The idea that folktales are
"stories for children" is a fairly recent invention, dating primarily
from the 19th century when a few well-intentioned authors decided to rewrite
the traditional stories stripped of their darker elements. In the original
tales, dark elements are there a-plenty: death, dismemberment, cannibalism,
incest, abandonment, and cruelty all raise their grim heads in various tales.
(For instance, in the original "Cinderella," Cinderella's stepsisters
actually cut off their heels and toes in an attempt to fit their feet into the
glass slipper; later, when they're escorting Cinderella to the church to marry
the prince, birds fly down and peck their eyes out.) The folktale world is a
dark mirror of our own: no more dangerous than the real world, but with its
monsters and dangers more recognizable, its psychological depths expressed on
the surface rather than hidden. As such, a traditional folktale is very much a
story for adults: entertaining, thought-provoking and often disturbing.
Little Otik (Otesánek)
steps in as a dramatic example of translating folktale to film successfully:
it's not a prettified Disney retelling, but a dark and rich rendition of the
tale's inner and outer stories. In this case, writer/director Jan Svankmajer takes
on the Czech story of "Otesánek," whose plot I won't summarize here,
as the tale itself is incorporated into the film. Set in the modern world, but
at an unspecified place and time, Little Otik starts off with Karel (Jan
Hartl) and Bozena (Veronika Zilková), a husband and wife who have tried
unsuccessfully to have a child of their own. In a playfully surrealistic touch,
we see the world through Karel's eyes as he imagines babies everywhere, being
sold like fish at the market or nestled inside hollow melons. While the couple
are at their weekend cabin in the country, Karel turns up a remarkably
human-shaped root in the garden; acting on impulse, he shapes it into an
approximation of a baby and presents it to his wife. But the law of unintended
consequences takes hold, and Bozena latches on to the grotesque wooden figure
as her real child. She treats it as if it were alive... and is it?
One of the interesting
narrative aspects of Little Otik is that not only does the main story
follow a folktale arc, but the characters are aware that it's doing so: both
Karel and the neighbor's little girl Alzbetka (Kristina Adamcová) see that Otik
is really Otesánek. The passive Karel finds it yet one more thing keeping him
in horrified thrall to his monstrous "child"; Alzbetka finds it a
recipe for Otik's downfall that she desperately wants to avoid.
Little Otik is in one
way a story about unchecked desire, in all its forms: Otik's ravenous hunger is
the most dramatic but not necessarily the most devastating in the film's world.
Bozena's desire for a child starts the story in motion and keeps it there;
utterly selfish, she desires Otik to fulfill her own need to be a mother.
Karel's desire is to keep the status quo, to not rock the boat, expressed in
the way he attempts to pacify his wife rather than dealing with the root of the
situation, and the way he repeatedly declares his intentions to act but then
backs down. Alzbetka, the only child in the building, desires a little playmate
and is willing to put her own gratification rather shockingly ahead of the
well-being of others.
Little Otik becomes,
among other things, a horrifying cautionary tale for prospective parents: it's
the obsession with having a child at all costs that sparks the situation.
Bozena is mad, but in the story's context, she's abnormal only because the
object of her attentions is not a human baby. What, then, do we make of her
possessiveness and her dogged refusal to consider anyone outside her immediate
family? Would we accept her behavior if Otik were a real child? A telling
moment in her characterization comes when little Otik seizes her hair; he's no
longer the "toy" baby over which she can cast her pretend world of
motherhood, but an actual being with demands that she may not be able to meet.
The slow disintegration of the family from that point onward is in no small
part due to her inability to accept that Otik is more than she can handle.
Even the smallest details in
the film are used to good effect. The couple's cat is a remarkably important
member of the cast, for instance: the change in the mother's behavior toward
the cat before and after she gets Otik is a dramatic testament to her
fundamentally selfish character. Did Bozena love the cat, or did she merely
find it an acceptable child-substitute until a better substitute comes along?
The same question could be asked about her relationship with the neighbor girl,
with her husband, and with Otik.
Visually, Little Otik is
highly imaginative, both in the manner in which "ordinary" shots are
filmed (often with unexpected use of close-ups or focusing on small details),
and in the broad streak of surrealism that is interwoven into the film.
Appropriately for this disturbing tale of desire and guilty fulfillment, the
camera focuses closely on the details of food and eating: frequent tight
close-ups of food, both raw and cooked, and on the mouths consuming this food,
emphasize the queasy horror of the folktale drama. Also intercut into the
central arc of the film is an animated rendition of the Otesánek tale; the
stylized drawings somehow evoke exactly the right mood for the tale both in its
own right and in contrast to the realistic world of the main story.
Otik himself is quite creepy;
the jerky stop-motion animation used here is actually more chilling than a
smoother CGI rendition would have been, as it highlights the nightmarish tone
of the experience and leaves a certain room for wondering if it's actually real
or only imagined. The animation is also used relatively sparingly, and in small
but horrifying doses; Otik never loses his disturbing quality.
Little Otik works quite
well on the literal level, as a folktale-come-to-life; what makes it truly
interesting is how much lies below the surface. In one sense, it's a cautionary
tale of "Be careful what you wish for"; in another, it's a
fascinating, if stylized, slice of ordinary Czech life. In one way it's a story
about parent-child relationships, and in another it's a story of obsession,
madness, and alienation. It's also an intriguingly open-ended film, ending on
just the right moment to leave the viewer wondering and thinking about what
Little Otik is presented
in its original aspect ratio, which is 1.33:1. The image quality of the
transfer is quite good. Very little noise or edge enhancement appears in the
film, and it's free of print flaws. The colors are fairly muted overall, though
this may be intentional; skin tones do look natural throughout. Contrast is
handled well even in some darker basement scenes.
Unfortunately, the transfer has
burned-in English subtitles; I don't speak Czech, so I personally needed them,
but the DVD really ought to give viewers the option of viewing the film with or
without subtitles (or, ideally, with a choice of languages). The yellow
subtitles are at least very easy to read, and are always clearly visible
against the background of the film.
The film is presented in a
Dolby 2.0 soundtrack that's reasonably good; the dialogue appeared to be clear,
and sound effects and music were both supported well. The soundtrack overall is
clean-sounding, with no noise or distortion. There's not much of a surround
presence in Little Otik, but it's certainly an acceptable audio
A few mildly interesting
supplements are included with the DVD. A twelve-minute black-and-white short
film from 1969, "The Flat," is included as a sample of director Jan
Svankmajer's early work with surrealism and animation. For visual materials,
there's also a trailer for the film and a photo gallery. "Bringing up
Baby," an interview with Svankmajer, is text-only, which is a bit of a
disappointment. The one "extra" that's missing is optional subtitles:
the English subtitles are burned in to the print.
Adjectives to describe Little
Otik: Different. Creepy. Memorable. Interesting. This dark modern rendition
of a Czech folktale succeeds in telling an interesting story and in bringing to
light a number of deeper themes for the viewer to consider. The DVD
presentation is satisfactory, though the non-optional English subtitles will be
an annoyance to those who don't need them. For viewers looking for a truly
different film, one that will stick in the mind and reward a second viewing, Little
Otik is recommended.