Movie Review: Woodsman, Don’t Spare That Tree!

Cover imageAll right, class, when I say “animation,” how many of you think “kid’s movie?”  Good.  Yes, as anyone who was conscious during the early ’70s can tell you, just because the ad has a cute-looking cartoon cat named Fritz doesn’t mean it’s rated G.  Well, the focus of this review is on the movie Little Otik, a film that combines live action and animation in an adaptation of a Czech folk tale by animator-turned-director Jan Svankmajer (b. 1934); but I’ll use this as an occasion to introduce some of his other films, too. And I wouldn’t rate it G, either.

“Friend, how long has it been since you saw a film about a childless couple that adopts a treestump?”*

Little Otik (Otesanek in Czech) is, as I said, an adaptation of a folk tale about a childless couple; the husband, seeing his wife’s desperation at having no children, finds a tree root that looks vaguely human. He cleans it up and gives it to her, and soon her devotion to it brings it to life. This stump-child has an insatiable appetite and eventually develops a taste for meat, although it lacks the high morals of your normal carnivore. It eats beef, the neighbors, the postman, anything it can get its little wooden hands on.

This movie is a lot of things.  Yes, I guess we have to classify it as a horror film–where else do you put films about carnivorous trees?–but it’s also really funny, and in some unusual ways. It’s typical of Svankmajer’s films in that the stuff that’s funny is also very disturbing; but the things that are primarily disturbing–and there are a couple of extremely disturbing subjects treated in this movie, some of the most monstrous evils in this world–are treated with an artistically humorous touch that allows us to look these evils straight in the face, if only for a second.

 How Uncle Jan Makes the Food Dance

Svankmajer (b. 1934) has been doing animation since the sixties, amazing folks all along the way.  Deemed subversive by the communists, he survived the suppression of his work from the time the tanks rolled into Prague through the Velvet Revolution, and now he’s considered a trailblazer, maverick and brilliant storyteller. He’s still producing films at a rate of about 1 every 5 years: in 2005 he released Lunacy (which combines Edgar Allan Poe and the Marquis de Sade, and involves more dancing steaks than you can imagine), 2010 brought us Surviving Life (and that title gets weirder the more I think about it), and in 2015 he has promised to release Insects (in which, I’m told, insects act like humans and humans act like insects).

The style of animation that is used in Otik is the kind that Svankmajer has used since he started in the subversive cartoon business, the style referred to as stop-motion animation. The difference between stop-motion style, used in films like Jason and the Argonauts, and the technique used, say, in Disney’s Pinocchio–in which the individual frames are drawn separately and then combined–lies mostly in the fact that stop-motion usually involves a three dimensional object, while the Disney style involves a flat drawing.

Animator-turned-director Terry Gilliam has included Svankmajer’s Dimensions of Dialogue on his list of the ten greatest animated films of all time. I remember seeing a couple of the Czech director’s works on the PBS series International Animation Festival in the ’70’s, but everything on that show was unusual, so it’s even more of a wonder that his pieces still stick out in my mind. And trust me when I say that Little Otik won’t blend in with anything else, either. I’m happy to say that DPL still has the copy of the film that was my introduction to Svankmajer, and it also has a two-volume collection of his short films (which includes Dimensions of Dialogue).

*I’m sorry, I should add “Well, that’s too long!”

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