Little Otik

The old line about The Velvet Underground—that only a thousand people bought the first album but every one of them started a band—could apply to Czech animator Jan Svankmajer, a relatively obscure figure whose far-reaching influence extends to popular artists such as Tim Burton, Terry Gilliam, and the wizards at Aardman and Pixar. A prime innovator in stop-motion technique, Svankmajer has directed numerous shorts and a handful of features, most notably 1987's Alice, a puppeteer's demented vision of Alice In Wonderland, and 1996's Conspirators Of Pleasure, a disturbing daisy-chain of sexual fetishism in Prague that fused banal live-action with surreal animation. Splitting the difference in form and content, Svankmajer's ingeniously twisted horror-comedy Little Otik updates the storybook elements of Alice for contemporary times, imagining the wood-carved Pinocchio as a malevolent monster that devours everything in its path. A dark treat for childfree couples and beleaguered parents alike, the film looks past the adorable coos and giggles and views babies as the pitiless beasts that they are, perpetually eating and squealing in the long stretches between fitful naps. In the brilliant opening minutes, Jan Hartl, one half of an infertile couple, is assaulted by baby fever: on the streets, where carriages flood the crosswalks; outside corner markets, where newborns are weighed and wrapped like cold cuts; and even squirming in the hollow center of his watermelon. With all this pressure to conceive putting his marriage with Veronika Zilková on the brink, Hartl brings home a surrogate infant carved from a tree stump, not expecting her to take to it like a real boy. For nine months, they keep the log hidden away while Zilková feigns pregnancy with throw pillows, suffering peculiar bouts of morning sickness and stuffing herself with whipped cream and pickles. When the "baby" finally comes to term, it actually comes to life, too, soon developing a voracious appetite that its frantic parents can't possibly satiate. Riffing on a primal myth about the consequences of man going against the laws of nature, Little Otik preys mercilessly on the fears and frustrations of parenting, pushing a young couple's everyday problems into the nightmarishly surreal. As with Conspirators Of Pleasure, Svankmajer makes selective use of his creepy stop-motion effects, but even the live-action scenes have the unmistakable bent of an animator, with jarringly expressive zooms and close-ups. At 125 minutes, Little Otik lacks the concise power of Svankmajer's other work, adding a superfluous fourth act just as it's building toward a Grand Guignol finale. But even then, Svankmajer sustains a level of mad invention that more than compensates.

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