Alice (Jan Svankmajer, 1988)

May 2, 2012

A stop motion taxidermy rabbit in a glass case awakens as though this is a common occurrence and brings out a suit, trousers, and a pair of white gloves. Oh and of course a clock. The rabbit then hurls itself through the glass, crashing to the ground, and quickly scampers into a desk drawer which leads to another world. The first line of the film is spoken by the protagonist Alice who says, “now you will see a film for children. Perhaps”. The rest of the film is a dark, uncompromising vision of the horrors of the unknown and the mysteries of childhood. This is an adaptation of Alice in Wonderland unlike any other and yet it still hews very closely to the celebrated classic by Lewis Carroll. All the main players are here. Bill the lizard, the white rabbit, the queen of hearts, the mad hatter, and so on. However, this is nothing like the Disney version. All the animals are taxidermy animals and they move about in a way that is strikingly life like and yet cold and sterile. The white rabbit is especially haunting as it bleeds out its own stuffing and has to continually replenish itself on…well, itself throughout the film.

Jan Svankmajer does an absolutely amazing job with the stop motion animation in this film. Everything blends together perfectly, even when the stop motion creatures are moving about (or on top of ) Alice. In one incredible scene we see a large rat climb atop Alice’s head and then proceed to set up a small tent complete with a campfire. The amount of hours and hours of work it must have taken to create this film is mind blowing. As far as content goes this film is rife with symbols and imagery relating to death. An army of creatures, cobbled together from animal skulls and vertebrae, at one point attack and capture Alice. This film is definitely not for children. However, the biggest achievement in my mind is that this film perfectly captures the atmosphere of what Wonderland would be like in a way I’ve never seen before. In Svankmajer’s vision this is not a fairy tale, but a dream, and he succeeds brilliantly at conveying this. Rivers run through rooms and houses stand alone in the middle of fields, and of course, desk drawers are actually doorways leading to new rooms and new spaces. All sense of time is lost as Alice wanders through the dreams and memories of a child. It just slowly unravels and captivates the viewer, but it still retains many of the themes of the original novel, while creating something new and fascinating. Of course, when Alice awakens at the end of the film the socks are just socks and desk drawers are just…desk drawers. However, the case where the white rabbit was in is still broken and the rabbit is nowhere to be seen. Jan Svankmajer creates a haunting world that explores the psyche of a child, diverging at times, and intersecting with the plot lines and themes of the Lewis Carroll classic. This is a film that will definitely divide people, but it definitely is something people will never forget.

A clip of Alice going “down the rabbit hole” or in this case a desk drawer.