by Melanie Reed
For Czech director Jan Svankmaier, the objects of daily life often play a stronger role than the characters — enlisted to serve as symbols of man’s Id. In this world of unlimited symbolism and potential animation, it’s not surprising that this auteur of stop-motion/live action animation is drawn to children’s stories like Alice, classic allegorical stories like Faust, and folktales like Little Otik (Otesanek).
As in his shorts “Food” and “Meat Love,” this 2000 feature-length film takes consumption to extremes. To pacify his wife Bozenka, who suffers from an extreme case of baby lust, infertile amateur wood carver Karel Horak presents her with a small tree stump that he has pulled out of the ground and manipulated to form the general shape of a baby. But as in many folktales where someone wants something very badly, her desire gets out of hand. “Adopting” the stump as if it were a real baby, she fakes both pregnancy and birth in order to create the simulacrum of being a mother. Amazingly, after the faked birth, the tree stump comes partly alive, able to move, cry, play, consume food, and grow extremely fast – too fast, in fact, to maintain the fantasy that the monster they’ve created is anything but a monster.
As “Little Otik” quickly grows out of being little, both it and the couple grow more and more desperate – ramping up the food conveyance, but unable to prevent him from eventually consuming the cat, the postman, and anyone else who is unwise enough to get too close. Eventually, he is tied up and locked in the cellar to starve, but interfering neighbor child Alzbetka Stadler finds him and takes over as caretaker.
All these events strangely parallel the folk tale “Otesanek” that Alzbetka finds in a book – depicted along the way by gorgeous straight-on animated scenes that give the impression of being made from interlocked pieces of wood. But although she tries to turn the tragic ending around, Alzbetka ultimately has no better ideas than Otik’s “parents,” resorting to the “shortest match stick” method to decide who he’ll eat next. But as everyone knows, you can’t intervene with fate, and the film ends just one page short of the ending in the book.
Both the film and the folk tale address how greed shapes nature vs artifice. The motif of food is ever-present, reminding us that even as we feel concern about our fellow man, our basic hungers drive us. Sex and food are also aligned, and even baby lust; in an early fantasy scene, a line of women wait at a “baby-monger’s” cart to receive their days’ infant wrapped up in yesterday’s paper. The infertile Horaks have replaced natural sexual desire with the desire for even a very unnatural baby, which turns out to be no less dangerous than the fatal unnatural sexual desire of the apartment’s resident pedophile. Even Alzbetka, who is able to resist the desires of the former, is so desirous of a baby/playmate that she’s willing to risk the appetites of a monster.
In contrast, the patience required to cultivate naturally is represented by the old neighbor woman, and while Otik grows quickly, her cabbages grow slowly from seeds to large healthy plants. Full-grown Otik (whose fake nature might as well have made him spring from a cabbage patch), and the full-grown cabbages eventually face off in a completely one-sided battle, but the neighbor woman is not about to condone a fake baby consuming the results of her months of natural labor, and in a reversal of turning swords into plowshares, prepares her hoe to use as a weapon instead of a tool to help growth.
This type of theme is not unique, similarly treated in other films ranging from Rosemary’s Baby to Little Shop of Horrors. But Svankmaier’s uniquely compelling presentation makes this film eminently involving and surprising, with consistent editing, a tight pace, and creative, humorously dark variations on the theme of escalating consumption. His playful trademark darkness can be seen in the animated nails that show up in Mr. Stadler’s soup after he claims to be hungry enough to eat them, and in the TV commercials the Stadlers watch with an animated iron and animated meat. The script also has fun with the fact that Otik’s a stump. When he is “born,” Karel reports that he’s “pretty solid,” and when he’s older, Alzbetka admonishes him for “eating with dirty roots.” Bozenka’s self-serving rationalizations about the fate of Otik’s victims are also shockingly funny, as she reminds Karel that the cat “was over 14,” that the postman “was going to retire anyway,” and that the social worker was “arrogant.” Lastly, the placement of such dry lines as Mr. Stadler’s post-movie-going comment, “What a stupid film! Why don’t they make something decent — something about ordinary people?” and Karel’s comment, “That’s the way it turns out when you try to make someone happy” are eminently spot on.
“Little Otik” won and/or was deservedly nominated for numerous awards, including best feature film and best art direction, and there are few live action/stop motion animated films that even come close to being at once creative, original, entertaining and thought-provoking.
Melanie Reed is a writer, artist, dedicated Scarecrow volunteer and devoted fan of all forms of visual and literary stories.