It's Svankmajer's first feature-length film and still by far his most famous. It only claims to be "inspired by" Alice in Wonderland, but it's surprisingly faithful to Lewis Carroll's original text and is merely deviating somewhat in tone.
However these deviations include blood, taxidermy, animals made of skulls and a wooden peg being driven into Alice's skull, albeit only a short way and she doesn't even seem to mind. It's her hair being set on fire that she objects to.
To be honest, I found it a bit dull. Am I allowed to say that? It feels very Svankmajer, which means that if you're familiar with his work, it's almost predictable. The only way in which it surprised me was in being much more faithful than I'd expected, cutting back on specific chapters and characters (e.g. no Cheshire Cat) but otherwise being being exactly what you'd expect from a Svankmajer adaptation of Alice in Wonderland. The fat tongue-slapping of flies, the crawling meat... yup, kind of disturbing, but you'd be surprised not to be.
The double-headed problem is that Carroll's original narrative is plotless and that Svankmajer is bending over backwards not to provide one. In particular he goes to extraordinary lengths to dehumanise all characters in the story except Alice. 1. The White Rabbit is a real stuffed rabbit, with black glass eyes, ugly chattering teeth and sawdust that keeps spilling out of its belly. 2. There's an entire walking bestiary made of fish bones, horse skulls and other skeletal remains. 3. Piglets, hedgehogs and chickens are real piglets, hedgehogs and chickens, which is kind of cute but again making it impossible to see the entities Alice meets as people. You might be wondering how Svankmajer gets around the fact that the inhabitants of Wonderland talk, but his solution for that is to have Alice saying everyone's dialogue. She's both the main character and the narrator. If the Mad Hatter is having a conversation, Alice will say his lines and then add "The Mad Hatter said".
Personally I quite enjoyed this. It feels freakily appropriate for a Lewis Carroll adaptation. I can imagine it annoying lots of people, though.
The result of all this is that after a while I had to fight to keep watching. Any random fifteen-minute segment would be great, but ninety unbroken minutes was hard work. It's just random nonsense, without even Carroll's charm and quirky characterisation to make up for it. In its place we have Svankmajer's macabre love of body parts, dissection and food. Seriously, there's so much eating and drinking here that it becomes a motif, if not perhaps even a theme. The White Rabbit stores his fob watch in his gizzards, for instance, and on taking it out to check the time, often licks it clean instead of simply wiping away the sawdust. Furthermore Svankmajer's Alice isn't dressed in blue and white, but instead in pink (i.e. flesh-coloured).
To give credit where it's due, Svankmajer clearly adores Carroll and has strong opinions on what qualities he wants to evoke with this adaptation. He's called the original "one of the most important and amazing books produced by this civilisation." You've got to admire that strength of purpose. Thus he makes the most literally dreamlike Wonderland I've ever seen, as in for instance the table in a ploughed field against a blue sky. That's the kind of surreal juxtaposition you really find in dreams, whereas of course Carroll's work has nothing to do with dream logic and is instead a mathematician's game. The books use "it was all a dream" as a cheat, to be honest. Svankmajer does it better.
It's an interesting experiment, I'll give it that. No one else is ever going to come close to it. However it's also kind of empty, in that it's just Svankmajer being ugly and faintly disturbing at you for ninety minutes. I don't think it really means anything. You can analyse it intellectually if you like, but my gut feeling is that Svankmajer's playing here with imagery and juxtaposition, not narrative or theme.
Random observations from a later rewatch:
(a) it's hard not to see political allegories in Alice's show trial by the King and Queen of Hearts. Of course as it happens she has been eating the tarts and is furthermore shown to be a dishonest and potentially tyrannical character in her own right. Nevertheless her judges are still largely uninterested in justice or truth and instead only care about extracting forced confessions and decapitating people. Svankmajer himself of course had lived and worked under a totalitarian communist regime, when indeed he wasn't being banned from working.
(b) hedgehogs are cute.
(c) the Bone People's Santa hats make them look Christmassy, although I presume those were intended to be jester bonnets.
(d) I'd have loved to see Svankmajer's Cheshire Cat, although it's possible that he wasn't keen on using such a dialogue-heavy character.
(e) the ending subverts Carroll's "it was all a dream".
(f) it's odd to think about the self-description of this as a children's film (and TV series!), which after all was partly funded from the children's programming budget of a German TV channel. Is this a crazed idea? We discussed this and opinions differed wildly. Some (my cousin's wife) thought it unsuitable for under-twelves. Others (me) fancied the idea of showing it back-to-back with Disney's Alice. Others (my wife) thought the nightmarish bones and stuffed animals were cute. Overall, I suppose you'd have to say that with something this idiosyncratic, everyone's reaction will be unique and it's probably silly to try to generalise.
The BBFC certificated it PG, though. Wow.
To be honest, of Svankmajer's films, personally I think Alice gets all the notice because the one-line summary is more attention-grabbing. There he's doing gross, surreal things to Alice in Wonderland, whereas his other films are starting from a less freaky-sounding standpoint. No one's going to write shocked editorials about darkness in an adaptation of Faust
Did I like it? More so on my second viewing. Does it have qualities I admire? Absolutely, no question. I enjoy its literalism, taking Carroll absolutely at his word and portraying fantasy with paradoxical reality. A piglet will be a real piglet, for instance, while the playing cards are real playing cards. "Off with her head!" means what it says, with a pair of scissors. I also respect the courage of Svankmajer's decision to reject anthropomorphism and make everything so visually dead, even if I personally found that the results dragged after a while and I expect to enjoy his other films more. It's probably a film that everyone should at least watch some of, just so that you'll have seen an Alice in Wonderland with skull-headed birds, tinned food beetles and burrowing sock-worms. If nothing else, it's awesome that it exists. The world is richer for having Jan Svankmajer in it.