Friday, April 24, 2009

Alice (1988)

Jan Svankmajer's Alice is almost a good movie. A truly bizarre, surrealistly nightmarish retelling of Lewis Carroll's "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland". The movie isn't really like any of the previous adaptations and, on top of that, it isn't really for kids either. Not necessarily due to content. I just think they'd be bored with it. I'll be honest, after about 30 minutes my mind started to wander, I think I almost drifted off. It's a nice try though. All the classic characters are here; Alice, the white rabbit, the mad hatter, the march hare, the queen of hearts, the aligator guy with the skull for a head, the drifter rat, the catepillar socks, etc. All from the book I'm pretty sure. One thing Svankmajer forgot to add though. The, you know, story.

I was excited for this one after watching Svankmajer's picture, Little Otik. That thing was a classic retrelling of the "pinochio" story. In that one, a young couple are unable to conceive so the husband digs up a root and carves it to look like a little baby. Eventually, they bring it back to the city where the thing comes alive, as a result of some fun stop-motion, and demands to be fed. Otik liked sausages I think and also mailmen and social workers. It's a deliciously macabre story that's got a mad streak of humor running through it. One thing I didn't get into was the way the camera looked at a little girl in the building, that was a little creepy. If you've seen the picture, you'll know what I mean. Anyway, good stuff. Reminded me of early Peter Jackson or Sam Raimi and it got me wondering if this Svankmajer fellow wasn't an inspiration for them since he's been working since the 60s. Oh, and I forgot to mention he's from the Czech republic or whatever it's called these days.

The first 20 minutes of Alice are a pretty fun and imaginative way to spend twenty minutes I think. Alice is alone in her room and the white rabbit frees himself from his glass prison, grabs some scissors, and escapes to wonderland through a nightstand drawer. Oh, he's also a stop-motion creation as are all the creatures in this thing, except for the pig, he was real. Alice, also real (until she eats a tart and turns into a stop-motion doll), follows after. On the other side of the drawer is some dark dank tunnel. There she finds the rabbit eating a meal of sawdust I guess which, incidentally, is also what he's made of on the inside. He pulls his watch out of the opening in his chest, wipes the sawdust off the glass cover and proclaims, in Alice's voice, "oh dear i'm late" or something to that effect. Then he spots Alice and hightails it deeper into wonderland. Well, I guess you kinda understand the surrealist nature of this picture now.

I don't know, I started to get into it, but as Alice goes deeper into wonderland I just kept thinking that none of this is all very wonderous. Sure, you got some stop-motion toys walking around and, in the picture's cutest scene, a little rat that swims in a lake of Alice's tears and climbs up on the girls head, thinking it's an island where he builds a little bed, a makeshift stove and begins to boil up a stew. He even cut off some of Alice's hair to use to light the fire. This kinda stuff is ingenious in my opinion, but then Alice has "had enough of this" and dunks the poor little bastard. We next see him, 30 minutes or so later down the road, dead in a mouse trap. Let that be a lesson to all you rats I guess is the moral here.

Another key scene from the story is completely drained of anything resembling awe by the sheer length of it. That would be the Mad hatter tea party. At this point, I was busy clipping my toe nails so I had to look up to realize what I was seeing. The scene goes nowhere. The hatter and his pal, March Hare, sipping tea, constantly changing seats, etc while the white rabbit fit in here somewhere and also the hatter asked Alice if she'd like a sip of wine or two, which is something a pedophile would probably ask a little girl. Another creepy moment in the world of Svankmajer.

I guess the main issue I had with the picture was the way the "story" was told. Everytime we had some narration or another character, besides Alice, talking we would cut to Alice's giant mouth. Every character spoke in her voice. We get it I think. It's just a story. I don't know, that doesn't cut it for a ninety minute movie. It works for a thirty minute short and even then it's stretching things a bit. I want characters. With unique voices. The mad hatter was just a wooden puppet, by the way. The march hare was a wheelchair bound plush toy, which I thought was clever. Everytime the hatter drank, the tea came out his back. Hell, it looked like Svankmajer just stop motion animated all the toys from his toy chest from when he was a kid, which is a pretty good idea come to think of it. Especially when hampered by a tiny budget.

I don't know, I didn't hate it. I loved a lot of the animation. It's just too long. If you can watch this one in pieces I say go for it. I just wish the world of wonderland had been a little more worldly instead of an escher-like freak house filled with room after room leading into even more rooms, all of varying shapes and sizes. Alice is the only fully realized character here. If I were a kid, all the other things moving around in that herky jerky style would probably give me nightmares. I guess I will say good try Svankmajer, I can see why some stoners like this one, but it's just not for me. I will have to stick with my wallace and gromit cartoons for now, but I also can't say I'm giving up on you.

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