Jan Svankmajer is a Czechoslovakian animator whose work for the past 20 years or so has confounded, confused and often delighted audiences in Europe but may be lost on much of the American audience.Still, between intermittent moments of self-indulgence and certain pieces that are too slowly paced or redundant, students of animation will find much to dazzle them among the several pieces collected here.
Svankmajer is of the George Pal "Puppetoon" school, most recently repopularized by Wil Vinton's Claymation process for everything from features ("The Adventures of Mark Twain") to commericals ("The Raisin Guys"). Basically it is stop-motion photography used to give life to inanimate objects.
Svankmajer's best-known work here is his feature-length surrealistic "Alice," as in "Alice in Wonderland." In his hands, inanimate objects not only do amazing things, they seem to become residents of their own special world, one in which human beings are not particularly welcome.
For example, my personal favorite among these pieces is "The Flat," a black-and-white excursion that has a man locked in a one-room apartment, contending with all sorts of bizarre encounters, from the furniture to the pictures on the walls to the food on the table. It is the ultimate showdown between man and man-made elements - and the latter are smarter.
Others more or less tell a sort of story within the confines of Svankmajer's strange imagination, such as "Punch and Judy," a variation on the well-known puppet act; "The Pendulum, the Pit and Hope," a version of Poe's "Pit and the Pendulum" like you've never seen; and "The Last Trick," with a pair of puppet/-robot musician/magicians who go completely berserk before it's over. Each piece offers many memorable images.
I was also enchanted by some of the "Dimensions of Dialogue" and "Et Cetera" segments, even shorter pieces with a unique outlook on everything from food and utensils and their relationship to the human body, to a clay animation sexual encounter that produces the ultimate unwanted birth.
Much of Svankmajer's work is up for grabs, as far as interpretation is concerned. And there will be some who may not have the patience for his admittedly very weird outlook on life, some of which goes on too long, is far too repetitious and more than a little self-indulgent.
But, for me, the rewards outweigh the aggravation, and Svankmajer's accomplishments are justifiably appreciated by an ever-widening cult audience.
Though unrated, the material, however surreal, might justify a PG-13 rating - in other words, not for young children.