Most directors follow a standard pattern towards their first feature - make one or two "calling-card" shorts to demonstrate their talent, and then move straight into the big league, ideally before the age of thirty (if not twenty-five). By contrast, Jan Svankmajer was already in his mid-fifties when he made his feature debut, a very free adaptation of Alice in Wonderland that appeared over two decades after his first film was unspooled back in 1964.
This had both advantages and disadvantages. He was infinitely more experienced than most other feature-film neophytes - indeed, Svankmajer is one of the few film artists whose style can be recognised more or less instantly regardless of which medium he's chosen to adopt - but in that time he'd become one of the great masters of the short film format, and one of the problems with Alice is that there are clear signs that someone whose films up to then had been utterly certain of tone and tempo was somewhat unsure about working on this new, much larger canvas.
All too often, Alice has the feel of half a dozen brilliant short films somewhat haphazardly glued together rather than a feature film proper - which is a pity, as it's hard to think of a pairing more outwardly perfect than that of Jan Svankmajer and Lewis Carroll. Both are absolute masters of pure dream-logic, where the logic is as important as the dream (rather too many so-called "surreal" filmmakers forget this bit in their quest to be as superficially weird as possible), both have a remarkable ability to turn immensely complex ideas into images of breathtaking simplicity, and neither is afraid to confront the implications of their bizarre fantasies.
If Svankmajer's Alice at times seems a little too strange for comfort, that's also very much true of Carroll's original, which has been sanitised over the years by a whole succession of toned-down adaptations. Although I found this DVD in Express.com's 'Kids' section, and its opening narration says "Now you will see a film made for children - perhaps!", be warned that this might well give impressionable youngsters nightmares for weeks (if not years!) afterwards - and don't for God's sake let them see the supporting short!
There's nothing remotely cuddly or cute about Svankmajer's Wonderland, where bread rolls sprout vicious-looking nails when touched, fresh meat takes on a life of its own, the White Rabbit leaks sawdust, and there's a high probability of being mugged by gangs of reanimated animal and bird skeletons. And I've never forgotten the pig trotting down the stairs, crying lustily like a human baby, or the frog footman with his outsize (and alarmingly realistic) tongue slurping up flies - the fact that both images are true to Carroll's original doesn't stop them from being as disturbing as hell.
So despite its flaws, there was never any chance that Svankmajer's Alice would turn out to be remotely dull or conventional. Here we have one of the world's greatest living animators working at the peak of his powers, at least on a technical level, and the result is as visually eye-popping as anything he's made - or indeed anyone else, come to that. For the record, it was a huge influence not only on The Nightmare Before Christmas but also Toy Story, whose "mutant toys" sequence is an explicit homage to Svankmajer's collage-based approach to creature design - and should give some idea of what his films are like if you've yet to sample one.
Krystyna Kohoutová's performance is quite unlike that of any other Alice I've seen. Almost blank-faced, with dark, troubled eyes, she apparently came from a somewhat broken home, and her family were only too happy to hire her out to Svankmajer and his team. Aged only around six or so, she's a world apart from the rather older, drama school-trained Alices of other adaptations, and the fact that she never speaks on camera (her dialogue is delivered in third-person voice-over through giant close-ups of a mouth) makes it all the harder to get inside her head. This approach works well, though, for the scenes where Alice literally becomes her own doll, and is even more effective at the film's conclusion, where Alice clutches a pair of scissors and waits for the White Rabbit to return...
The DVD does a reasonable job. Framed at the original 4:3 (all but one of Svankmajer's films have that aspect ratio), the print is in acceptable if not spectacular condition (there are quite a few spots and scratches), but the transfer is clean and sharp, making the most of Svankmajer's recurring obsession with the physical texture of objects. The same adjectives could equally apply to the soundtrack, where Svankmajer's aggressive approach to sound design comes across loud and clear (albeit in the original mono). There are only eight chapter stops, which is a bit skimpy.
Though the film has two "official" soundtracks (English and Czech), in the event only English is supplied, which is a pity as the Czech version, though no more legitimate (both tracks were obviously dubbed on later), at least does a better job of matching the lip-sync, a fairly big deal when we're frequently treated to giant close-ups of a mouth speaking the lines (since the actress in the closeups wasn't Krystyna Kohoutová, why didn't Svankmajer simply shoot alternative footage of an English-speaking actress, especially given that the film was a UK co-production?)
As with Kino's Conspirators of Pleasure DVD, First Run Features have commendably thrown in one of Svankmajer's short films as support. I'd personally have chosen his 1983 Down to the Cellar, which in many ways is a dry run for Alice, but I'm certainly not going to complain about Darkness-Light-Darkness, which is one of Svankmajer's most impressive shorts (and that's saying something!).
As always with Svankmajer, mere verbal description doesn't convey anything like the full flavour, but essentially the film is set in a small room with two doors and a window. Frequent knocks at the door reveal a set of body parts - hands, eyeballs, a head, a tongue, brains, and so on - which start experimentally fusing together, first of all hilariously inappropriately (hands with eyeballs on the tips of their fingers and ears implanted on either side of the palm), but gradually more and more accurately, until a full-sized human is created… but one too large to leave the room, its only coherent action, achieved through considerable effort and pain, being to turn off the light and plunge everything back into darkness.
There are any number of interpretations of this bizarre, disquieting fable (an allegory of the evolutionary process? a satire on the supposed constant forward progress of civilisation?), but no doubt at all that this is Svankmajer at his best - technically astonishing (just look at the unnervingly lifelike expression on the creature's face as its brains are slopped through the top of its skull), darkly hilarious (anyone who seriously thinks this DVD is suitable for kids should check out the alarmingly realistic animated severed penis beforehand) and uniquely unsettling. Sadly, the transfer only rates as adequate - the print isn't exactly pristine, and there seems to be a certain inconsistency in the colour balance from shot to shot - and there's just one chapter stop, though at six minutes the film is arguably too short to really need to dip into.
Nice though it is to have the short, it merely whets my appetite for the rest of Svankmajer's output on DVD - at the time of writing there are another 25 films to go. Still, I'm encouraged by the number of Eastern European animation DVDs coming out at the moment (mostly courtesy of Image Entertainment), so it's not a forlorn hope that Svankmajer's other shorts (the best of which still constitute his greatest creative achievements) will make it to DVD. And rest assured they'll be reviewed here when they do.