• Alice (Nĕco z Alenky) - A Film by Jan Svankmajer

    Released by: BFI
    Released on: 5/23/2011
    Director: Jan Svankmajer
    Year: 1988
    Cast: Kristyna Kohoutova

    The Movie:

    So many film adaptations of Alice in Wonderland, whether well done or not, brilliant or not, imaginative or not, rarely deviate from what was clearly portrayed in the original book by Lewis Carroll or the myriad of film versions before them. Czech filmmaker and master of the surreal, Jan Svankmajer, has created a film amazingly unique and visually stunning that can impress even the most hardcore of Alice fans. Made back in 1988, Alice is a genius mix of stop motion animation and live action with an incomparable take on a story and characters so etched into the minds of young and old worldwide, yet it does not leave its viewers annoyed in the least at the liberties Svankmajer’s taken. For a story I take so personally, I find flaws in the films that add nothing to the Wonderland legacy and I take offense by the ones that attempt to change too much. Svankmajer’s version though is so heartfelt with such attention to detail that it can’t be seen as anything but, quite simply, a masterpiece.

    The film begins with Alice playing in her room, toys strewn about the floor. She hears a noise from the other side of the room and notices, fearfully, that the white, stuffed (as in taxidermied) rabbit displayed on the dresser is pulling itself off its pins in an attempt to escape. He sees her and makes a break for it. She follows him out of the house and to a barren field where he jumps into the drawer of an old fashioned looking desk. She opens the drawer but finds only normal desk things… rulers and papers and such… but reaches further in and pricks herself on a drawing compass. She reaches in still further and gets sucked into the drawer by means of very believable animation. The drawer, in place of Carroll’s rabbit hole, begins her journey to “Wonderland” as she falls endlessly past shelves of potions, bones and other mysterious objects. She picks up what appears to be a jar of jam of some sort and putting a finger in, finds the jam is full of tacks. Quite sensibly she chooses not to eat it and places it on another shelf as she passes it. Less like falling or floating and more like traveling downward on an elevator, she finally reaches the bottom and crashes through to a pile of leaves that mysteriously disappears uncovering yet another desk identical to the first one she came through. Each time she tries to open a drawer, the handle seems to pop off, but she always perseveres and manages to get it open. In this drawer is a miniature key, which any Alice fan would know, opens the too-small door to Wonderland. Through Svankmajer’s door, we do not see a typical garden, but more so a painted three dimensional garden on canvas which looks quite inspired, like much of his other work, by carnival sideshow posters. Alice calls out to the white rabbit, frightening him, causing his eyes to bug out bizarrely and his teeth to chatter before he scampers off. Frustrated she locks the door, only to find another desk in the middle of the room containing what appears to be ink. It must smell okay though because she decides to drink it even without the “Drink me” label. As expected she shrinks, but one of this film’s most clever bits of artistry is that when she shrinks she turns into a china doll double of herself. Obviously this is an easy way to eliminate the need for expensive special effects and it makes for an eerie and inventive transformation. She cries herself her pool of tears and gets washed away into “Wonderland” where she meets all the stunning characters you’d expect- equally as beautiful as they are macabre.

    The detail in Svankmajer’s Alice is amazing, the textures and decorations breathtaking. The white rabbit’s coat and hat are intricately adorned as are the clothes of the white rabbit’s horsemen, while Alice’s clothes on the other hand are quite plain which makes the contrast between her world and "Wonderland" all the more evident. The rabbit is much more antagonistic and seems much more out to do Alice harm, though not necessarily physical harm. In other versions they eventually become acquaintances even if not friends. The settings are possibly the most mesmerizing aspect of this film because they’re kind of an I Spy where there’s so much to see, with common objects doing uncommon things so that you can watch this movie many times over yet not notice everything. There is an unusual focus on wood in Alice, instead of Svankmajer’s typical animation fascination with moving meat. The desks are made of wood, the caterpillar(s) makes holes in and out of wood, the white rabbit is continually brushing away wood chips and bits seeping out of tears in his stitching. Even the caterpillar’s mushroom is a drawer knob made of wood, which Alice, of course, has to eat. Everything in and about this film is so authentically antique, not seeming remotely like a film set, that you can’t help but get sucked in and believe every bit of what’s happening. The actress who plays Alice, Kristýna Kohoutová, never played another role. Alice was her only film. She was Alice. And she was perfect in the role. She was perfectly perfect. The animation was perfect. The sets and props were perfect. The characters were perfect. This is a film that seemingly could not have been any more perfect. It completely and genuinely encompasses the time and place that is childhood and though far off from where many of the film’s viewers grew up, myself included, it still very adeptly expresses the emotion and wonder of it all.


    Note: This review is based on a Blu-ray only test disc that may or may not represent finished retail product. This BFI set is expected to contain the film on Blu-ray with extras as well as a second standard-def DVD, contents unknown.

    The Blu-ray of Jan Svankmajer’s Alice has an amazingly clear high-def PCM Mono 2.0 audio track. Levels are well balanced and the disc contains both the English language track and the original Czech language track which was unavailable on the previous First Run Features release. English subtitles are also available for viewing with either language track.

    Alice is presented in AVC encoded 1080p high definition, in its original fullframe aspect ratio. The colors are bright and vibrant but not overly saturated, the lines are clean and the lights and shadows are quite natural. The many textures of the everyday objects in this film are quite brilliantly exhibited and definitely a visual highlight. All in all, this film looks beautiful and the animation is seamless. Alice is a true special effects testament to the non-CGI film world and cinematic ingenuity in general.

    The Blu-ray disc in this set contains four Alice-inspired short films- one live action, one hand-drawn animation and two stop-motion animation.

    Alice in Wonderland (1903, 9 minutes) - This is the first Alice adaption on film, made in England in 1903 starring May Clark. This black and white live action short is not cleaned up much being an extra but it’s an awesome history lesson and must see for Alice enthusiasts and classic film buffs alike.

    Alice in Label Land (1974, 12 minutes) – An unusual animated mini-documentary made by Great Britain’s Central Office of Information (COI) on packaging standards for food products. It’s amusing how they’ve managed to tie the Alice theme into it and an oddly entertaining watch even if its repeat watchability likelihood isn’t very high.

    Stille Nacht II (Are We Still Married?) (1992, 3 minutes) and Stille Nacht IV (Can’t Go Wrong Without You) (1993, 4 minutes) – Two bizarre black and white stop-motion animation music films by the Quay Brothers who possess a style very similar to Jan Svankmajer. When one hears discussion on one, the other is not often far behind. Both Stille Nacht II and IV are Alice-themed.

    The Final Word:

    The BFI’s presentation of Alice (Nĕco z Alenky) is visually remarkable. In the film world with dozens of Alice films to choose from, Svankmajer’s Alice is still number one in my mind when it comes to an Alice film recommendation and is an amazingly refreshing yet twisted take on the classic. Alice fans will love it. Fans of the surreal will love it. Fans of stop-motion animation and hauntingly beautiful cinema will appreciate this. This film is rated PG so it’s not intended for very young children as sometimes with foreign filmmaking things end up even spookier to other cultures than they may to the natives of the film’s origin, so be careful with this one. It’s definitely a fantastic piece of work and one of Svankmajer’s best.

    Click on the images below for full sized Blu-ray screen caps!