The other night I was lucky enough to attend a screening of Jan Švankmajer’s unique take on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, showing as part of the Barbican’s newly launched animation season ‘Watch Me Move’. This 1988 stop-motion/ live-action hybrid was a film I’d heard about and seen bits of, but never watched through – turns out it was even wackier than I expected. It’s the kind of ‘kids film’ you feel kids would genuinely love to watch: magical yes, but also strange and scary; a proper treat for the imagination. I wish I’d had this on the shelf alongside my favourite Labyrinth when I was young.
The original title Něco z Alenky (‘Something of Alice’) indicates a loose relationship with the source text, and indeed the film is happy to wander off in its own direction on numerous occasions. In one wonderful example, during the scene in which Alice cries a room full of tears, a rat takes refuge on top of her head and proceeds to cook his dinner. Out comes a tiny pot and in go the morsels; it’s only when he snips off a piece of her hair to use for kindling that Alice proclaims ‘Now he’s gone too far!’ and plunges her head in the water to remove him.
Elsewhere, there’s the white rabbit who must eat sawdust to survive, a piglet who cries like a human baby, an animate slab of raw steak and a nightmarish sequence, presumably inspired by Alien, when Alice bursts out of the chest of her own gigantic rendition as porcelain doll. Despite (or perhaps because of) these departures, Švankmajer insisted in the post-screening Q&A that his adaptation was truer to Lewis Carroll than most: this was not a watered-down Disney fairytale but a full-on, polymorphously perverse Freudian dream.
Throughout it all, the stop-motion is of course impressive – but what’s even cleverer is the way Švankmajer uses a combination of precise cuts and particular camera angles to seamlessly blend the live action acting (Alice, when normal-sized, played by Kristyna Kohoutova) with the animation (everything else). The whole thing feels meticulouslycrafted in a way which is lacking in modern animation: whilst creating CGI is undoubtedly a skilled business, the result doesn’t have nearly the same tactile and personal quality demonstrated by Alice and its ramshackle, homemade aesthetic.
Anyway, you should watch some. Luckily there’s lots available on YouTube – click here for a good bit, in which the white rabbit enlists the help of some unusual friends. Surreal plotlines, the mixture of horror and comedy, characters made out of stuck-together bits of anything – it’s the kind of thing The Mighty Boosh is lapping up awards for today.