I’ve said it before in other reviews of film adaptations of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, I hold those stories dear to my heart and read them numerous times as a child, and I still believe that no one completely faithful film version has been made yet. I’ve enjoyed a lot of them – the 1933 star-studded version was unnerving and maniacally oddball, Disney’s animated version has its charms in the off kilter background designs – but none of them has been as disturbingly psychotic or burrowed as far into Alice’s psyche as Jan Svankmajer’s 1988 take on the classic tale.
The movie begins with a close-up on Alice’s lips as she tells us what we’re about to watch is a creation of her imagination. Immediately we’re placed inside of her feverish hallucinations as she follows the white rabbit – here a taxidermy creature with disturbing bug-eyes glued on and a tendency to bleed out sawdust – down a rabbit hole that is located in a desk drawer. It only gets more bizarre from there as Wonderland is presented as a spacious house with rooms and entryways that make no logistical sense from space to another.
This combination of live-action and stop-motion has never before freaked me out like it has here. Normally, I love stop-motion animation. The films of Ray Harryhausen combine reality and animation in adorably artificial ways, but the merging of the two (obvious seams and all) only makes the films more dream-like and imaginative. Alice is dream-like in its combination of stop-motion and live-action, in the sense that a nightmare is a type of dream. As Alice grows and shrinks she changes back and forth from a human into a porcelain doll, which is one of the least creepy images in the film.
The caterpillar is a sock with dentures and googly eyes, now that is one of the most disturbing and freakish images in the entire film. The herky-jerky movements only add to the macabre overtones of the animation. Raw meats climb up walls and in and out of canisters, the combination of artificial puppets like the caterpillar and March Hare stand in glaring contrast to taxidermy animals of the White Rabbit or fish servant. Yes, this ever-unfolding series of deranged images freaked me out, but I loved every minute of it.
Alice is the kind of film that finds the ordinary object and transforms it into a magical and mysterious new entity. To put it even more bluntly – it’s a film that is a veritable feast for the eyes and imagination. As long as one doesn’t mind being a little creeped out along the journey it takes us. It manages to bring back the horror of the fairy tale, and while not a film for small children may be of interest to older ones.
But back to the psyche of Alice, it seems obvious that once we look upon her room and have made the full-circle journey through Wonderland back to it that the use of found objects as the denizens of the land and the more organic and earthy textures of the whole enterprise was a deliberate choice to place us in her mind. And after running into the queen and almost getting beheaded, she awakens (maybe?) from her time in Wonderland to find a pair of scissors and question where the White Rabbit is. And once she finds him, will she decapitate him?
Alice boldly reinvents the title character from the originals sweet little English girl who seeks to bring order to the chaos and grow into her adulthood to a more deranged and violent creature. At once it captures the fever-dream nature of the images in the text and yet managed to strike its own tone and twists the story into something new. As a strict adaptation it might leave a purist something to be desired, but as its own identity that loosely takes the story and re-imagines it in a new and different direction it’s a masterpiece of some kind.
The only thing that I didn’t care for was the constant use of close-ups on her lips to remind us that she is telling the story. That is glaringly obvious from the beginning and becomes tedious the more it is used as it breaks up some of the tension and pulls us away from the visual wonders on display. But this minor problem doesn’t really detract or hurt the film in any major, or minor, way. Call it a personal annoyance.