Love that image. It tells you just how different and interpretation of Alice In Wonderland this film will be by being very coarse and strict in it’s framing whilst also being recognisable, in a corner of your mind sense, as being Alice In Wonderland. We all know about the “eat me, drink me” scene in Alice In Wonderland so when you see a small girl peering dwarfing a tiny door like that you subconsciously know what you are looking at. This is not the trip down the rabbit hole you’d expect though. I pity the mother who buys this for a child expecting a Disney style film. This film is about so much more…
Jan Svankmajer’s Alice deserves a little bit of backstory/explanation in order to get you to understand why it is the way it is. Back in 1988 SvankMajer lived in the Czechoslovakia and had made a name for himself as a surrealist short film maker. At the time he was confident that he could take his style to a feature length production and after making shorts based on other Lewis Carroll’s books he decided Alice In Wonderland was the one he’d like to turn into a film. At the time, due to the Communist regime, there was only two types of films allowed to be made by filmmakers in the country. They either had to be Propaganda films or childrens films. Obviously Alice would fit into the latter. Svankmajer was strongly against the Communist rule so making a propaganda film would have been out of the question for him anyway. But making just a childrens film is also not his style. As an artist of considerable talent he had to make a point. And with this film he did. At the time anyone caught being anti-communism would have been dragged up in front of the country on petty charges and forced to practically read from a script apologising for how stupid they had been and announcing their leaders to be strong. It was a show trial that would usually end in the accused being imprisoned or executed. Making Alice was a risky venture for Svankmajer. He used a lot of external investments from other European countries including the UKs Channel 4, who later screened a slightly edited version of the film.
The film somewhat follows the story of Alice In Wonderland but it really isn’t a retelling of it. The Czech title translated into English means “Something Of Alice”, as in this is some part of Alice In Wonderland but not it’s entirety. A large portion of the film focuses on Alice chasing the white rabbit, who is of course running late. It’s only the last half hour where we meet the Mad Hatter, the Catepillar and the Queen Of Hearts. Even so the characters and events of Alice In Wonderland are merely the framing for the films true agenda.
The actions of all the characters are harsh and occasionally very violent, but there is no blood, this is a childrens film after all… perhaps. The sound design is intentionally loud and threatening. Every ruffle of fabric, every piece of narration by Alice and every time anything is slammed the sound coming from your speakers will be louder than you’re likely to be prepared for. Gradually as the film goes on the volume even seems to increase, or at least the amount of noise does. It’s a key part of the films design. Everything feels off. There’s no better way to describe it. As a Surrealist film this off key tone is key to creating the dream like, or maybe nightmarish, atmosphere needed. Visually Wonderland isn’t so much bright colourful characters and novelty trees but rather it is envisioned as the interior of a dilapidated house with a bizarre structure. Every room has a feeling of the familiar, a point subtly knocked into you thanks to the opening scene in Alice’s room having various objects and props from inside Wonderland present.
Food is a key element to the film and more so a key element of Jan Svankmajer himself. Jan isn’t much of an eater. He’s admitted to having all sorts of issues with food over the course of his life. As such food in this film is his the little part of himself he’s injected into the world. The Rabbit eats sawdust, which promptly falls out of a hole in his stomach. Jam has drawing pins in it and Alice must drink Ink to shrink and grow. The only food not presented in an unsavory manner is the small tarts Alice eats on occasion. It is this food that lands her in trouble with the Queen. So the only good food is forbidden. Read into that as far as the anti-communism element is concerned what you will. An odd inconsistency occurs with the ink and the tarts in that they don’t serve a single purpose as far as making Alice shrink or grow. They seem to be able to do both. Almost as though Alice wills herself to grow by using the food as a catalyst. Commentary on freewill over the rules of the state, possibly.
I am under no illusions that this is a film anyone would like. It is certainly a movie smeared in Marmite that’s for sure. Not literally, that would be silly. A Marmite movie is a movie you’ll either love or you’ll hate. I love it. I know a guy that doesn’t. I don’t know that many people who have actually seen it seeing as it’s been extremely difficult to get over the years. If this film interests you and you’re in the UK then get the recently released Blu-ray version. It’s produced by the BFI to their usual high standards and you’ll be supporting a charity by buying it. This is certainly an influential film. Unfortunately not on Tim Burtons *ahem* reimagining or Alice In Wonderland. You’d think the Hollywood king of all that is dark and macabre would have been influenced by this but clearly not. The influence can be seen in the animations used in a number of Tool’s music videos and more directly in two of The Quay Brothers short films. I’ll post one after this paragraph.
Svankmajer also takes time to make sure there’s some humour woven into the film for the kids and the adults. One scene directly references Kubrick’s The Shining when the White Rabbit hacks a hole in a door with his axe and pokes his head through Jack Nicholson style. There’s also the always hilarious stepping on a rake scene that just comes out of nowhere and hits you square in the face with a reminder that this is a film and as such anything goes.
The film concludes with it’s most direct attack on the Communist regime when Alice is brought into a show trial. She is handed a script and told to learn it inside out and then pushed into court accused of eating the Queens tarts. Alice refuses to play along much to the confusion and annoyance of the King and Queen of Hearts. She outright rebels by eating the tarts and manages to break free of this corrupted version of Wonderland. It’s an important scene as it, more clearly than at any other point, shows how Svankmajer feels about the rule he lived under. Luckily for him that rule came to an end the year after this film was produced. Alice didn’t get a premier in Czechoslovakia until 1990 by which time it had captured a number of awards around the rest of Europe. It is a genuine work of art. It has a message, it makes you react and it looks quite unlike anything else ever put on film. The stop motion animation is rough and everything that is animated moves with a forcefulness and directness you won’t see out of an Aardman studios film. Svankmajer animates anything he can get his hands on including leaves, stuffed animals and at one point a slab of raw meat. When Alice shrinks she is, quite brilliantly, turned into a small doll and animated from there. At one point she is dropped into a bucket of white fluid and comes out as a giant doll. There is also a pig that cries like a baby so yeah, this is some weird shite.
There are things you can fault the film on if you were to be approaching this as a traditional piece of cinema. The story is more of a framework for Alice to move through and I’m sure there’s plenty of people out there that would take umbrage with the animation and sound design. The thing is this film isn’t about being an entertaining piece of cinema. it is about making you think and possibly living on in your dreams. Or maybe your nightmares. The film starts with a line that keys you into it’s world and I imagine that those that hate the film don’t understand what this first line is telling you. At the start Alice says “Now you will see a film… made for children… perhaps… ‘ But, I nearly forgot… you must… close your eyes… otherwise… you won’t see anything.” This subconsciously tells the audience that this isn’t a film and it is the setting of a dream. You need to accept the dream logic of surrealism wholly and if you do you’ll likely be drawn in by it’s harsh vision of Wonderland.