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With: Jan Hartl, Veronika Zilkova, Kristina Adamcova
Written by: Jan Svankmajer
Directed by: Jan Svankmajer
MPAA Rating: NR
Language: Czech with English subtitles
Running Time: 125
Date: 12/18/2001

Little Otik (2000)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)


By Jeffrey M. Anderson

If you've never seen one of director Jan Svankmajer's animated films before, you're in for a weird treat. The Svankmajer style uses single-frame stop-motion animation (sometimes manipulating live humans) and a strange obsession with food, mixed with a working-class vision of Czech citizens behind closed doors.

His last film, Conspirators of Pleasure (1997), followed a series of people as they indulged in their weird obsessions, from stuffing balls of bread up their nose to dressing like a chicken to building arms and legs on a television set so that a blonde female newscaster can caress the viewer while reading the news.

With his fourth feature Little Otik, Svankmajer uproots a traditional Czech fairy tale and plants it in modern-day Prague. It's his most narrative-friendly film to date.

Little Otik, which screened at last April's San Francisco International Film Festival under the title Otesánek, tells the twisted story of a young couple who can't have a baby. The husband Karel (Jan Hartl) digs up a tree stump that looks vaguely like a baby. He cleans it up and presents it to his wife Bozena (Veronika Zilkova), who immediately treats it as a human, bathing it, dressing it and taking it out for walks.

Bozena invents a scam in which she wears pillows, a bigger one for every month, so that the neighbors in her apartment building will think she's pregnant. She even takes to walking a plastic doll around in a baby carriage after the baby is "born" so that people will think everything is normal.

Before long, Little Otik grows and develops a taste for meat, devouring bags of groceries at a time, and it even eats a social worker who wanders unwanted into the family's kitchen. After a few more disasters, Karel locks the beast in the basement in the hopes of starving it to death. But a little neighbor girl named Alzbetka (Kristina Adamcova) feels sorry for Otik and begins to feed it in secret.

Reading through her storybooks, she finds the actual Little Otik fairy tale that is being played out in real life before her eyes. She manipulates real events to match that of the fairy tale and leads everything toward a semi-happy ending.

That's Svankmajer's most interesting comment in the film -- that the fairy tale book exists within its own story, as if Little Otik the movie were eating itself. Besides that, Little Otik also seems to be commenting on the ravenousness of human consumption -- wanting and getting and consuming. And though Little Otik's primary concern is food and babies, the film could just as well be talking about Egg Beaters or video game cubes or back scratchers.

Little Otik probably contains the least amount of Svankmajer animation per minute than any of his previous films. (Not helped by the fact that the film is, at 125 minutes, far too long.) Otik himself is animated and not much else. But the rest of the film somehow feels strange, as if it, too, were carved out of wood and animated by hand.

It's too bad that the Oscars will overlook Little Otik for Best Foreign Film consideration, opting instead for the innocuous Dark Blue World as the Czech entry. Even with its layer of artificiality, this black comedy with a brain offers a far truer look at humanity at work.

Best Buy Co, Inc.