Alice (1988) – By Josh Samford

You know, when it comes to the land of fairy tales, it’s already hard to get much weirder than Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland (or Adventures in Wonderland, however you may like). I mean, there’s some drug imagery in there (though, more likely a product of our times), croquet, tea parties, a lot of talk about people having their heads cut off and the adventures of a little girl stuck dead in the center of the whole mess. It’s one of those childhood favorites for every one that generally frightened me as a kid (as with Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory), but I still enjoyed it. I even has some fond memories of a very bizarre version of Alice: Through the Looking Glass that still haunts me to this day. So, this is where my interest in Jan Svankmajer stemmed from. Once I heard about his work, and discovered he had created his own re-telling of the classic story, I just knew it was bound to be interesting. A surrealist take on an already surreal story, mixed with stop motion/clay animation and puppets? Well, I can say it pretty much lived up to my fantasies. I won’t deny that was a little let down from it all, expecting the animation to perhaps be more life-like or the form of the things to be a bit more cohesive, but what can I say, I saw a clay frog hop around smashing plates with his tongue. I’m happy, and who wouldn’t be?

To be honest I haven’t brushed up on the original story in a while, so as a viewer I probably couldn’t tell you the major differences in the overall story of this Alice, and the more popular versions of the story. I do know that this might be the first, and likely last, version of the film to feature a vast number of animal skulls attached to puppet bodies, but that doesn’t exactly fill out a lot of information you may seek for the film. The story starts with Alice talking about watching a movie, presumably the same movie we the viewer are about to experience. This is an important shot, because the close-up of Alice’s lips telling this tidbit of information will become quite familiar during the duration of the film. Want to know why? Because every single time a character so much as utters a word other than “Ouch”, Alice’s lips add on a “Said The White Rabbt/Whoever” tagline. This also happens to be one of the most annoying things about the film as a whole, and sadly never gets to the point where it sinks into the film enough for the audience to just go with the flow. So continues our story as Alice appears in her attic (or something like it) where she watches a stuffed rabbit in her corner come to life. He rips his feet from the wooden nails that hold him up, he pulls out a secret box hidden in his cage and reveals a pair of scissors. This, of course, is the famous White Rabbit. Being stuffed doesn’t appear to be all that positive a thing though, because nearly every time he bends over to check his watch (to of course blatantly shout out “Oh, I’m late! I’m late!”), his sawdust filled insides pour out onto his watch – he then of course licks it right back up, just waiting for it to spill right back out. Alice sets off after the rabbit, to find a desk standing in a field. She watches as the rabbit hops inside one of the tiny drawers, and of course, she follows in suit somehow squeezing inside. What follows next is a series of vignettes in the film, following Alice’s trip through each series of doors inside a maze that appears to almost be one whole building.

There’s no getting past it, Alice is one trippy little flick. I wish I could point out just where the film abandons the idea of a cohesive plot, but I honestly can’t. From beginning to end, it’s just like a series of weird happenings laid on top of one another, brick by brick. Now, for those of you with an allergic reaction to pretension, be forewarned, this is one of those art-house flicks your mommy warned you about. It’s certainly not ‘weird for the sake of being weird’, which is sadly a criticism thrown around far too often and undeservingly, but to say this might be a bit unintelligible for your average viewer doesn’t seem too far off base. There’s a lot of symbolism and metaphor that often takes the place of your regular plot and structure, but for the confines of the film and what exactly the creator was striving for, it obviously works. Whether or not it will be your cup of tea or not is a whole different matter. As I said above, I was a bit let down by Alice. The animation is definitely amazing to look at, but Ray Harryheusen this is not. Things can get spotty every once in a while, and they often do, but the characters created for the story definitely make up for things. The use of animal skeletons (birds, fish, etc.) to create many of the puppets throughout is just a frightening and original creation, and having seen a few of Svankmajer’s sculptures and artistic creations, the man is just phenomenally inventive and creative. There are definitely those slight annoyances in the film that keep it from being an utmost classic, like the constant use of Alice as narrator or the somewhat episodic nature of the film that seems to hurt the pacing rather than creating something genuinely atmospheric, but overall Alice is just a bizarre ride. It’s like a trip into a strange world that doesn’t stray too far from our actual reality (the decaying walls, and massive building like structure mix well with the supernatural aspects of the film), and spits you out not quite sure what you just experienced, but never the less fulfilled by whatever it was. If I were to recommend anything in the film, and this is entirely boring I realize, it would be the soundtrack. Now, there’s no music in the film at all, odd enough as that is, what does stand out on the audio is the amazing use of sound effects. How it will rub each individual viewer, I can’t say, but the sound effects are almost cartoon-ish in the film, but are certainly entertaining and are so forced into the vibe of the film that it can’t do anything but work to an amazing degree. It’s one of the tiny little things about the film that makes it such an intriguing little feature, but with a film like Alice the amazing things are often in the details.