Throwback Thursday: Jan Svankmajer’s Alice

Throwback Thursday examines films from the past—typically “classic” films that might not be in the current cultural zeitgeist but can still be important in some aspect.

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Original Czech poster for Alice

After 10 weeks of Philip K. Dick adaptations, I really needed to cleanse my palate a bit. So in place of the dystopian films, I thought surrealism would be a nice change of pace. Weird, I know. But let’s dive in to this week’s throwback.

Right out of the gate, I want to inform you I am a huge fan of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. I even have a tattoo of the Cheshire Cat. I’ve seen a lot of films based on one or both of these novels—some good, some not so good. Today, I want to share with you the most surreal version of Wonderland possible: Czech filmmaker Jan Svankmajer’s 1988 adaptation, simply titled Alice.

Beginning the film in a run-down house, Alice is drawn into this version of Wonderland by a taxidermied rabbit. You read that correctly: a taxidermied rabbit comes to life, breaks out of its case, and takes off with the young Alice in pursuit. I do want to point out that the rabbit constantly stops in its tracks because it’s loses its stuffing, and it proceeds to shove the wood chips and other items back into its body. And no, this is not meant to be a horror film.

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“I’m your worst nightmare!”

I should note that all the creatures Alice meets on her adventure are brought to life using stop-motion filming techniques. Svankmajer also likes to use a lot of dead animals in this film, not just the rabbit but also mouse skulls, reptiles, and other creatures. There are also dilapidated marionettes, china dolls, cut-out cards, and sock puppets. The only human in the whole film is Alice herself, who also narrates the story. An interesting technique Svankmajer uses for the narration is to tell it using voice-over, except when Alice directly reveals who is talking, such as with “the hatter said.” At this point the camera pulls out of the action and just focuses on Alice’s lips reciting the words. I think part of this was done to allow for ease of translation to other languages from the original Czech, since even the original language track doesn’t quite get the sync right with Alice’s lips, but after about the fifth time you stop noticing and just let the other visuals wash over you.

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What a lovely day for a tea party.

Surrealism is defined as an art movement that seeks to release the creative potential of the unconscious mind. What I’ve always loved about surrealism is the dream logic of it: things don’t quite make sense to the rational mind, but the logic of the dream always seems to fit and make sense within itself. This is very true of this film. Things don’t make sense rationally, but none of these instances shock Alice. I think kids have an inate ability to go with the flow of this type of story, which is why Carroll’s novels are so beloved by children. However, almost all filmed adaptations have tried to make sense of this dream logic. Svankmajer, meanwhile, does away with rational plot and just let the images speak for themselves. That said, I don’t know if kids will like this version of Alice. I’m trying to think about what I would of thought of this 30-plus years ago—I think I might have been disturbed by the images as a child, but at the same time riveted. This is the stuff dreams are made of.

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Well, generally speaking, not my dreams.

This is a film worth seeing if you’re into the original books, film adaptations of the books, or surrealism. At 88 minutes, it seems to be the perfect length for this type of film. Definitely one of a kind.

Feel free to discuss the film further in the comments below; just keep it respectful.

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