While Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland is the one most people are thinking of when you mention Lewis Carroll adaptations these days, there are actually many different Alice films available. One of the most intriguing, (and also strange and disturbing), versions is Jan Svankmajer’s 1988 Czech masterpiece of surrealism, Neco z Alenky.
This Alice steers away from every other vision of Alice known to audiences. It is not cutesy and nonsensical. It is not colorful and hyperactive (like the Disney version). It is not Gothic or hip (Tim Burton). This film takes a quiet, dream-like view of the story, and as such closely follows Carroll’s own imagination. It is the fantasy of a child, and every bit as strange and wonderful and frightening as a child’s fantasy can be. And, as anyone who has had childhood nightmares can attest to, it can be very unnerving.
The story is begins in Alice’s nursery, surrounded by her toys, all of which will come into play in the plot (rather like Sarah’s bedroom in The Labyrinth). Then, an extreme close up of Alice’s mouth suggests telling a story –and this is the way every bit of dialog is done in the entire film. The story comes from Alice and, just as if you were watching a child enact a (rather demented) puppet theatre, the characters speak through her lips. After this, the room, and in fact the entire house comes to life. A stuffed rabbit, always losing its sawdust, is the White Rabbit. Toys and household objects play all of the roles. Even Alice’s socks get a part, (though you have to see the scene to understand it). It’s like being a very imaginative child and fantasizing life into everything you see. However, rather than quirky and whimsical, this world seems unstable, dangerous, rather more like the fantasies of Ophelia in Pan’s Labyrinth than the imaginative games usually suggested to children by films and TV. This is a world of the subconscious, of doors to open, of growth and shrinking, of the immaterial reality of the mind. Basically, it’s as unstable and wild as Carroll’s own version.
The visuals are especially fascinating, and very artistic. Svankmajer managed to create every scene with stop motion and household objects. His eye for magic in the mundane is every bit as sophisticated as that of a professional installation artist, and his results are far more engaging and creative than the very best moments in Tim Burton’s version. Without CG, 3D, or Hollywood glam, his world is fully-realized and contained, in its dark and dreamy way, with artistic vision. It is childlike, but not childish, building with found objects, but sensitive to the emotions they evoke and the subconscious ideas they represent. In the end, we are Alice, drawn through Svankmajer’s rabbit hole and into a world of awe, wonder and fear that few of us have acknowledged since small childhood. This is a film to which we can say truthfully: curiouser and curiouser!
Neco z Alenky (1988) is by Jan Svankmajer, and stars Kristyna Kohoutova.