Little Otik (Otesánek)
Director: Jan Svankmajer
Producer: Jaromir Kallista
Written by: Jan Svankmajer
Cast: Veronika Zilková, Jan Hartl, Jaroslava Kreschmerová, Pavel Novy, Kristina Adamcová, Dagmar Stribrna, Zdenek Kozak, Jitka Smutna, Jiri Labus
Rating: out of 5
Now I’m a sucker for folk tales and I own every single one of the Andrew Lang Fairy books, so consider yourself warned. Little Otik, an updated treatment of the Czech fairy tale “Otesánek,” concerns the brief, troubled life of a gnarled tree root that a desperate, childless couple adopt as their baby. On a country holiday, Mr. Horak (Hartl), one half of the infertile Prague couple, comes across a tree stump that bears a face, arms, and legs. After some judicious pruning, he presents the stump-baby to his wife (Zilková) as a bitter joke. To his dismay, she joyfully clasps it to her bosom and begins to dress it in long-hoarded baby clothes. She persuades her spouse to let her keep the baby, so long as she only mothers it on weekends at their cottage.
Soon, the stump-baby is everything that’s worth living for to the missus, and she concocts a scheme whereby she stuffs her clothes with pillows of ever-increasing size to mimic a pregnancy. Eventually Mrs. Horak “goes into labor” and returns to her Prague apartment with a baby whom the neighbors never actually get to see, including hyper-intelligent and preternaturally curious Alzbetka (Adamcová), the eight-year-old next door.
Lacking playmates and way too wise for her years, Alzbetka is a character worthy of a movie all her own. In fact, better if she had a movie all her own. Svankmajer, just as enamored of this character as we are, stretches out Little Otik far longer than necessary or desirable in order to maximize our time with clever Alzbetka. She stuns her dedicatedly lowbrow father (Novy) by reading treatises on sexual dysfunction at the dinner table. She’s perfectly aware of the menace and intent glittering behind the thick spectacles of the upstairs neighbor, Mr. Zlabek (Kozak), an aged Aqualung if ever there was one. But most of all she’s lonely. Why else would this otherwise smart cookie befriend the menacing Otik, who by now has the stature and the appetite of Gargantua.
Though the Horaks bust their budget buying choice chops to feed their baby, Otik scarfs down the family cat, a letter carrier, and an officious social worker. The animation of the ravening Otik, waving his tentacle-like branches and shoots, is about as far away from Disney (which Svankmajer has reviled as an evil influence on Western culture) or Pixar as you can imagine. Yet it’s probably more menacing because of its rendering. Where Pixar-ed critters strive to look nearly lifelike, Svankmajer wants to bring his animated creatures to life. We’re talking feats of imagination here, not technical achievement.
After reading a book of collected fairy tales, Alzbetka twigs to who the Horak’s “baby” really is. When the fairy tale reveals that Otik will work his own ruin by a particular transgression, Alzbetka tries to forestall his fate by bringing him some “meals” (think “Feed me, Seymour!). Eventually though, the greedyguts goes too far, and meets his own grisly end.
This is one dark, dark comedy. Jan Hartl is particularly fine as the putative “father” whose mind rebels against the absurdity of his situation even as he has no choice but to perform his paternal duties. Subtitled, and with its overlong running time, riven guts, and great splatters of blood, Little Otik is not for the kiddies, but it should satisfy the tastes of those who enjoy folklore, fairy tales, animation, or surrealism.
Take a pal and pay full price for both tickets.
It’s worth a full-price ticket.
It’s worth a matinee ticket.
Wait for video rental.
Check out the video from the library, if you must.
While we would never encourage anyone to destroy a video...