If you ever sat around thinking to yourself, “Gee, I sure wish that David Lynch and that guy who did the ‘Sober’ video for Tool would get together and make an adaptation of ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ but with no studio interference whatsoever” then Jan Svankmajer’s “Alice” is the movie for you. It is also a piece of surrealistic cinema that will stick with you long after it’s over, whether you want it to or not. Not only is it a completely unique adaptation of this story, but a completely original movie.
The only actor is young Kristýna Kohoutová playing Alice (except for a very brief scene at the beginning with her sister/mother/nanny who we never see above the shoulders) and the only voice we hear is hers (English dubbed from the original Czech for our DVD version) with frequent extreme close-ups of her mouth speaking. Even at that, the dialogue is pretty sparse and if you took out all the “Said the White Rabbit,” “Thought Alice,” “Said the Mad Hatter,” etc., would barely fill two pages. It was refreshing to see Alice portrayed by a little girl, not some teenager trying to act like a kid. It also made what happens even more disturbing and horrific.
The rest of the characters are portrayed by a collection of taxidermy animals, various animal bones cobbled together, puppets, playing cards and, in one scene, a variety of sock monster thingies, all done in stop-motion animation. Most of the usual suspects are seen (including a Mad Hatter that looks like what would have happened if Mick Fleetwood had been born as a wooden marionette) but some are notably absent, like the Cheshire Cat or Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum. Considering all that was going on, I didn’t miss them.
When we first see the White Rabbit, he is a taxidermy bunny behind glass in Alice’s bedroom. When he suddenly comes to life in his rather crude, stop-motion animated way, you know this is going to be interesting. And his coming to life is not entirely pleasant for him, what with accidentally ripping his chest open in the process of pulling himself free and having to bite the nails out of his feet. Sawdust starts falling out of his chest, which also happens to be where he keeps his stopwatch, and continues to be a problem for him throughout. He breaks free of the glass cage, somehow runs outside and, instead of falling down a rabbit hole, finds a small, one drawer table (a table we will be seeing quite often) in a field and escapes to wonderland through it. Alice quickly follows and the story begins in earnest. The relationship between Alice & the White Rabbit (with his huge, slightly bloodshot eyes, clattering teeth and all too realistic tongue) is the most antagonistic I’ve ever seen. With Alice at one point almost ripping his hand off and the rabbit going after her arm with a hacksaw. They just don’t like each other!
Jan completely makes this story his own. While he does keep rather true to the original story, he is not afraid to add his own flourishes. For instance, after Alice cries the room full of tears and the mouse comes rowing up, it climbs up on her head, hammers in two stakes for a cauldron and proceeds to light a fire in her hair to cook his soup. Another is that whenever Alice “gets small,” she becomes a porcelain doll. One of those creepy ones your grandmother had on a shelf and would haunt your dreams staring at you with those dead, dead eyes. And instead of taking place outside, we spend almost all our time in a rather dilapidated old house with eerie, yellowish wallpaper and rotting floorboards with each room holding another set piece. There is no music, except for a brief bit at the beginning, but the all-to-realistic sound effects make up for it in spades. It is not a glorious wonderland, it is a journey through a nightmare.
I hesitate to tell you more of what happens because a big part of the experience of watching this movie is not having any idea what’s going to happen next or how a character we know so well is presented to us in a way we never expected (especially in the case of the caterpillar).
I’m sure first year Psych majors will have a field day with all the images seen in this (Ooo, look! The socks represent her being attacked by penises! Golly gee, the lizard is a sperm!) but I am in the “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar” camp so I just take it as it is. I feel, however, that everyone who watches this will take something else away from it. It must be said that this is NOT the movie you put in front of little Susie & Timmy while you do the dishes. Not unless you want to spend the next four months going into their room every night, trying to stop the screaming.
The only two extras are a brief text manifesto of First Run Features and a short film by the same director titled “Darkness Light Darkness”. It is an entirely claymation short of two hands making themselves a man out of whatever happens to come knocking on the door. It almost feels as if it could be a deleted scene from “Alice” as it takes place in a room remarkably similar to what we just saw in the movie. While the number of extras is small, I think the quality of the short (or disturbing nature, if you like) is worthy of three skulls.
I feel the best way to wrap up is to let Alice do it herself. This is what she says to us over the opening credits, letting us know what is in store.
“Alice thought to herself
Alice thought to herself 'Now you will see a film
made for children
But, I nearly forgot
close your eyes
you won't see anything.’”