It would be misleading, but not technically incorrect, to say that Jan Svankmajer’s Alice (1988) is among cinema’s most assured debuts. The Czech director’s first short film, The Last Trick, was finished in 1964, a full quarter century before he got down to business with his first feature.
In the interim decades he came to prominence as one of the world’s foremost animators and surrealists, completing several now-famous shorts like his other Lewis Carroll-inspired adaptation, Jabberwocky (1971), Meat Love (1988), in which some countertop meat meets and falls in love, and 1983’s Down to the Cellar, itself an Alice-esque film about a girl who descends into her family’s basement to get potatoes, only to see some gruesome, fantastical people doing strange things.
Svankmajer’s stop-motion animation lends itself well to the surreal and playful content he often used. There’s a certain whimsy inherent to the style; just picture it: a suit laying on a chair in an open field having a picnic. The suit, along with the surrounding items, somewhat jerkily moves about, doing things like listening to a phonograph and looking at pictures. This is 1968’s Picnic with Weissmann, a delightful little ten-minute film that serves no real purpose other than to put a smile on the viewer’s face (wasn’t early animation just the best?).
That Svankmajer stuck with making short films for the first few decades of his filmmaking career speaks to this objective. His films, even when darker in subject matter, all retain an element of joyousness and childlike wonder.
Which is what makes his rendition of Alice, and Lewis Carroll’s work in general, such a perfect marriage of content and style. The playfulness bursting from Svankmajer’s work, and the particular way he chooses to achieve it, almost makes him a surrealist by default. Similarly, Carroll’s childhood fantasyland has adult themes, but at its root it circles back to a daydream. In this way it’s more representative of the tone of Carroll’s work than, say, the iconic Disney version; which isn’t to say the Disneyfied, kids friendly version doesn’t have its merits (it’s a classic in every estimation), but Carroll’s somewhat dystopian vision is more fully realized by Svankmajer.
For one thing, it’s apparent throughout Alice that Svankmajer set out to place Alice (Kristýna Kohoutová), the character, in full charge of her destiny. The film begins with a disclaimer: “Close your eyes, otherwise you won’t see anything.” Alice begins reading her story, the story that transforms into her journey. She narrates tirelessly, and the audience sees how the story would manifest through Alice’s imagination.
Whenever she gets to a point of dialogue, Svankmajer cuts back to a close-up of Alice articulating the direction: “sighed the white rabbit” or “said Alice.” It’s a unique approach that grows a bit tiresome with repeated usage, only because once it’s been established that this is an dreamlike adventure in which Alice is the driver, there’s no need to reiterate the point. Still, the framing device is helpful in illustrating Svankmajer’s point of view, so it’s a necessary evil.
Otherwise, the usual suspects all make appearances and the story unfolds as you know it will. What makes it an achievement is how Svankmajer’s singular visual approach gives the story a new life and tone. For example, here the White Rabbit is a combative taxidermied foe rather than a fluffy guide. The treats Alice sees are macabre inspired, too: the jam has pins in it, the muffins are laden with nails. At one point Alice and the White Rabbit get into such a tussle that he tries to saw her arm off and she hurls blocks at his head. Because the audience knows the story so well there’s never a sense that Alice is in any danger, but her situation might seem precarious, and that concern is conveyed here.
The stop motion technique Svankmajer uses is the prime contributor to the story’s less bubbly tone. Each of the iconic elements is made of real life items, for one thing. Of course there’s the deadly food and the rabid rabbit, but it extends equally to other elements; the Mad Hatter (voiced jubilantly in Disney’s version by Ed Wynn) is a wooden marionette, one where the strings, the animating mechanism, are fully visible. Svankmajer could’ve easily eschewed them, but their inclusion is yet another reminder that the world in which Alice is temporarily immersed, a children’s fantasy, is every bit as real and tangible as the adult world into which she’ll soon mature.