Neco Z Alenky (Alice) 1988: A Review

Neco z Alenky (Something from Alice) is a Czechoslovakian dark fantasy film adaptation of Alice in Wonderland by Jan Svankmajer. As I age I find less and less things that draw me in, amaze me, or blow my mind. This was one bright shining star in the last few years that did all of that. I have weird taste and hardly ever find anything that sparks my brain- but this? Oh my.
What a dark, beautiful piece of art this is.

Alice’s dream of Wonderland occurs in her home, an old eastern block European house that was once very nice, but is now partly forgotten and slatternly. The paint is filthy with the grime of every day use, it peels, stone steps are worn in valleys with centuries of footsteps to a basement full of squalor. The detritus of generations has been left behind like things the ocean brings and leaves after high tide. Alice herself is the actress Kristyna Kohoutova, about 6-7 years old at the time, lovely, full of the curiosity of childhood, and perfect.

Kristyna was in the first grade when she made this movie

These objects and specimens, mostly from the Victorian age, are what become the props in Alice’s nursery and eventual characters of “Wonderland.” Everything resides in her top floor nursery and we see brief glimpses of what will become the caterpillar and friends. Forget hallucinations and drug-crazed versions of Alice, this is real life and it looks like the Communists have been in charge for decades. This parallels Svankmajers own life, forced to live in communist Czecholslovakia his whole life, longing for freedom, holding tight to dreams, watching his country and life crumble around him.

But some of his dreams were of his favorite book Alice in Wonderland with her few nice toys and her nursery world. He envisioned Alice just like other Victorian children of her time with her world is full of cast-offs, old furniture, scientific specimens, and the detritus of every day living in a Victorian era house. Victorians did not throw things away. Whatever was too damaged to use just went up to the nursery. They become the perfect historical fodder for his imaginings. When I saw this amazing wunderkammer at a museum it immediately reminded me of this movie. This was the Victorian thing to do!

It’s very dificult to keep the line between the past and the present.

-Little Edie Beale

The little things make this movie so brilliant. Little things like this: There is a side table that makes many different appearances in the movie, often changing shapes and styles, and Alice usually needs to open the little drawer to it. The knob always pops off. Sometimes she solves it with hooking her pinkie finger in the hole and pulling, sometimes she pries open the drawer with scissors, sometimes the knob comes off so quickly Alice falls backwards!

When Alice shrinks she turns into the doll version of herself

This movie is delightfully creepy, but not scary, just weird. The nursery scenes invoke all my favorite parts in Agatha Christie’s self titled biography where she describes her Victorian childhood. Images of Tommy and Tuppence fishing through the insides of old rocking horse named Mathilde for secret spy letters (Postern of Fate) float through my mind, and I can’t help but think of Beatrix Potter’s upbringing when we see Alice in her dingy top-floor room (nursery or attic or both?) full of specimens, teacups, dolls, and composition books.

Alice’s nursery

So many think this movie is very disturbing but its not if you understand the Victorian era and their love if science, taxidermy and exploration. Most things make sense if you think about them in a Victorian way. If you don’t know much about Victorian cultural history or even European Victorian cultural history prepare to go to school because there is much here to learn if you wish to.

The real brilliance in this film is the completely original voice of Svankmajer and the sound design of this movie. Many times we see and hear Alice shrink into a French porcelain doll who is stop-motion animated, we hear the floorboards creak, the clocks tick, we see strange skeleton/animal combinations and taxidermy gone wild complete with living animal sounds. We hear the joints of the White Rabbit ratchety-creak as he moves through the film and we feel the surprise with Alice as she takes bites and drinks of this and that and doesn’t know which way she will grow. Svankmajer collected and used fascinating and wonderful sounds and then wove them into his masterpiece.

The white rabbit comes to life inside his specimen case

There are many echoes between the household objects laying about innocently and the amazing transformation of these dull objects anthromorphosized in Alice’s dream world (or is it a dream?). Svankmajer plays fair most of the time and lets you see them in Alice’s nursery in the opening and ending sequences, but he keeps some hidden away too, like the Cheshire cat.

The Cheshire cat is the one thing that every reviewer says is missing from this movie. An iconic character missing from a movie that treats even minor characters with care and screen time? No, Svankmajer isn’t that clumsy, but he is very, very clever. Every second of this film was painstakingly filmed, most of it in stop motion. Everything was planned and storyboarded. He’s there. If you look. Or either here nor there as he prefers to say and somewhere in between here nor there is what you get when a cat skull hatches out of an egg in the pantry. You don’t have to look hard, you just have to realize what it is you’re looking at.

Cheshire cat

Let the intrusions of the mundane become the agents of the sublime.

-Lynda Sexson

Toward the end of the movie some characters were quite ingenious. a hedgehog becomes a cricket ball, the King and Queen of Hearts are stop-motion talking giant playing cards and the White Rabbit’s scissors (he is forever leaving all over the movie) are what are used to “off with their heads.” Then, there is the sweetest little animated fox stole playing the doormouse. He comes out of the teapot (what seems like yards and yards of him) to lick the last of the tea from all of the cups! He is so adorable!

As for me, living in an ancient old house with old things and loving the Victorian age makes the experience of “Neco Z Alenky” lovely instead of repulsive. When you watch this film please do it through the lens of history, not the modern age. I know this should be classified as an art house film, but it is way too sophisticated for that category. Its eerie elegance is charming and the delivery so different that it is an anomaly in the movie world. This movie is so refreshingly different that I can’t stop thinking about it and I first saw it in 2016! This movie is: “Frangrant with memories of a lost age.” -Elizabeth Enright

The only problem? Its hard to find. If you have a library card you can watch it on Kanopy. If its not in English don’t worry. There are very few lines. Even without captions you will know what is happening. Watching it is Czech is actually quite lovely as the musicalness of the language is part of the movie. I recently got it on dvd from E-Bay. If you go this route make sure it is the same region as your dvd player. There are also lots of clips on Youtube including my favorite video someone did to the amazing Nightwish song Storytime!

Oh and Svankmajer did a shorter film about Victorian nurseries and the Lewis Carol poem “Jabberwocky” before he attempted this. It is also on youtube. Very interesting and much more bizarre!

So if you think you might wanna give it a try please do! I wouldn’t watch it around little children even though my youngest liked this movie a lot and my oldest did not. It’s definitely my favorite version of Alice!

With surreal fever dreams of Victoriana to you from Kansas Street,


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