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Little Otik (Jan Svankmajer) 2001 

Itís somewhat ironic that Jan Svankmajerís Little Otik should be released in the United States on the same day as Peter Jacksonís megabudget spectacle The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings, since this scary fairy taleís plot, which shows a family as they rear a monster of a child, evokes Jacksonís gory masterpiece Dead Alive more than any other film. In Jacksonís film, there were several hilarious scenes where the protagonist attempted to integrate his zombie baby into the rest of society, treating the monster as if it were a normal child, and one of the best images from that film Ė a cartoonish, rollicking baby carriage Ė is repeated here. Svankmajerís film has its own flavor, however, and instead of a zombie child Karel and Bozena, the filmís protagonists, raise a tree root carved to look like a baby. 

The film is a modern day recreation of, Otesanek, a familiar Czech folk tale, so itís only quibbling to wonder what makes Karel think that presenting his infertile and depressed wife with a wooden baby would be a good idea. That she takes to it and begins to treat it like a real child is unexpected, even to Karel, and many of the filmís events feel less like they make any psychological sense and more like theyíre simply fulfilling the prophecy created by their folklore. Itís notable that Karel is aware of the folk tale, yet chooses to dig up the child anyway, since a lot of the filmís energy is spent pointing out how we ignore our creation myths and hide ourselves from truth in our newspapers, work, school, and television. There are many scenes in which authority figures (doctors, parents, husbands) attempt to debunk the presence of the mythic Otik without actually investigating his existence. Alzbetka, a little girl who lives in the apartment next door to Otik, is consistently told that itís inappropriate that she wants to read about sex or quote the carnage in the news, even though those same things are literally to be found next door. That her parents practically push her into the arms of a neighboring pedophile every time he shows up shows how clueless Svankmajer thinks they are. It makes a good deal of sense that a director who makes animated films skewed toward an adult perspective would be interested in telling us that the things we deem as childish actually could enlighten us. 

Still, Svankmajer spends so much time justifying his work with the validation of folklore that it pushes the filmís running time past two hours, which is more than the filmís threadbare premise can really bear. Itís somewhat detrimental to the whole in almost any film when the director feels it is necessary to begin validating his film like this, and for a filmmaker with as consistently unique a vision as Svankmajer to do that is quite discouraging. His thesis, which basically states that weíre using our modern dayís societal trappings to block out the primal truths about ourselves, feels somewhat self-serving and redundant. Obviously his audience, which will be willingly subjecting themselves to both a folk tale and a partially animated film, will already understand that both can be enlightening for adults. Since folklore, by its very nature, adapts itself to our modern times itís going to always be relevant. Little Otik, despite being at times an enjoyably absurd bit of Grand Guignol, often simply underlines the obvious. 

*** 

12-20-01

Jeremy Heilman