Friday, February 18, 2011

It's a Tree Baby!

Here at the Deadly’ Doll’s House, we’re an equal opportunity villain establishment. In other words, just because you’re constructed from a tree does not mean you’re not welcomed at February’s Attack of the Vertically Challenged Villains and thusly do I present today’s features, the Czech Republic’s 2000 arthouse hit, Little Otik.
Quick Plot: Karel and Bozena want nothing more than to have a baby, as every watermelon and fish market teases them daily with an impossible pregnancy. On a weekend trip to their wacky neighbors’ cabin in the woods, Karel gets inspired to craft a mock infant out of an unusual tree branch, finding its shape hilarious. Bozena,  much to his surprise, is delighted (and suddenly slightly insane). They finally have a BABY!

Men, be warned: This is what happens when you play a joke on your female partner’s uterus.
Try as he may, Karel can’t convince his wife that their child is, you know, an inanimate piece of bark. The best he can do is persuade her to fake a pregnancy and introduce the newly named baby Otik into the world a few trimesters later. Faster than you can say Pinnochio, Bozena knits some baby bumps, breaks out the pickles and whipped cream, and announces her news to nosy apartment mates.
Chief amongst the neighbors is Alzbetka a precocious little blond obsessed, as it would seem, with obstetrics. Abby (as I’ll now call her because really, Ablkjlkj is hard to write) is instantly suspicious of the infertile couple’s sudden turn in luck, an itch that grows months later when Bozena starts pushing around an always covered baby carriage.

See, Otik does indeed achieve ‘real-boy’ status, but much like Grace, it’s not going to send him into the preschool honor society. He’s hungry, aggressive, and growing treenails every day, eventually reaching Audrey II proportions. His parents do what they can, but once apartment pets and civil servants start disappearing, parental sympathy beings to wane.

The plot of Little Otik isn’t necessarily surprising, but the execution is playful, unique, and truly remarkable. Director Jan Svankmajer has a lot of fun with his quirky but familiar characters, from Abby’s ahead-of-her years preteen to a dirty old man whose pants pop open in adorable stop motion whenever he catches sight up her skirt. The design of Otik is both cute and haunting, while the fairy tale elements (beautifully illustrated with folk-tale-like animated drawings) add another layer of intrigue.

Now the bad news: Little Otik is two hours and six minutes long. Had the film maintained a focus for that running time, this wouldn’t be a problem, but unfortunately, it just...keeps...going. At a certain point, we completely lose our original leads as Abby becomes more prominent. Her character (and performance) is certainly entertaining, but the switch happens so deep into the already dense film that it kind of lost me.
High Points
Svankmajer’s camera is wonderfully used, with interesting angles and even more interesting faces getting full exploration
Low Points
2 hours. And 6 minutes.
Lessons Learned
Tree bark butts get very dry

Much like those hungry Cabbage Patch Kids form the late ‘90s, feeding a tree bark baby will run you the risk of having your ponytail eaten as dessert
If it’s going to be chocolate, it’s got to be Charon
Hey kid, I know you’re eleven and all but if you’re uncomfortable with the ancient neighbor ogling your rear, maybe you should wear a skirt that actually covers it

Little Otik is something genuinely different, a Basket Case-like tale told with a tad more class and visual intrigue. It’s a definite recommend for those fans of tamed surrealism, though the overlong running time might be felt. Still, if there’s one thing the world needs more of, it’s movies on Instant Watch about carnivorous tree babies that eat mailmen and whose downfall is cabbage. That’s written in the bible somewhere, I’m sure.


  1. Glad to see this one getting some love. I saw it years ago during a Svankmejer phase and adored it. I love the batshit craziness of the whole affair, coupled with the stop motion.

    You might like OF FREAKS AND MEN, too.

  2. This movie sounds incredible....
    I will rent this one immediately.

  3. I'm definitely intrigued to see some more Svankmejer, even if it means I have to keep typing out these incredibly consonant heavy names! Of Freaks and Men will go to the queue! Thanks for the recommendation.

    Can't wait to hear your thoughts Andrew!

  4. I remember seeing this one back in college. Kind of reminded my of Lynch's Eraserhead visually and (somewhat) narratively. If you're interested in seeing more of Svankmejer's work, might I suggest "Alice?" Its probably his most popular film to date.

  5. I can see the Eraserhead connection, both playing with fatherly fears of parenthood. Your Alice recommendation is noted!

  6. Otik looks so adorable.. i want to cuddle with him/her/it.

  7. I've always wanted to see Little Otik just for the pure fact it looks wild, however, it is that run-time that has honestly kept me from diving in as of yet.

  8. Tangerine, this movie made me want to have kids (providing they would come out of my womb as trees).

    Matt, the run-time is intense, and I personally felt it in the last third, but the film is genuinely unique and one I think you would dig. Do it! (when you have 2 hours and 6 minutes to spare).