Alice (Kristýna Kohoutová) is a little girl who sits beside this woodland stream and idly throws stones into the water, having nothing better to do and growing very bored as a result. Her sister is with her, but all she wants to do is read her book, and that doesn't even have pictures, so Alice is stuck with making her own entertainment which involves a tale which will be better if you close your eyes. It is a story for children... perhaps, which follows the girl as she recreates her boring game with a cup of tea and some small pebbles. But then she notices a stuffed rabbit move...
Of all the umpteen screen versions of Lewis Carroll's classic children's books about Alice, there were few which pinpointed their appeal to adults as far as Czech director Jan Svankmajer's vision did. Although he used animation, that most child-friendly of media, this, one of the first films he made as feature length after a lifetime of shorts, was more likely to induce nightmares although curiously not because it transformed Carroll's plot and imagination into a horror movie. No, that would be a cliché, and if there was one thing Svankmajer eschewed, it was creating his work quite like anybody else did, hence his idiosyncrasies were well to the fore.
But there was such a wealth of his own unmistakable stop motion imagery that you could be forgiven for feeling an encroaching of the screaming habdabs after a while spent in this film's company. He stuck fairly closely to the text, but it was the interpretation that provided the reason to see it: if the Disney version was as straightforward as you could get an incarnation of Alice's adventures, then Svankmajer went the extra distance to reclaim the original's genuine strangeness. Carroll purists may have rankled, but here fresh blood was injected into what had become lazy and somewhat hackneyed.
This was not going to fall back on the text as uninspired shorthand for the narrative of reverie, and in that manner there was much here to arrest the mind, as close as cinema got to recreating the landscape of dreamscape while still sticking to some kind of framework, which itself was as bizarre as Carroll could have conceived of and only its familiarity had given it the tenor of cosiness rather than its actual oddity. So while there was a white rabbit, he was introduced straining to escape a glass case, sawdust falling out of the hole in his chest where he kept his watch, biting off the nails keeping him pinned to the base, and clacking his teeth intermittently, with Alice herself speaking his lines.
Alice in fact narrated the whole film, her mouth shown in closeup, but as she was the heroine, there would be few arguing she did not have that right. She sways between wanting to follow the rabbit, for reasons unexplained here, and treating him as an antagonist, so one scene has her trying to catch up with him through a tiny door which she turns into a doll to fit through, while another will see her hiding in a house of building bricks as the rabbit recruits troops of skullfaced animals to lay siege to it and get her out. With all the expected highlights such as the Mad Hatter's tea party rendered in a deliberately awkward fashion which reclaims their essentially weird qualities, this was a feast for the surrealists from one of the greatest proponents of that style, never seeming as episodic as it undoubtedly is thanks to a sustained barrage of the outré. You could see why many would tire of the approach, but for those willing to open their minds this, like so much of Svankmajer, was the closest thing to actually dreaming on film and overanalysis would break the spell.