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A review of the BFI Blu-ray and DVD set, only £8.50 on amazon at time of writing.
This is a creepy foreign arthouse rendering of a beloved children's book. There seem to be three ways people go with Alice. Either they do too-whimsical version like the Disney movie; or they make Alice a grown-up and turn it into porn (this happens more than you might expect); or they do it all sinister, perhaps turning it into a slightly uncomfortable-feeling coming-of-age story, like in Jonathon Miller's BBC version. This 1988 version is definitely in the latter tradition, with Czech Surrealist animator Jan Svankmajer turning it into a succession of nightmarish scenes (although thankfully he doesn't seem to be trying to impose any kind of sexual awakening subtext on the story).
Although the book certainly has a feel of bad-dream frustration about it, it is ultimately an entertaining children's story, and never feels oppressive or threatening. So an adaptation which is laden with menace and genuinely strong horrific imagery must be deemed a failure as a version of Lewis Carroll's story. Still, it is a powerfully strange piece of work.
It doesn't follow the book all that closely, skipping a few characters and chapters (the Cheshire Cat isn't in it, neither are the Dormouse or the Mock Turtle). There are other bits I don't remember from the story. It creates its own little world quite successfully, although Wonderland is a drab indoor place. Alice moves through this world by climbing through a succession of desk drawers, mostly in pursuit of that damned rabbit.
The rabbit really sets the tone for the film. It's a stuffed rabbit in glass case that comes to life and rushes off, leaking sawdust as it goes. It's a horrible looking thing, and its teeth make a hideous clicking noise as it opens and shuts its mouth. It's animated through (I assume) stop-motion, just like a lot of other characters and effects in the film. Although the effects are a bit rough around the edges, they're actually largely impressive - the growing and shrinking stuff is nicely done, understated and effective. Only Alice is a real person (and even she sometimes gets swapped for a doll when she's shrunk). There's also a real piglet, some chickens and a couple of hedgehogs. And a tin full of cockroaches, which Lewis Carroll must have forgotten to mention...
Everything else is animated, and by crikey they're a nasty looking bunch of creatures. When Alice is being chased around by a gang of animals (the ones trying to get the giant Alice out of a house) they're hideous patchwork hybrid creations of bone and animals parts, skulls trailing spinals chords along the ground behind them. These are genuinely quite queasy scenes to watch (almost Texas Chainsaw Massacre style), and while this has a PG rating, I'd be very wary of letting anyone under ten watch it. The Caterpillar is a grotesque sock with one eyeball and horrible false teeth. The Mad Hatter is a creepy stick puppet and the Hare a mangy wind-up toy. And at one point Alice gets locked in a larder full of eggs hatching little skulls, animated meat crawling around, tins full of insets, and all kinds of other really quite scary stuff.
(Apparently Channel 4 showed it in separate episodes in the kids' TV slot. I wish Channel 4 was still cool like that, rather than the dumb channel for buffoons that it's become in recent years.)
It wouldn't do to get too precious about how closely it follows Carroll, either in plot or tone. This is its own work, and is obviously following different traditions. The film creates its own iconography, much of it unrelated to Carroll. This is a world of sawdust, pebbles, keys, drawers, scissors. It feels coherent, even if it defies you to make sense of it. Life in Communist Czechoslovakia was probably not a barrel of laughs, and the occasional attempts at levity or humour don't really work. But the film is well made (it has that 80s art house colour palette).
More than probably anything else I've ever seen, this film feels like a nightmare. It has nightmarish logic, and each odd encounter or escapade Alice has feels like a separate little facet of the same unpleasant dream. The relentlessness of it, the way the world she's in has its own rules that sweep Alice along, and above all the genuinely surreal imagery all add up to one of the purest representations of dream ever put on film.
But that's kind of the problem. Dreams are actually rather boring, except when you're actually in them. Other people describing their dreams is simply not that interesting. This version of the story ultimately becomes quite tedious, especially in the sequences which rely too much on repetition (the Mad Hatter's tea party scene is particularly hard to get through without reaching for the fast forward button). The film feels too long, although it's not quite 90 minutes, so well within the acceptable bounds for a movie like this. Perhaps it would have been better in separate episodes.
So while I admired the film, I didn't really like it. Perhaps you're not meant to - it's pretty horrific - but I can't see myself wanting to see it again anytime soon.
The Blu-ray looks good. Not stellar, but good. It's in 4:3 aspect ratio, and as mentioned, has a very 80s arthouse look. Because I'd never seen it before I don't have an older version to compare it to, but it looks fine. Probably it won't get a better looking release. Lots of details is visible (heavy emphasis on sawdust, hair, clothes allows you to judge how fine the detail you're seeing is). It's not very bright or colourful, so doesn't leap off the screen at you, but it looks OK.
There's also a DVD included, as usual. I wish they wouldn't do that. The DVD looks good too. Although the Blu-ray is notably better, the DVD by itself would probably be perfectly acceptable.
There are several short films included as extras. There's a silent, 12-minute version of Alice in Wonderland from 1903, which rattles through a few scenes from the story using very primitive filming techniques as were common at the time. There are people in uncomfortable looking animal costumes and some basic special effects. The print is damaged quite badly in places. A dog which appears in the film was later the star of Rescued By Rover, one of the better known early silent British films. This was also included on the BFI's earlier release of Jonathon Miller's 1966 Alice.
Another, slightly later, silent film uses the vague story of Alice in Wondeland in a corporate advertising film for Bourneville chocolate. Although the idea of silent adverts has a certain notional charm, the reality is dull. The idea that a chocolate factory can somehow be likened to Lewis Carroll's Wonderland is baffling. Still, there's a man in a rabbit costume.
The best extra is an animation from the 1970s produced by the Ministry for Agriculture, Food and Fisheries, in which food labelling rules are explained using Alice in Wonderland characters. This is very inventive and works extremely well. You can't imagine any modern government commissioning something as genuinely witty and likeable as this.
And finally there are a couple of music videos by the Quay Brothers, which pay homage to Alice (the Svankmajer film rather than the Carroll book). These were kind of pretentious, but so was the music, so I guess that's appropriate. The second one is slightly better, but neither are really all that good.
The main feature is undeniably impressive, and it's refreshing to see a take on the story that doesn't rely on the Tenniel illustrations for its visual cues. But it's also ultimately just not that satisfying to watch. It's too horrible for younger kids, but adults will likely run out of patience with it. Probably best enjoyed by slightly twee goths.