Review: Alice (1988)

Greg Foster compares Czech surrealist animator Jan Švankmajer’s Neco z Aleky to its Disney counterpart, Alice in Wonderland.

The first memories I have are ones of growing up in Thatcher’s Britain in the 80s. I wasn’t aware of the importance of politics, how Maggie was throttling us or that, when old enough, we could choose the businessman (or woman) to manage the country like a once-great now-ailing high street chain slipping down the pecking order. All I knew was that this was life and it had to be lived. The then-government would tell us that we had to learn to make our own way at the expense of others and we weren’t there to be mollycoddled as the post war-time signals coming from our special-relationship cousins over the Atlantic would suggest.

Even before the war America’s syrupy ‘think of the children’ ideals, by way of Disney and other youth-focussed broadcasters, helped us move on and break from the child-labour ways of our industrial revolution foundations. More child laws were coming into effect and it felt like we were protecting an endangered species. We pumped money into their salvation by way of television advertising but instead of giving a few quid to ‘save the whale’ we were giving hundreds to branded manufacturers to ensure our precious babes stay ahead of the crowd and look good while doing it.

While we spent the rest of the 20th century wearing plastic American smiles hanging loosely off our once socialist European faces, other parts of the continent were not so quick to join our brown-nosing. Czechoslovakia would become part of the Communist Eastern Bloc and, as with the rest of the Bloc states, it would quickly lag behind the West socially and economically thus breeding a politically repressive climate.

It’s in our youth that we are most receptive to learning intricacies about our society and it’s our understanding of the world around us which gradually adds ill-fitting building blocks to our personalities, forging us into the people we become like a cruel blacksmith cheating his client with crooked wares. It does seem to be an odd kink in the human condition that creativity is unlocked in people from a repressive upbringing, whether it be something darkly sinister or a hulking political machine steamrollering childhood dreams into flat puddles of bloodied bones and faded rainbows.

Czechoslovakia spawned artists such as the writer Franz Kafka and the animator Jan Švankmajer and it was the latter who would highlight the cultural differences between the decadent West and the oppressed Eastern Bloc, when he compared the great American storyteller Walt Disney’s Alice in Wonderland with his own interpretation of the Lewis Carroll novel, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Neco z Alenky (Alice).

Švankmajer had been making short stop-motion animation films since the early sixties and, after realising their popularity, made the step up to feature length and in the process furthered his career as a filmmaker. The first of these was Alice. It was his answer to what he perceived as a long list of poorly interpreted film versions of the same material. He didn’t see this story as a fairy tale but more a “realised dream”.

While Alice is played by a real girl (Kristyna Kohoutova) the rest of the characters in the film are fantastical animated creations made up of bones, meat, metal, crying wigs and, in a casting masterstroke, the white rabbit is an actual rabbit fresh from a trip to the taxidermist. In a brutal twist the rabbit haemorrhages sawdust from a rip in his body only to repair the damage with a safety pin and then lick the recently excreted innards from the face of his infamous timepiece in the vain hope of stunting his dwindling punctuality.

In fact, all the creatures that Alice meets on her dream journey are similarly beset by grotesque mannerisms or simple failures in their general creation, like the sock-puppet caterpillar who has to sew his own eyes shut in order to sleep or the march hare who frequently needs the key in his back fully wound so he can spread butter over the mad hatter’s clocks. Alice herself even falls foul of this when she eats the biscuits. Instead of just becoming a smaller version of herself, as in the aforementioned versions, she turns into a creepy porcelain doll.

Violence and death are ongoing themes throughout too. There’s lots of pain inflicted between Alice and the White Rabbit, which raises the question of what she actually wants to do with our furry friend once she’s caught up with him. The barbarism is dished out in equal measure without regard for consequence, like when she pushes him out of a window into a pane of glass and traps his hand in a door tearing a hole in it through his glove. Among his many ripostes he paddles her and cuts her hand with a saw. There’s a moment just over halfway through the film where Alice sees the lifeless body of a friendly rat whom she had met earlier with his head now caught in a vicious trap. Walt Disney this most certainly is not.

The production design is uncompromising in its darkness, the sets are cold and hard, the sound is foreboding and the constant jagged close-ups of Alice’s lips mouthing “said the White Rabbit” add an air of jarring unease. While the film looks and sounds macabre a beautiful undercurrent of emotional depth flows beneath the surface which makes Alice the most interesting artistic adaptation of Carroll’s novel, packing a satisfying punch that leaves you laying sprawled and dazed on the abstract canvas hidden in the recesses of the mind after such a profound attack on the senses.

This film conveys what it was sometimes like to be a child in the Eastern Bloc, how their dreams were infested by bones and decay rather than sweetened with hugs and teddy bears like their democratic peers further west. Švankmajer leaves us with a thoroughly challenging, unsettling but fully rounded and perfectly realised piece of fantasy cinema which is worlds away from the saccharine sweet Disney effort. Alice is a stunning, evocative display of filmmaking and, even though the source isn’t his own, the Czech animator immerses himself in it sufficiently enough to create a masterpiece that most definitely is.

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