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 happens.
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 experience.
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.