Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Weeks Too Late: Alice

Alice. Directed & written by Jan Svankmajer.

Preconceptions: Given my girlish leanings towards black lace and too much eye make-up, it's a surprise I hadn't heard of Jan Svankmajer in general and his Alice in particular sooner. As it is, I only came across him while flipping through Netflix Streaming (I'm actually beginning to wonder if the people behind that should be paying me for all the time I spend praising it). Since it's described as a classic, I may very well be the last person on earth to see this. In case I'm not and there are others out there that share my predilections who haven't seen it, lets talk about Alice.

General Review: When I first started watching it, Alice (as in Alice in Wonderland) reminded me distinctly of old Terry Gilliam movies. It's weird, fantasy-driven and everything looked like it needed a good washing (seriously, the movie is so coated in grime that it took all my control over my psychosomatic response to keep from putting away my dinner and washing my hands). It turns out I had this backwards because Gilliam (and Tim Burton) were heavily influenced by Svankmajer (how had I not heard of this guy before?).

Alice had a lot things that called to 16 year old me: stop motion taxidermy creatures and horrible little dolls. It also had a major element that appeals to suave adult me: the mixture of the adorable and the grotesque (not to mention inanimate objects coming to life, always a favourite). A lot of me simply enjoyed watching this without a properly critical eye. But I wasn't entirely able to bludgeon my inner critic (that little voice in my head that seems to think I know better than acclaimed directors, not having directed anything myself) and so I do have a few non-gushy things to say about Alice.

My feelings on the stop motion are varied. The slight jerkiness of movement and having the menagerie of taxidermy animals bleed sawdust and making them eat more to replenish it fit stop motion well. However, the stop motion, while undeniably well done, meant we lost some of the frantic pace in the scenes that required quick movement. Most noticeably, the tea party and the constant changing places seemed orderly and choreographed rather than the panicked rush that the scene calls for.

The movie is largely without dialogue and Alice narrates what there is, including the voices of the other characters. So the little blonde girl will say: "And then the Mad Hatter said: 'Change places!'" It's less confusing to watch than to read about, I promise. This was an interesting choice that had a lot of advantages, making the dubbing less intrusive for one.It also gives the movie a further sense of surreality and makes the interactions between Alice and the other characters seem more hollow. While this choice had its good points, the film already had more than enough surreality to go around and it might have been nice to see Alice properly interact with someone else. Watching a girl play with her dolls for two hours is one of the numerous things I hated about Tideland (which remains in the top ten worst movies I've forced myself to sit through). Actually, come to think of it, Tideland really takes the worst of this movie and shamelessly tarts it up and shoves it to the foreground.

While I relish picking nits as much as the next barely literate ape, there is far more to rave about in Alice than there is to groom. The scene where she's forced to break out of the doll she's been trapped in, to free herself from a horrific pantry (yes, you heard me) is disquieting and had my stomach squirming. The glassy googly eyes of the animals made me want to look away. And the less said about the Caterpillar scene, the better. But this is all balanced by Alice being fearless and treating the whole horror show as a grand adventure. She is clearly enjoying herself, it's the audience that has the problem.

I don't think Alice is for everyone. It is unapologetically weird, discomfiting and a story most people are already too familiar with. I think it's a good balance of child-like exploration and the macabre, but it does lean very hard into the strange. If you've got a dock martin wearing little girl living inside you too (and have been living in the same cave I have), chances are good you'll adore this movie.

1 comment:

  1. Having seen only bits of this growing up, I also recently watched the entire movie on Netflix streaming. I found it adorably creepy. You can see a lot of Jan Svankmajer's short work on YouTube, if you're in the mood for more. I found Alice to be adorably creepy. My only (typically film-snobby)wish would be to see it subtitled instead of dubbed.