Surrealist artist Jan Svankmajer may not have the mainstream gothic appeal of Tim Burton, but his version of Lewis Caroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is in my opinion infinitely superior to the latter’s muddled 2010 version. Released this year for the first time on Blu-Ray by the BFI (in a thoroughly gorgeous high definition transfer), Svankmajer’s loose 1988 reworking of the classic tale is simply titled Alice.
The dropping of the word ‘Wonderland’ from the name is appropriate, as the mysterious world around our young innocent heroine bears closer resemblance to a house than another world. In the film’s country of origin, Czechoslovakia, it was released under the name Něco z Alenky, which in translation means ‘Something From Alice’. This is perhaps an even more apt name for the film, as it harks back to the much plundered – and generally accepted – suggestion that the strange creatures and ordeals Alice witnesses are products of her subconscious. Never before or since, however, has this link been so potently portrayed onscreen, and the results are, at times, truly unnerving.
The most unsettling scenes come from a dedicated use of stop-motion animation. Quite often, it’s little things that make the most effective subjects for this time-consuming brand of filmmaking. Leaves rustle into piles, sawdust pours from the torso of the white rabbit (oh yes, he’s still here – but more sinister than you’ve seen him before), and the general impression is of things shifting and moving eerily of their own accord. It makes for both uncomfortable and wondrous viewing.
One could argue that children are likely to find the tone of the film too dark, while adults may be bored by the childish subject matter. But I’d urge younger viewers to give this film a chance. It is scary at times, but children sometimes like to be scared. And to be slightly afraid at the hands of Svankmajer is a far richer experience than being utterly baffled by Burton.
Alice (1988), directed by Jan Svankmajer, is available on Blu-ray disc and DVD from the BFI, Certificate PG.