“Alice thought to herself, ‘Now you will see a film made for children. Perhaps. But I nearly forgot: You must close your eyes. Otherwise, you won’t see anything.’” —Jan Svankmajer’s Alice
“‘Oh, I’ve had such a curious dream!’ said Alice, and she told her sister, as well as she could remember them, all these strange Adventures of hers that you have just been reading about; and when she had finished, her sister kissed her, and said, ‘It was a curious dream, dear, certainly: but now run in to your tea; it’s getting late.’ So Alice got up and ran off, thinking while she ran, as well she might, what a wonderful dream it had been.” —Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland
A curious dream? Yes. A wonderful dream? Well, that’s never been my experience with Lewis Carroll’s 1865 novel Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland or any of its many onscreen iterations, including the innocuous Disney adaptation. To me, it’s the most terrifying of children’s stories, filled with strange and uninviting anthropomorphic creatures, and told with a nonsensical dream logic that’s both thrilling and destabilizing. And while it’s true that a child’s mind is more pliant than an adult’s—and thus more willing to accept Carroll’s odyssey on its own terms—the book doesn’t quite square with other fairy tales that establish their own peculiar rules and enchantments. Carroll never allows us to get a complete picture of Wonderland until it’s over; instead, the story is strung together in short, episodic bursts, one on top of the other. (And then this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened.) Alice In Wonderland limits our field of vision to the narrow proportions of the White Rabbit’s hole; like a dream, we can only get carried along by it, flailing around for a context we won’t be able to fathom until we’re awake.
The word “Wonderland” is conspicuously absent from the title of 1988’s Alice, which is “inspired” by the Carroll book rather than a straight adaptation. There are two related reasons for this: One is that the director, Czech stop-motion maestro Jan Svankmajer, intends the film to be a projection of Alice’s psyche. The other is that her psyche summons the furthest thing from a wonderland, cluttered with nightmarish disturbances drawn from her immediate surroundings. With extraordinary resourcefulness, Svankmajer crafts a homemade Alice out of household items, cheating only in the sense that this particular household seems to be owned by a Norman Bates-like taxidermist or a mad scientist who stores his experiments in jars of formaldehyde. In place of the rabbit hole, there’s a desk drawer. Instead of the “DRINK ME” potion, there’s a vial of blue ink. In the role of the Queen Of Hearts, an animated clip-out from a deck of playing cards. After all, nightmares aren’t spun from whole cloth, but informed by the people and objects we encounter in everyday life, then twisted by the stresses of the mind.
Svankmajer wastes little time before breaking out his stop-motion creations, but the live-action opening scenes of Alice establish his heroine’s world with impressive economy. Tracking along a stream, the camera settles on young Alice (Kristýna Kohoutová) in a shabby red dress, hurling rocks into the water from a pile on her lap. To her right sits her mother reading a book, also in her lap. But Svankmajer never shows the mother’s face; all we know about her—and all we need to know, really—is that she slaps her daughter’s hand when Alice tries to touch the pages. This is a strict, forbidding woman, so it makes sense that Alice retreats to the relative sanctuary of her room, though even it looks horribly decrepit, like a converted sewing room packed with scissors, safety pins, and tacks, along with deconstructed doll parts and stuffed animals.
Alice tells her own story, but sparingly, overdubbed in English by Camilla Power. Some people have expressed annoyance over Svankmajer’s device of cutting to the girl’s disembodied mouth whenever she narrates, but I find it hypnotic, and in keeping with the repetition he employs effectively in other areas. (Still, I probably don’t need to hear the phrase “said the White Rabbit” ever again.) As in Carroll, Alice’s adventures begin with the White Rabbit coming to anthropomorphized life, anxiously checking his pocket watch, and rushing off to a very important date, girl in tow. But in Svankmajer’s version, the rabbit starts as a grotesque dead thing nailed down inside a glass aquarium, and its resurrection kicks off a cavalcade of surreal horrors.
So that sawdust pouring from the gash on the White Rabbit’s chest? Those are his insides; later in the film, when Bill The Lizard turns up to terrorize Alice and gets kicked from a great height, mounds of it are funneled through his mouth and into his stitched-up body. Also, sawdust counts as food in “Wonderland,” though at one point the March Hare—powered up like a wind-up toy, with one eye drooping on a loose string—slathers butter on pocket watches and eats those instead. This is the universe that Alice willingly and courageously explores, more out of curiosity than any evident desire to find her way home. Again and again, she encounters great hostility on her journey—from the White Rabbit, who thwacks her with boat oars and slashes her forearm with a hacksaw; Bill The Lizard, who tries and fails to sneak up on her from a chimney (and gets kicked back out); the Queen Of Hearts, who can’t stop calling for her head. Yet Alice stands firm inside her nightmare and explores its every contour, maybe because she discovers quickly that she can’t close her eyes and clap her way out of it.
Svankmajer’s Alice seethes with menace, as if that stern hand-slap from Alice’s mother in the beginning of the film has somehow animated every corner of her daughter’s mind and given it teeth. (In the case of The Caterpillar, rendered here as a burrowing dress-sock with dentures, those teeth are disturbingly literal.) Take the sequence early on when a frustrated Alice tries to follow the rabbit into “Wonderland,” but can never become quite the right size to do it: Either she’s big enough to get the golden key but too big to fit into the tiny door, or she drinks the potion, which makes her tiny enough to fit through the door, but too small to get the key. Finally, she gets to a point where she’s a giant in proportion to the rest of the room, and she starts crying crocodile tears so large and voluminous that she floods the space. As in the Carroll story, a mouse comes paddling through her lake of tears, except in Svankmajer’s version, the mouse sets up shop on top of Alice’s head:
Though Carroll’s book predates the Surrealist movement, its peculiarities are well-suited to Svankmajer, who has quietly advanced his stop-motion surrealism to great (though limited) acclaim throughout the years in short films since the mid-’60s, and later in features like Faust, Conspirators Of Pleasure, and Little Otik. (The First Run DVD of Alice includes 1989’s “Darkness, Light, Darkness,” a 10-minute claymation short, as a bonus feature.) In this, his first full-length movie, Svankmajer’s embraces the episodic nature of Carroll’s story and makes it seem surprising again in spite of its familiarity. As the events barrel into each other, the film never remotely suggests what might happen several scenes down the line. That may seem like Svankmajer’s revisionism kicking in, but it really reflects his keen understanding of and connection to Carroll’s vision.
As an adaptation of Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, Alice represents a shrewd distillation of the basic events—though the Cheshire Cat and the Mock Turtle are excised, and the tea party only resembles Carroll in that there’s tea involved—but Svankmajer spares no opportunity to make the particulars unmistakably his. What’s striking about Alice, beyond the dark magic of Svankmajer’s stop-motion technique and his twisted sense of humor, is the tactile way he renders its horrors. Tacks, handsaws, nails, scissors, knives, broken glass… Alice could be an instructional video on the perils of not childproofing, but all these objects serve to ground the fantastical “wonderland” in the not-so-wonderful land from which Alice comes. The sad thing is, she keeps following the rabbit down the hole, no matter how many times she’s cruelly rebuffed. For her, even an escape into darkness and inexplicable oddity is better than no escape at all.
Animation Month continues…
Apr. 16: Spirited Away
Apr. 23: The Triplets Of Belleville
Apr. 30: Millennium Actress
Back to business:
May 7: Careful