The Traps of Imagination in Švankmajer’s Alice

A professor of mine recently assigned us to write a monologue utilizing the voice and narrative of an iconic figure. A friend of mine chose to write in the voice of Barbie. I initially didn’t question the decision, but in hearing her piece, I realized something crucial. Barbie has never been provided with an explicit “narrative.” Unlike a historical figure, character from a book, or protagonist in a film, Barbie is simply a toy. Yet, when my friend read her piece — a feminist critique — everyone instantly recognized the societal narrative imbued upon the doll. She goes shopping with friends, puts on outfits, flirts with Ken, cooks, cleans, and flirts with Ken some more. Barbie is not an autonomous figure; and in my friend’s monologue, we soon realize this isn’t Barbie speaking but rather the girl playing with her. The little girl in the monologue immediately defaults to cliched and gendered narratives replete with ideas of the nuclear family, female submission, and heteronormativity. But if Barbie was never given a narrative by her creators in the form of a story, where does this unchallenged consensus of Barbie’s “narrative” come from? Isn’t the virtue of a toy with a “blank slate” that the child playing with it can construct their own realities? Why is imagination limited to the familiar and why is one piece of shaped plastic the hero and the other a damsel? It is plastic, after all.  

It is these ideas of narrative, imagination, representation, autonomy, and self that Czech director Jan Švankmajer probes and questions in his rendition of Alice in Wonderland, Alice (1988). As we are told early on, it is “a film for children, perhaps.” The “perhaps” is critical since it denotes a necessary element of any children’s film or book of any value: it is equally as fascinating and challenging to the adult mind. One could consider the stop-motion animation and grotesque puppet design to be too distressing for children. However, I would argue that this is the point. As opposed to the original, as well as the Disney retellings, Alice does not simply follow a talking rabbit to wonderland, but rather, it is the stuffed toys in her room that come alive and lead her to an alternate reality. Švankmajer never intends to give us the illusion that the fantastical creatures Alice interacts with are anything but toys. To be exact, they are reanimated taxidermy. We see the rabbit’s sawdust stuffing spill from his belly as he liberates himself from the nails in his paws and the terrarium he is postured within. The rabbit, long reduced to a stilted, permanent idea of a rabbit, is now anthropomorphized by Alice’s imagination. However, thanks to the choppy animation and Švankmajer’s emphasis on the malleability of the toy’s bodies — sewing up cuts or having tea leak from the Mad Hatter’s hollow backside — we remain alienated as viewers from the idea that these beings are real. The only “real” being in Alice’s trip to Wonderland is Alice herself — a distinction not made in previous iterations. That is, up to a certain point.  

Since everything visible occurs within Alice’s mind, we recognize that her imagination is also limited to the material objects she finds in her surroundings. Instead of simply shrinking upon eating the “tart” — or in some retellings, cake– Alice transforms into the tiny doll we saw sitting in her room. Shrunken, Alice has assumed the identity of an idealized toy laden with narrative and societal baggage — not unlike Barbie. The doll evokes both archetypal images of virginal infantilization and, paradoxically, motherhood; Barbie evokes a sexualized yet anatomically incorrect ideal. If read metaphorically, this could serve as a feminist critique — a woman must shrink herself and fit into an ideal in order to move through doors. Supporting this, there is a scene of Alice coming across a small house emitting the inescapable sound of a baby wailing incessantly. However, her transfiguration transcends a single reading and considers the impact of material representations altogether. In a critical scene, shrunken Alice is cornered into a vat of milk by menacing creatures and suddenly reverts to her original size; this time in a life-size doll costume. This is the first instance in which the qualities of the material are attributed to the living. The transfer of influence is no longer unilateral. Alice is subsequently knocked down, dragged up a flight of stairs, and shut into a cupboard by the rabbit and his army of creatures. The reanimated materials have successfully overtaken her narrative and seemed to have achieved a sense of autonomy. Although Alice is able to break out of the shell of a doll costume, the boundaries of her control over the toys’ narrative and toys’ narrative over hers are increasingly blurred. When the Queen of Hearts orders Alice’s decapitation for eating the tarts, Alice asks: “which one?” As Alice shakes her head as we see it replaced with those of all the other animals and toys she met during her journey. She is all of them as they are all her.  

Švankmajer’s narrative framing, however, leads us to believe that Alice has been pulling the strings all along. Following each line of spoken dialogue, we cut to a close-up on Alice’s mouth in which she redundantly narrates all dialogue: “said the White Rabbit,” “cried the White Rabbit,” “thought Alice.” This is Alice’s telling of her story, and her fate is informed by her sense of self and world view. Švankmajer ends his film by restating Alice’s autonomy by arming her with a metaphorical tool: a pair of scissors. Utilized by the White Rabbit throughout the film, the scissors were a means of creating novel and imaginative solutions as well as constructions — heads of creatures are cut off and exchanged or thread is cut to sew up a woundIn this, it is also thematically relevant that in entering Wonderland, Alice tosses aside various tools of mathematic measurement to pass its threshold. When Alice returns from Wonderland — by way of awakening from a dream — she instantly recognizes the personified creatures of wonderland as inanimate objects, yet finds the White Rabbit to still be missing. She reaches into the secret drawer of his shattered terrarium to find his scissors. This will become her most important tool in creating and existing for herself.  

Alice can now escape the traps of imagination set by the all too stiff and moralistic toys and material representations of her childhood bedroom. But in order to reach this point, Alice had to close her eyes; look away from the fixed meanings and imagine. As she tells us during the opening credits, if we want to see anything at all, we too must close our eyes. This seems an ironic instruction for a film to make, yet reflects on the viewer who relies on the images and representations imagined by others, rather than those created for themselves. It is therefore truly “a film for children, perhaps.” It’s capability of disrupting the homogeneity of safe content fed to children–surely keeping them pacified and unimaginative—is matched by the challenge set to the adult viewer in considering the narrative traps they are placing their children into — or have fallen into themselves. In other words, for every Barbie or Ken sold, a pair of scissors should be included in the box.