It’s difficult to think of two more different people that Lewis Carroll and Jan Svankmajer, but here is proof that their worlds are actually not that far apart. Svankmajer, the master of dark, Czech animation, puts his surreal spin on Carroll’s classic take and the result is like nothing you have ever seen before. It’s disturbing, strange, weird, compelling and at times very violent – at one point I had to check the certificate, but a PG it is.
Svankmajer’s Alice is a totally non-sexualised, rather grumpy, miserable girl, a long way from Mia Wasikowska’s Alice in Tim Burton’s interesting adaptation last year. She is first seen throwing stones into a river to relieve her boredom. Her journey down the rabbit hole begins a nightmarish 90 minutes in which she is chased, locked up, battered and bruised. The film is set mainly in a rotting house with decaying furniture, and the rabbit itself is actually a stuffed animal, constantly trying to replace its sawdust and repair its rotting fur. When Alice first follows him it is not through the traditional lush vista but across a totally barren field containing nothing but an old desk. Pulling open the drawer, Alice falls into it and her journey begins.
Svankmajer’s tale does pretty much stick to the original story – there is the tea party, the caterpillar on the mushroom, the Queen of Hearts and so on (but no Cheshire Cat or Tweedledum) – but it’s his animation and visual style that makes this Alice so extraordinary. When she cries because she’s too big to get out of a room, she is suddenly neck-high in water and has to swim for her life. All of the creatures are gothic, creepy creations, especially the extraordinary caterpillar, who is made out of an old sock with a set of false teeth and two glass eyes – genuinely disturbing. The mushroom he sits on is made of wood, giving Alice some dental problems when she tries to eat it, and when he goes to sleep he sews up his eyes.
In fact it is a world of eyes, teeth, dismembered body parts, slabs of meat that come alive and creep out of jars, and specimens in bottles. Even a plain loaf of bread comes to life and sprouts nails for legs, much to Alice’s alarm. As the opening narration says, it's a film made for children... perhaps?
The film split the critics on release – not surprisingly as it’s pretty strong stuff – and now does look from another era, with its stop-frame animation, gloomy visuals and Alice’s accrediting of each line (‘said the March Hare’ does get a bit repetitive). However its power and imagination remain undiminished. It’s an essential addition to the BFI’s excellent Collected Films of Jan Svankmajer, and comes complete with some excellent extras. These shorts, dating back to a 1909 version, prove just how deeply Alice has burrowed her way into the nation’s consciousness, and Cadbury’s promotional film, Elsie and the Brown Bunny, is an amazing piece of propaganda and insight into factory life in the 1920s as much as a look at Alice’s world.
Overall Verdict: Bizarre, creepy but wholly imaginative version of Alice, worth repeated viewings.
Special Features: Alice In Wonderland (1909 version, 9 mins),
Elsie and the Brown Bunny (1921, 8 mins)
Alice In Label Land (1974, 12 mins)
Stille Nacht II: Are We Still Married? (1923, 3 mins)
Stille Nacht IV: Can’t Go Wrong With You (1993, 4 mins)
34-page illustrated booklet
Reviewer: Mike Martin