alice1“’What is the use,’ thought Alice, ‘of a book without pictures or conversations?’“ This passing thought near the start of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is the jumping off point for an adaptation of the beloved classic that is in some ways more faithful to its source than any of the many other adaptations. But in one essential way this is the most radical interoperation. Jan Švankmajer adapted one of the best loved books in the English language and almost entirely dispensed with words in favor of his own vivid imagery. One of the masters of Czech animation, Švankmajer’s imagery is fantastic, his creatures vivid and memorable. But this is not the most successful of possible Alices, nor is it quite the aesthetic pinnacle of a director best known and perhaps best digested in animated shorts. A new beautifully restored Blu-Ray edition from the BFI, released on American shores by First Run features, reveals Švankmajer’s first feature in all its brilliance and shortcomings.

The Czech title of Švankmajer’s first feature-length film is Something from Alice. Like all adaptations of Lewis Carroll’s perennial classic, loved by children and surrealists alike (are they the same?), Švankmajer by necessity cherry-picks from Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, and some of these are scenes depicted time and again: the tea party, the White Rabbit, the croquet game. There is no perfect literary adaptation, certainly not one, like Tim Burton’s, that turns Alice into an empowering female role model in the battle between good and evil. Alice is not about empowerment at all, its disorientation and disequilibrium a fanciful observation of the pains of adolescence and the absurdity of growing up and growing old.

Why is my body changing? It’s a natural process that’s harrowing and confusing and tedious too, all of which Švankmajer captures.Aliceadaptations tend toward whimsical fairy tale wonder, but a director given to animating not only stop-motion puppets but raw meat was bound to bring something more to the project, and not just raw meat.

alice2The film opens as a live action idyll, Alice (Kristýna Kohoutová) and her sister sitting by the riverbank. Alice’s narration introducing the story sparingly though close-ups of the girl’s mouth. This device, repeated ad nauseum throughout the film, never lets the viewer forget this is storytelling, but it too often works against the film as the director repeatedly interrupts his own vision to return to these static shots. Is the mouth foreign, the act of storytelling foreign? Maybe, but in a film whose characters are so wildly inventive, such repetition and stasis is jarring. Just like real life?

Švankmajer’s first Lewis Carroll adaptation was the 1971 short “Jabberwocky,” which starts with a recitation of the poem but soon veers off to incredibly baroque flights of fancy. You can trace major visual elements of the 1987 Alice back to this short: the desk drawer, the dolls, the block house where the White Rabbit lives would all reappear in his first feature film. Missing is the sustained playfulness and the music.

Alice enters a new world through an old desk drawer, a metaphor for the world of adults and the intellect. When she grows smaller, she turns into an expressionless doll, an all the more potent symbol of a child’s voicelessness and powerlessness in the world of the large. This is a dark Wonderland, amazing creatures fashioned from animal bones and stuffed animals that bleed sawdust. But the most drastic alteration of a source much beloved for dense wordplay is the almost wordless script. Much of the remaining dialogue is along the lines of “Alice thought to herself,” with a few key mantras repeated: “I’m awfully late” and “Off with their heads!”

Švankmajer’s “Jabberwocky” short is paced frenetically, much of its brief running time shot in accelerated motion and continually interrupted by a black cat bursting through illustrated children’s blocks. But the pacing inAliceis more ponderous, and it can be a hard slog despite its fantastic creatures and 84-minute running time. Animators like Švankmajer and the Brothers Quay (whose work is unthinkable without Švankmajer’s precedent) leave unforgettable impressions in short animations but sometimes struggle when expanding their vision to a full-length film.Aliceis full of remarkable moments, but the director works against his own aesthetic instincts. Before a screening of the film at the Barbican Art Gallery, Švankmajer told interviewers his Alice is not a fairy tale but a dream. The dream elements of Alice are terrific, but I wish he didn’t keep pinching himself.

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