Alice to Alice; Svankmajer and Burton

John_Tenniel-_Alice's_mad_tea_party,_colour
Alice in Wonderland, John Tenniel, 1865 (public domain image)

Comparisons Relating How We Judge Animated Film

by M. Murphy ©2014

I was asked: By what standards do we judge animated films? It would seem an industry standard that how one judge animated film is broken in to five categories; artists intentions, cultures subjective values of art/aesthetic, popularity and/or commercial success, innovation and originality, and laugh meter. Of course there are many other facets to consider that ultimately broaden or narrow one’s scope of observation but it seems for now that animated film easily adheres to the aforementioned standards.

I will attempt to compare two very different adaptations of one story; Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The first adaptation is by Jan Svankmajer with his 1988 film, Alice, and the second is by Tim Burton with his 2010 film, Alice in Wonderland. I will be applying the five standards by which one judge an animated film, and briefly highlight any similarities, differences, and anything else that may seem interesting or noteworthy.

Something I do find quite interesting is that since Carroll’s Wonderland was first published in 1865; as a book it has never been out of print, and it has been translated in nearly a hundred different languages. There have been numerous adaptations in all types of media and in my mind Wonderland makes an ideal template to measure the standards for how one judge animated film; after all, Carroll’s story is extremely imaginative and fantastical. It lends itself as a perfect foundation in which to build an animated adaptation.

Artists Intention

Jan Svankmajer’s adaptation is truly remarkable. I absolutely loved this film. From my first viewing I felt as though Svankmajer intended for his film to reflect the fact that the story is about a dream, or daydreaming. Moreover, I think Svankmajer intended for his film to be the result of his ability as an artist; his skills and technique as an animator, and the implementation of what is familiar in Svankmajer’s environment. Most of all I think that Svankmajer’s intent was to tell a story in such a way that reflects the hand-crafted traditions of lore.

Tim Burton’s adaptation is also remarkable, but I like it less so than Svankmajer’s film; Burton combines two of Carroll’s books to make this adaptation, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and Through the Looking Glass. I think that underneath everything layered upon Burton his intent was to make an entertaining film; in this aspect he was successful. This adaptation certainly has many of the trademark Burton-like characteristics that have made his previous films successful, but for all its imagination it seems to lack that elusive intangible that would otherwise assist in clarifying intention outside of purposes for entertainment only. This is not necessarily a bad thing either; Burton’s film is extremely well made and exactly what he intended.

Culture’s Subjective Values of Art/Aesthetic

Oddly enough, we are not exposed to examples of art that expand and breach boundaries of our perception as much as I feel we should be, but perhaps there is so much absurdity already in real life that we gloss over such occurrences too frequently for anything to really take hold.

When I compare Svankmajer’s work with the subject value scale of art and aesthetic in today’s culture I see a reflection of the raw primitive grit that makes people what they are. We are driven by base needs and wants, simple constructs and mechanisms, and most of all we love a good story. It doesn’t matter if we’ve heard it a hundred times before. I think Svankmajer is very successful with his artistic execution. One does not expect, nor prepare, to receive such imagery yet in the end one seamlessly accepts the imagery as plausible in context.

Artistically, Svankmajer’s adaptation is executed with live-action combined and interacting with stop motion, small scale personal set-builds, adoringly rich archaic puppets, simplicity and ingenuity, hand-made and produced on a much smaller scale by comparison. Burton’s adaptation is all live-action and green screen capture animation, full digital process, large staff, enormous budget . . . the result of many people working together on common goals to come close to some personal vision; another cog in the great entertainment wheel of fate.

Aesthetically, Burton really made a beautiful film. His adaptation is immensely rich visually, but there were certain expectations already in place and his film comes across as an exercise in new technologies and their use, equally as much as it is a great artistic production.

Culturally, there is somewhat of a stigma that comes with artistic production relative to its business side. Compared to some other Tim Burton films, I feel that this film should have been stop motion because Burton does amazing stop motion, and because fuck expectation.

Popularity and/or Commercial Success

Let’s face it. I never saw any Jan Svankmajer Alice movie memorabilia, clothing line, video game, action figures . . . but I have seen an obscene overload of Disney mass marketing of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland starring Johnny Depp. It’s that type of ram it down your throat approach that really makes it special. Like I mentioned previously, certain expectations were already in place regarding the Disney production.

Fortunately, I did happen to see Svankmajer’s Alice, and many of his other films at animation festivals screened at the Charles Theater in Baltimore and several old theaters in Washington DC from late 80’s through the mid 90’s. The Animation Film Festival circuit was fairly popular and most showings had great turnout. There was always publicity and visibility centered on the event and many of the filmmakers whose works were shown went on to accomplish a great many things, Tim Burton was among them.

Innovation and Originality

Honestly, Svankmajer’s adaptation is much more innovative than Burton’s; the big factor here is budget.    Innovation is bred from having to adapt in environments that are less than ideal while remaining attentive to positive aspects. Svankmajer is more successful in this regard probably because he is beholden to himself, and everything occurred on a much smaller scale.

Burton is successful at achieving technical/digital innovation, and more importantly paving the way to the future of film making through digital animation. Burton is part of the trend that has the means and imagination to realize potential and vision; this innovation helps the animation industry survive and thrive.

Svankmajer is innovative in blending live action with stop motion. Great editing and careful planning can be attributed to this. I also feel that he is innovative in choice of set pieces, puppets, repetition, color palette . . .

As for originality; both Svankmajer and Burton have transcended that label by the sheer virtue of being individuals. Both possess an almost archetypical individuality that elevates what these artist/filmmakers accomplish as benchmarks to aspire to, and they make it seem so easy.

Laugh Meter

A lot of this depends on one’s taste in humor. I find both films to have a great laugh meter ranking.

Svankmajer’s humor is a bit more sardonic; reflective of the book as well as Svankmajer’s cultural associations as executed with the material constructs of his immediate environment. The minimalistic interactions between Alice and all the other characters are quite funny to me; perhaps due to my suspension of disbelief.

Burton gets laugh by way of his actors portrayals paired with digital manipulation. His adaptation creates a much more playful attitude with lots of good twisted-ness thrown in, and oh yeah, drama, plenty of drama. Seriously, Crispin Glover is hilarious in this film as the Knave of Hearts.

Resources

Alice. (1988). [film] Directed by J. Švankmajer.

Zanuck, Richard D., et al. Alice in Wonderland. Walt Disney Pictures, 2010

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