During the opening credits of Czech animator Jan Svankmajer’s surreal, astonishing feature-length 1988 adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, Alice (played by Kristýna Kohoutová) begins narrating her story, in halting half-sentences that change in meaning each time she adds a line. “Now you will see a film,” she begins, before adding, “Made for children,” and then, “Perhaps.” The point of that “perhaps” becomes disturbingly clear when this “film made for children” properly begins, with a stuffed rabbit coming to life and cutting its own belly open, spilling sawdust all over the floor of its glass case. Nothing in Svankmajer’s Alice is inappropriate per se—grotesque, yes, but not inappropriate—and Svankmajer does stay true to the particulars of Carroll’s book. But he also put his personal stamp on Alice, by literalizing on film a lot of what reads as fantasy on the page.
Alice was Svankmajer’s first feature film, after more than two decades of making surreal animated shorts. Alice mixes live-action, puppetry, and stop-motion animation, combining the strikingly real with the plainly artificial. Some scenes play out on stages with painted backdrops, while others take place outdoors, under actual skies, on the banks of actual streams. Some of the traditional Alice characters and props are “played” by ordinary household objects and toys: The Caterpillar is a sock, the mushroom is a wooden knob, the shrunken Alice is a doll, and so on. Alice features a casual co-existence between elaborately designed characters (like the White Rabbit) and ones who look like something Alice just happened upon, which adds to the feeling that this whole movie is just her solo playtime, Alice making up a story. The more actively she’s engaged in the fantasy, the more lifelike the characters appear.
What makes Alice less like play and more like a dream—or a nightmare, more accurately—is how repulsive some of its imagery is. It’s hard to call the film “made for children” when Alice opens a can full of cockroaches, or a mouse uses Alice’s hair for kindling to make a fire on her head, or when the White Rabbit uses a funnel to force-feed sawdust to a malnourished lizard. It’s more a film about children, or at least about how childhood can manifest as a series of fluid lines: between maturity and immaturity, and delight and disquiet. Svankmajer’s Alice downplays the book’s plot and wordplay, but focuses intently on the heroine’s many transformations. The movie largely reduces Carroll’s story to scene after scene of Alice opening drawers and finding keys, which open doors to rooms she’s often either too big or too small to enter. She’s always at “that awkward age.”
That repetitious quality—accentuated by the frequent insert shots of Alice’s lips, reading lines like “said the White Rabbit” and “shouted the Queen Of Hearts” in the same flat intonation—can make Svankmajer’s Alice a little exhausting at times. That recurrence of the same characters and the same incidents, over and over, becomes especially maddening during the Mad Hatter’s tea-party scene, which goes over the same lines and actions so often that it becomes stupefying. But maybe a better word to use is “hypnotic,” because Svankmajer is aiming directly for the viewer’s subconscious. Svankmajer’s interpretation of Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland is that it’s a story drawn directly from the anxieties of pre-teens—the kind of anxieties that adults only remember when they sleep. That’s why at the beginning of the film, the narrator cautions, “You must close your eyes, otherwise you won’t see anything.”
Nothing, which is disappointing, given the wealth of Svankmajer shorts and related materials that this Blu-ray could’ve included. That said, the film does look terrific in this format: bright, and richly colored.