Alice (Neco z Alenky) (1988)
Directed by Jan Svankmajer

Artistic & Entertainment Value
* * * * *

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Alice, a young girl, stumbles into a strange world inhabited by a phantasmagoria of peculiar beings.

Jan Svankmajer's Alice is a brilliantly realized, wonderfully imaginative reinterpretation of Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

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The world the director has crafted, and in which the eponymous heroine finds herself, is, at once, strange, surreal, menacing, and beautiful. Throughout his film, Svankmajer enthralls the viewer with many of the things that are often both fascinating and frightening for children, and which frequently retain the same hold on the adult imagination. His eerie Wonderland is filled with winding stairways, mysterious doors, constant dangers, and a variety of bizarre objects, such as the bodies of peculiar creatures pickled in large jars, an ornate dollhouse, and a lavish theater. What is more, it is populated with countless odd, enticing, and often threatening beings, including a stuffed rabbit, the moving skeletons of animals, writhing socks that burrow through wooden floors, and more, all of which are brought to life with stunning stop motion animation.

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Svankmajer also incorporates into the film his preoccupation with eating and drinking, a fascination given little scope in cinema generally, but which is common to virtually all children and most adults, whether they are aware of it or not. Great attention is paid by him to such events as the white rabbit's repeatedly licking the sawdust from his watch when he draws it out from his stomach, Alice's consumption of cakes that dramatically alter her size, and the Mad Hatter's attempts to drink tea, despite his not having the physical organs with which to consume it. Since he is a puppet, the tea spills out of a hole in his back. Drinking is thus reduced to an action for its own sake, rather than being performed for some extrinsic, practical purpose. Moreover, in several of the instances mentioned, eating is depicted as revolting or fearful, and such depictions arouse a sense of strangeness portrayals of other actions generally cannot convey. Eating and drinking are particularly evocative activities. Other than sex, there is probably no activity better able to produce in the person engaged in or viewing that activity such a diversity of profound reactions, as fear, revulsion, or desire.

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The emotivity of these and the other actions depicted in Alice is further enhanced by their being highly ritualized. Alice herself speaks every line in the film, including those of the various characters she encounters. After she has spoken a given line, a tight camera shot of Alice's lips shows her stating, "so and so said." In this way, the girl narrates the events in which she is participating and the dialogue is transformed into a sort of litany. Instead of attempting to imitate naturalistic behavior, Svankmajer, by making use of this and other similar devices, presents his characters' actions as transformed into an elaborate ritual. As a result, the film has a sort of mythic, universal quality, and its strangeness is felt more strongly than it would have had the movie been made differently.

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While Svankmajer's interpretation of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland deviates greatly in emotive content from Carroll's story, he has created the most aesthetically pleasing film version of that work yet made, and a masterpiece of film in its own right.

Review by Keith Allen


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