, rather than a boring, dry book with no pictures in it, and escaping somewhere more exciting.

The moment Alice starts dreaming is not made quite obvious, which I like because it sort of lends a certain ambiguity as to the realness of the dream, but it’s obvious that the dream is underway as soon as Alice notices the White Rabbit. It’s a little stranger, or should I say “curiouser”, this time, for it’s a stuffed model rabbit, come to life (stuffed with sawdust and woodchips) – escaping from a glass tank while making rickety, squeaky metallic sounds when it bends and moves, as if it is an old mechanical toy, always pulling out its clock from the inside of its chest and noisily slurping off the sawdust and woodchips (noisy eating is a thing with Svankmajer). Instead of going down the rabbit hole, Alice follows the White Rabbit into Wonderland through the drawer of a writing desk, which did make me think a little bit of the wardrobe that leads to Narnia.

Alice is always after that rabbit; it’s always afraid when she catches up and calls out to him. The look on the White Rabbit's face before it clanks its teeth and bolts off always gives me a laugh. Alice usually tries to imitate what the White Rabbit was doing, before losing him, but without the same result, as what worked for the rabbit usually does not work for Alice. The White Rabbit is actually kind of a bastard in this, and I couldn’t help cheering Alice on when she started throwing blocks at him, or knocking him off the window seal, more than once in what starts to feel a little like physical comedy, to come crashing down into the cabbage-frame below.

Smaller sets are used to denote Alice growing big, but more charming is the way she turns into an animated toy doll when she shrinks; it’s actually quite adorable. An interesting idea, though one that leaves me a little perplexed is, in certain instances, objects grow or shrink independently of the background. When Alice eats one half of a mushroom, granted to her by the Caterpillar, it causes a tiny house to grow. I’m not sure if the house is supposed to be growing, or if I’m supposed to use my imagination to see it as Alice shrinking with respect to the house.

The exterior of the White Rabbit’s house is about as inventive and resourceful as you can get: it’s made with colored children's blocks – the exact one’s I played with as a kid. The interior is like a rundown work shed, and the bedroom looks filthy and grimy, especially when doll-Alice peaks under the blanket on the bed to reveal an unsettling greasy looking mess of coals and sticks on the sheets. In fact, most of the locations in Alice’s dreamland look like grimy, abandoned old rooms and storage closets. Peeled paint and rotting wood are very prevalent (another Svankmajer thing), and I think it’s a nice touch.

My favorite part in the book is the mad tea party and Svankmajer does add a personal touch to this part of the movie that sort of accentuates that feeling of being caught in some kind of time loop. Everything seems to keep cycling around, with the rhythm of a clock, for infinity. The Mad March Hare is probably my favorite creature in this movie, an old rabbit doll that repetitively keeps spreading butter on every pocket watch it sees and needs to be repeatedly wound up and have one of his button eyes, that sometimes falls out, pulled back in to place (old children’s toys is a Svankmajer thing, too). One thing I caught on to, being that time is a major theme to the mad tea party, is that everyone keeps moving around the table, shifting to different seats because the Mad Hatter keeps wanting a clean cup, in the clockwise direction, like the hands of a clock.

The segments involving the Queen of Hearts are actually very simple yet effective, using flat cardboard cutout animation (rather fitting since they are supposed to be playing cards), which I found rather charming, and when the Queen shouts “OFF WITH THEIR HEADS!” heads really do get cut off, by the White Rabbit carrying a pair of scissors.

It’s supposedly made for children, but it’s definitely darker than the book it was influenced from, especially during a brief moment when Alice spots her mouse friend dead in a mouse trap. I’ve been a fan of the Disney version since I was a kid, but this movie actually made me want to read Alice in Wonderland. It’s weird and just as nonsensical as the book but without the usual puns and wordplay, and I think it is more of an interpretation than an adaptation. Like the book, it works for kids and adults. 

"He's late as usual. I think I'll cut his head off." Alice / Kristýna Kohoutová


  1. When I first saw Alice, I was about 22, still living in the college town, and hanging out with these weird older townie chicks. We were doing the stay up all night and watch weird movies thing, and I am still amazed at how much they knew about cult cinema, since this was before the internet was a huge deal so they really had done some legwork to get all these weird VHS tapes while living in the rural South. Anyway, they lived in an big old haunted Victorian era former boardinghouse that one of them had inherited, and the creepy house added to the experience of watching Alice to the point that I was so creeped out by it I can't imagine having watched it as a child! We tried laughing about the third person thing, but man, it was a disturbing watch. I still think maybe Jan Svankmajer has got some issues.

    1. Oh, o_O a haunted Victorian era boarding house. I could never spend a night watching weird movies alone; but with several friends, I’m sure it’s quite cozy. The thought of staying there alone for a night reminds me a little of the lead in Castle of Blood and its colored remake Web of the Spider, both directed by Antonio Margheriti.

      I’m glad I wasn’t the only one who thought Alice was creepy. How about those dentures in the sock caterpillar? Though not strictly a horror movie, this one seems to appeal to the cult horror fans, nonetheless.

    2. The house was like Castle of Blood. You could hear phantom singing and coughing, see orbs, and there was one room (which was decorated for Christmas year round) where anyone who slept would have bad dreams. And I never went in their house alone!

  2. I could never spend a night watching weird movies alone; but with several friends, I’m sure it’s quite cozy. Firefighter Teeshirts

  3. I havent seen this in a long time wow so old.