Plastic Fantastic

For Tolkien, fairy tales were not concerned with possibility so much as desirability: "If they awakened desire, satisfying it while often whetting it unbearably, they succeeded. . . . " In that sense, Jan Svankmajer's Little Otik is an even more authentic fairy story, dealing as it does with the yearning for what is impossible and a rebellion against the real.

In his fourth feature, Svankmajer has transposed a grotesque Czech folktale about a childless couple who raise a tree stump as their baby to contemporary Prague. Filled with strollers, the city is likewise an incubator for fantasy. The storklike, uptight Karel (Jan Hartl) discovers babies inside melons and sees infants in the marketplace, fished from tanks, weighed, and wrapped in newspapers to go. To tease his pining wife, Bozena (Veronika Zilková), Karel uproots a tree stump and presents it to her. Bozena is totally accepting—outfitting the stump with baby clothes, tenderly bathing and beatifically nursing it until her little Otik comes to life.

Elf Help: Hugo Weaving in Lord of the Rings
photo: Piere Vinet/New Line
Elf Help: Hugo Weaving in Lord of the Rings


Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
Directed by Peter Jackson
Written by Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens, from the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien
New Line

Little Otik
Written and directed by
Jan Svankmajer
Film Forum
Through January 1

Fantastika! The Films of Alexandr Ptushko
Walter Reade
December 28 through January 1

This comic horror story rivals A.I. as the year's creepiest representation of maternal love—partly because it naturalizes the Frankenstein story in terms of human procreation. We're all monsters—although there hasn't been much since the flayed, mewling creature in David Lynch's Eraserhead to equal this gnarly on-screen offspring. Svankmajer's baby, however, is not so frail. A product of herky-jerky single-frame animation, the stump is outfitted with a real tongue. The voracious embodiment of infantile orality, Otik recalls the horror of mindless creation—he's a sprig of the rampant jungle growth that so horrified the narrator of Conrad's Heart of Darkness.

Bozena wheels her swaddled baby through the neighborhood until the creature sprouts teeth and develops an appetite for meat; thereafter, Otik has to be kept home and fed with bags of groceries. A social worker arrives in search of the baby she hears is locked in the apartment. "Don't worry, I won't eat him," she assures Bozena. Ha. A curious neighbor girl consults her fairy-tale book and figures out what's going on. (Svankmajer presents this version of the Otik story as a series of animated cut-outs.) The child wants a baby of her own and, unfazed by the bloody mess Otik leaves behind, takes it upon herself to feed the carnivorous tree. "Are you going to eat like that with dirty roots?" she scolds him.

Otik aside, Svankmajer's movie contains relatively little animation. It is, however, filled with outrageous textural sight gags, particularly the persistent match-cuts from babies to food. The mode is alchemical and the emotions are beneath primitive—the subject, as the Czech surrealist has remarked, is the "materialization of desire." At 127 minutes, Little Otik may be overlong, but the excessive length contributes to its realness—its uncanny ambition to bring objects to life.

Five films by a key Svankmajer precursor, the Soviet puppet animator Alexandr Ptushko (1900-73), are scheduled for Christmas week screening at the Walter Reade. The Stone Flower, a special prizewinner at the first Cannes Film Festival in 1946, opens the retro. Resplendently shot in captured German Agfacolor, this somewhat pompous fairy tale is a hodgepodge of stilted folklore, operetta romance, studio "nature," and fantastic glitz. The hero is an ambitious young craftsman seduced away from his village sweetheart by the supernatural Queen of the Copper Mountain. There's a self-reflexive subtext, but unlike Svankmajer, Ptushko doesn't much unpack the notion of giving life to stone. What he does ultimately uncork is the mountain queen's sparkly multi-colored grotto—a garish yet modest Méliès-like underworld that would hardly seem out of place in Brighton Beach.

"Coming from the Soviet Union," Time wrote back in 1947, The Stone Flower is "almost as newsworthy as a man's teeth coming to grips in the seat of a dog's pants." Perhaps not that kind of news story, the Ptushko series does include restored 35mm prints of Sadko, a 1953 Arabian Nights fantasy released here a decade later by American International Pictures (recut and dubbed by the young Francis Coppola) as The Magic Voyage of Sinbad; the 1967 Gogol adaption, Viy; and Ptushko's 1972 swan song Ruslan and Lyudmila, from a poem by Pushkin. Although Viy ends with a hilarious mixed-media Walpurgisnacht, the freshest of Ptushko's features remains his first: The New Gulliver (1935), in which an idealistic Young Pioneer, awarded a copy of Gulliver's Travels for his diligence, falls asleep and dreams himself in Lilliput.

A small sensation when it was released in the U.S. in 1935, The New Gulliver was widely compared to Walt Disney's contemporary "Silly Symphonies." (The first American animated feature was still two years from release.) Technically, however, The New Gulliver is closer to King Kong—or rather to King Kong in reverse. A human actor mixes it up with some 3000 puppets, most of them around three inches high. Variously made of clay, rubber, metal, wood, and cloth, each puppet had from two to 300 heads, depending on its expressions. Thus the puppets had to be manipulated and shifted, frame by frame, in a highly labor-intensive technique Ptushko called "multiplication."

Highly individuated, chattering little creatures, the Lilliputians are ruled by a stupid king who lip-synchs his speeches to a phonograph record. More pageant than propaganda, the movie is filled with performances. The showstopper has an openmouthed chorus cavorting behind the inane tenor trilling an ode to his "Lilliputshka love." As in the 1924 spectacular Aelita, Queen of Mars, the Soviet visitor leads a successful proletarian uprising. Waking to the achieved revolution of the Stalin era, the new Gulliver shakes his head in wonderment: "How big this life is." As they would be saying in Moscow a year after the movie's release, "Today, the fairy tale is reality."

Related Stories:

"Lord of the Geeks: J.R.R. Tolkien Still Feeds the Nerd Nation's Imagination" by Julian Dibbell

"Hobbit Forming: Fanboys Line Up for 'Ring'-Side Seats" by Michael Atkinson

Other Reviews of The Lord of the Rings:

L.A. Weekly

The Seattle Weekly

City Pages

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