Little Otik (Otesánek) (2000)
Directed by Jan Svankmajer

Artistic & Entertainment Value
* * * * ½

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When his wife learns that she is unable to conceive a child, Karel, to relieve her distress, gives her a baby he has carved out of a tree stump. The woman treats the stump, which her husband names Otik, as though it were her child, and soon it comes to life, but with an enormous appetite for raw meat. Although the man and his wife attempt to sate Otik's hunger, the baby eventually begins to look for other sources of sustenance, and various people start disappearing from their neighborhood.

Jan Svankmajer's Little Otik, while not as brilliant as some of the director's earlier efforts, is still a wonderful movie.

Perhaps the film's most intriguing element is its organization. Little Otik is based on a Czech folktale, which is incorporated into the movie at two different levels. The tale is overtly presented in animated sequences narrated by the young daughter of Otik's parents' neighbors, who is shown reading the story. The events of this tale are then reflected in those of the film's broader narrative so that the folktale informs and orders the story in which it is included.

By basing the structure of the wider story on that of the narrated folktale, Svankmajer gives the events of his film a sense of inevitability. Things play out according to certain set rules, as would a ritual, rather than like the events of a modern novel. The ritualized actions, governed by the structures of the world of folklore, move along constrained courses and, thereby, produce a sense of liminality which greatly increases the emotive impact of the work. Instead of creating a monster movie, the director transports the viewer to a world transcending time, where mental processes and emotions are given concrete expression and can be experienced as such.

This departure of the events of the film from those of ordinary life is enhanced by a number of surreal, dreamlike features, such as the neighbor's writhing soup, living irons, babies fished out of buckets of water, and a grasping arm that emerges from the trousers of an old pedophile while he leers at a young girl. All these elements help to divorce the world of the movie from that of everyday life and, consequently, enable the viewer to engage with the film directly, rather than as a narrative referring to events extrinsic to itself. By doing so, they make Little Otik far more affecting than a realistically made movie can ever be.

The best of these peculiar details, I should add, is Otik himself, who is a knotty, gnarled wooden imp brought to life by means of stop motion animation. Sadly, given Svankmajer's skill at this process, the viewer is provided with few chances to see the character in the film. He appears only briefly when he is still small. Once he has grown larger, he is never shown clearly. What we do see of him is, however, tantalizing, as he appears to be a marvelous creature.

Little Otik is not as wonderful a film as are Svankmajer's Faust and Alice, but it is, nevertheless, an impressive work of art.

Review by Keith Allen

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