Director: Jan Svankmajer
Cast: Kristýna Kohoutová and Camilla Power
Length: 86 min
Label: First Run Features
Release Date: April 15, 2014
Video codec: MPEG-4 AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Audio: English: LPCM Mono
- Up-coming attractions reel
Alice in Wonderland is a story that through countless retelling endures in our collective consciousness. While many fans of the story felt that the vibrancy of Tim Burton’s visual style would lend a much-needed darker spin to Lewis Carroll’s classic tale, sadly due to Disney’s trademark saccharine stamp, many were left disappointed. These disappointed fans, if they are already not aware, should seek out Jan Svankmajer’s 1988 revision, Alice, for its mix of live action and surreal and bizarre animation. Known originally in Czech as “Neco z Alenky,” what sets Svankmajer’s adaptation apart from others lies in his mastery of mise-en-scène, as brilliantly expressed through stop-motion puppetry; all the while using no actual dialogue. While the film offers a dark and unique look at Carroll’s work the film is not without its faults.
Svankmajer presents his audience with a Wonderland that looks more like a faded serial killer’s basement or wood working studio, than a colorful land reminiscent of Oz. The tone of Alice is established immediately after she climbs through the “rabbit hole” into a landscape littered with clutter, discarded tools, and toys blanketed in dust. Follows a taxidermied, and intricately designed, saw-dust-eating White Rabbit, she encounters several cleverly animated creatures, such as the Caterpillar (fashioned out of a sweat sock and stitched together with glass eyes and false teeth). Pots of jam laced with pins and nail-laden croissants stand out as visuals in this nightmarish world. Svankmajer’s art design, borrowing from Sir John Tenniel’s artwork, remains uniquely original. The boldness of Svankmajer’s images creates a diegesis that is magical, but also incredibly dark and sinister; as if the result of some sort of delirium.
Alice’s strengths stem not from what it is trying to say, but by the visual codes it uses to convey the fear and anxieties of childhood. Without giving too much away, one directorial choice Svankmajer makes involves the use of a doll to represent the shrunken Alice. As Alice resizes herself, confused as to how to stay normal-sized, she appears literally as a porcelain doll. Operating on two levels, it works for his stop motion aesthetic, but also implicitly comments on the changes of adolescence. The most memorable line from the film is the dubious claim in the beginning by the narration that this is a film “meant for children.” Inexplicably, it’s not. The film’s many colorful sequences are disturbing without being overtly offensive or shocking. There exists a quiet transgression beneath the surface of Svankmajer’s Wonderland.The tragedy with Alice is that Svankmajer’s motives are not as transparent as they should be. Speaking from a strictly narrative perspective, the film is not for everyone. Svankmajer’s tale is a loose, experimental telling of Carroll’s story. As a result, the use of repetitive narration in Alice is more reminiscent of the structural films of Stan Brakhage and Sidney Peterson, rather than of a conventional narrative with a cogent character arc. Anyone expecting the latter will be severely disappointed here.
Furthermore, while certain scenes in Alice stand out as visually stunning—such as Alice’s tears filling up a room, or a mouse lighting a campfire atop Alice’s head—the overall editing of the films lacks an attentive pacing. Perhaps as a result to some of the limitations with stop-motion animation, the gaps or departures Alice takes from the original story are filled in with his animated touch, such as dancing meat and dead baby lizard creatures. The effect is that at times Svankmajer’s adaptation meanders rather than captivates.
Another misfortune is that because Alice’s narration tells the story, the shrill voice of the British dubbing (i.e. “said the White Rabbit”) is most unpleasant to the ears. The repetition of this irritating line reading sadly negatively colors the entire film. Although fans of Alice might argue such a claim is nitpicking, it is enough to take one completely out of the picture. It detaches the viewer from the complex physical and thematic layers to Svankmajer’s animation.
The First Run Features Blu-Ray presentation of Alice makes use of BFI’s digital remastering. As one would expect from the BFI, the results are wholly natural looking, yet there are considerable gains in sharpness and image depth over First Run Features’ previous DVD. The beautiful film texture is fully preserved in favor of a more “digitized,” overly smooth and sharpened look, still preferred by some companies. Colors look suitably organic, and not amped up in any way. Overall, this restoration preserves that nice, earthy look of Agfa film that was in wide use in European film during the 1970’s and 80’s. A fine presentation, true to the original source material.
The audio, too, is presented in a crystal clear way, without digital gimmickry. The many layers of sound effects that give the film its aural texture are sharply and naturally rendered in the original mono mix. Hiss is not a problem, and neither are any age-related artifacts.
This Blu-Ray release has no features other than coming attractions trailers for upcoming releases. This is severely disappointing, as even the most unfocused cinephile would surely espouse interest in seeing the artistic processes of accomplishing a feature-length stop-motion animation. As the film is the first feature within Svankmajer’s oeuvre, Alice is a film that merits special features like extended interviews or director’s commentaries. This apparent lack of materials only contributes to Alice’s mysterious background. If all we have to go by is the small list of credits, Alice looks and feels a lot like the imagination of a solo artist with a small team lending casual assistance. To this end, the Blu-Ray release offers no insight or answers to these characterizations.
In short, Svankmajer’s Alice is a film that satisfies its viewers on many levels. If you can appreciate the uniqueness of Svankmajer’s style, as well as the film’s experimental structure, Alice is a great alternative to the Disney adaptations. Critics, however, may be more perplexed by the film’s clunky narrative and odd tonal shifts. For all of its faults, Alice is worth checking out because of the unique aesthetic Svankmajer’s distinctive stop-motion style creates. For this reason, it comes as no surprise that the Brothers Quay and Terry Gilliam have routinely cited the filmmaker’s artistic sensibilities as huge influence for their respective artistic voices. Those familiar with Svankmajer’s previous work know of his penchant for making animations that are just as brooding as they are somehow funny. In this respect, Alice is a film that delivers in spades.