Alice (1988), or A Very Scary Un-Birthday

19 04 2009

I have noticed for as far back as I can remember that people who are big fans of Alice in Wonderland seem to grow a pseudo-literary attitude whenever the subject is broached. All of a sudden, there is subtext and metaphor, style and tone, when before there was only “boring book” and “interesting book”. Alice in Wonderland gives the unfortunate license for people who only kinda care about books to suddenly become literary critics. So when I see millions of “sly” references all over our popular culture to Lewis Carroll and zero references to anything approaching literature, it upsets me a little. This makes it difficult for me to enjoy an Alice in Wonderland movie, but it does make me very aware of when I have a good one on my hands. And today’s macabre, dense retelling of the tale by Czech director Jan Svankmajer is good indeed.

Everyone knows the story of the girl whose curiosity drove her deep down the rabbit hole one day. But this Wonderland is a dark and dirty one, with its inhabitants being comprised of knick-knacks and dead animals (the white rabbit himself is just a taxidermied rabbit that rips out of his confines and has to constantly eat sawdust to maintain his shape). Wonderland for this Alice, who lives in a tiny old Czech house, is just a bigger, messier, more confusing version of her house, and it leads one to question if Alice is actually in Wonderland or if she is only daydreaming. Can she escape this topsy-turvy labyrinth of her own design? Or will the Queen of Hearts, who carries out her executions this time around, get to her first?

The concept of a relative Wonderland is something which had not really occurred to me. I had seen plenty of darker versions of the tale, to be sure, but never one in which the wonders were dark only because of Alice’s perception. Alice’s house is old and dark, so she really had no inkling of what we or rich little Alice Liddell though of as wonderful. It is an interesting turn to see wonders through the eyes of a girl living in an old wooden world.

Most people would concur that this is not a movie for children, but it’s hard to explain why. There is no violence, no “foul” language, no questionable morality on display. There’s nothing here that would subvert you children in any way. It’s the images that lean towards censorship. Close-up shots of the white rabbit reveal grisly details, jars filled with animal curiosities line elevator shafts, and some of the porcelain doll effects could potentially scare a younger audience. If you have a really hip kid, though, there’s nothing here that would compromise a child’s congeniality, so watch it with him or her if you’re daring.

The stop-motion here is really good considering the budget this must have had. It’s not Harryhausen good, but it’s evocative in its quality; it feels stranger and more stilted that way, just to give an extra eerie bump to the inanimate cast. All the Wonderland characters are done with stop-motion, and besides little Alice (played by the adorable Kristyna Kohoutova) and a five second shot of her mother, we never see any other live-action people. So if you’re a fan of the medium, I would definitely recommend it for that fact alone.

Alice is a surreal little film that one could really only shelve in the ‘experimental’ section of a video store (if you had a really cool video store that had movies like this). It has nowhere else to go. It’s too weird to be a family movie and too weird and non-dramatic to be a contemporary drama. So while it might be an oddity there’s still a lot to enjoy about this little film from the Czech Republic. It’s bizarre and wonderful; just like its namesake, only without all the assumed gravitas. I give Alice 8 1/2 taxidermied rabbits out of 10.

Don’t forget to check in later this afternoon for my review of the Beatles ribald spy thriller, Help!

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