Tuesday, 3 April 2012


Year:  1988
Director:  Jan Svankmajer
Screenplay:   Jan Svankmajer, based on the novel Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
Starring:  Kristyna Kohoutova
Running Time:  84 minutes
Genre:  Fantasy, surrealism

The famous children's story of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland has been filmed many times including as a Disney animation and a 3D blockbuster version directed by Tim Burton in 2010.  However, it is fair to say that you have never seen a version of Alice like this one. 

One day, a young girl, Alice (Kohoutova), follows a stuffed white rabbit into a desk drawer and into the nightmarish "Wonderland", depicted as an endless number of drab, decaying household rooms full of disturbing and bizarre creatures.

The film marks the feature debut of Czech surrealist animator Jan Svankmajer after a couple of decades of short films.  He stated that he felt that previous adaptations of Alice in Wonderland had misunderstood the story by depicting it as a straight-forward fairy tale instead of a kind of dream.  As a result this film depicts Alice's experiences as a kind of surrealist nightmare, which seems to owe more to Svankmajer's imagination than Carroll's.  He also wanted to abandon the traditional fairy-tale aspect of good over evil, and thus his Alice is much more amoral and violent than viewer's may be used to.  Svankmajer's interests lay in stop-motion and puppet animation.  Svankmajer's interest in puppetry was very much rooted in Czech culture where, instead of being seen as minor entertainment for children, puppetry has always been considered a perfectly legitimate art form for adults as well as kids.  Wonderland is depicted as a series of bleak, cluttered rooms in a seemingly endless house where space itself seems to be elastic.  The rooms are populated by bizarre and disturbing creatures which range from bizarre hybrids of everyday objects to traditional marionettes.  In this world, the White Rabbit is a taxidermically stuffed rabbit who begins by removing nails from his paws and keeps his pocket watch inside his sawdust filled chest.  The Caterpillar is a sock with eyes and teeth, who sleeps by sewing his eyelids together.  Alongside this bread rolls sprout nails, slabs of raw meat crawl along the floor, and Alice shrinks by turning into a porcelain doll.

The only human character in the film, aside from an adult woman (presumably Alice's mother) who only appears briefly in the opening scene of the film, is Alice herself who also provides the ony speech in the film.  All the dialogue scenes are depicted as if being read by Alice from the book, complete with close-ups of her mouth reciting the words.

This is a startling and bleak film which removes all the sweetness and cuteness from the story, and makes the darkness central.  It might not be the best version of Alice in Wonderland to show the little kids, because they would probably end up with nightmares for weeks.  Even adult viewers might find it a little too much in places, if only for the sheer strangeness of the whole thing.  If you are familiar with Jan Svankmajer's short films than you will have some idea of what to expect.  Svankmajer has a sensibilty and an imagination which is like nothing else in modern cinema.  It is an unforgettable experience, which will creep into your dreams.

Go Ask Alice:  Kristyna Kohoutova makes new friends in Alice          

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