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'Little Otik'

Stumped 'Little Otik' director delivers offbeat offspring

Friday, March 01, 2002

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

Like the creature that gives the film its title, "Little Otik" begins as a clever prank, takes on a life of its own and swells in size, becoming far too big for its own good until no filmmaker's imagination is sufficient to fill it.

 
 
'Little Otik'

RATING: Unrated; contains violent imagery and nudity. Subtitled.

STARRING: Veronika Zilkova, Jan Hartl.

DIRECTOR: Jan Svankmejer.

CRITIC'S CALL:

   
 

That's too bad, because Czech director Jan Svankmejer is renowned for the fiendish whimsy of his animated shorts. "Little Otik," playing through Tuesday only at the Melwood Screening Room in Oakland, plays mostly as trenchant live-action.

Bozena Horakova (Veronika Zilkova) is desperate to have a child, but she and her husband, Karel (Jan Hartl), cannot conceive. One day, he digs up a tree stump that is shaped vaguely like a child. Perhaps to jolt Bozena out of her misery, he finishes carving it and presents it to her. To his horror, she begins washing it and dressing it in baby clothes.

Let's just say that, like all babies, Little Otik gets hungry. With a capital H. Hungry in a "Little Shop of Horrors" way. Only the nosy little neighbor girl, Alzbetka (Kristina Adamcova), figures out the truth about Little Otik -- and reacts in a most surprising way.

At the outset, Svankmejer provides some rather striking images through Karel's eyes. As his wife emerges despondent yet again from the doctor's office, Karel looks out the window at the street and sees a sidewalk merchant fishing babies out of a tub of water, wrapping them in newsprint and selling them to a growing line of customers.

Throughout the film, Svankmejer provides closeup images of food, many of which will stem your appetite -- thick soups and porridges, meats and pancakes covered in sauces that the characters roll around their tongues.

The meals seem to be served up constantly by Alzbetka's mother (Jaroslava Kretschmerova), who obviously thinks nothing says loving like something from the oven. No wonder Alzbetka is just plump enough to arouse the interest of the dirty-old-man neighbor, Mr. Zlabek (Zdenek Kozak).

If Otik -- a frantic stop-animated puppet creation -- is a kind of Frankenstein's monster created by an irrational and demented love, what does that make the human characters? At one point Svankmejer shows the grossly swollen belly of a pregnant woman that could be compared to the round mound of Otik breathing contentedly under the covers after another big meal.

The biggest problem with "Little Otik" is its length. At 127 minutes, it is a full half-hour longer than anything Svankmejer has made before. Once he has fully established the premise, he all but tells us how it will end by having Alzbetka read a fairy tale that mirrors the events she sees happening around her. It becomes a long, slow trudge to the end, with not enough of Svankmejer's vivid visual shock humor -- or even a good look at the no-longer-little Otik -- to sustain it.

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