Jabberwocky: meditation on growing up, conforming and assuming adult responsibilities

Jan Svankmajer, “Jabberwocky / Zvahlav aneb Saticky Slameneho Huberta” (1971)

Inspired by the Lewis Carroll poem of the same name, and which it dispenses with early on, this stop-motion animation short is a meditation on growing up, getting chewed through the sausage machine of school and assuming adult responsibilities while all the while trying to figure out a plan of escape that is consistently thwarted by greater forces in society. Although the stories told here look superficially like stories for children, there are suggestions of cruelty, meanness and misery that may puzzle or upset young children and which are really intended to be understood by adults.The music by Zdenek Liska is a beautiful and at times whimsical accompaniment to the film.

The film is only loosely based on the poem “Jabberwocky”: after the child’s voice finishes the recitation, the film shoots off on its own trajectory of the joy of early childhood celebrated by a dancing sailor suit which is suddenly trapped by sprouting tree canopies that drop fruit full of worms, followed by dolls emerging from their mother in the manner of maggots leaving behind a shell that was once their victim. The dolls are put through school, assembly-line style, and fall into a mincer which churns them out into flattened pieces. An iron comes and works the pieces over into miniature fashion mannequins. Exquisite china dolls sit at dinner: mum feeds the baby and wacks the older child while her companion chows down on a soup of amputated body parts.

The most memorable parts of the film include the scene of the somersaulting knife which unfortunately is forced into suicide, and repeating scenes of a line trying to trace a path through a maze before a black cat blunders into it from behind. Building blocks assemble to form Victorian illustrations. At last the line finds its path and scribbles all over a portrait of an elderly gent before flying through a nearby window to celebrate freedom.

Movement is quick and breezy and the entire atmosphere of “Jabberwocky” looks bright and energetic with jerky objects hardly ever still and many surprises and shocks in store: a doll gives birth to numerous tiny clones, the sailor suit mistreats a rocking-horse into bucking, the cat ends up stuck in a tiny cage. These shocks may be interpreted as examples of how cruel and nasty children can be to one another or as a general example of the unfairness of adult life or life generally. The film brims with busyness and viewers may be left behind trying to read too much story into the film.

While the stop-motion animation work is excellent, I did think that for its subject the film was a few minutes too long – the dancing knife scene could have been edited to be shorter and the scene with the sailor-suit harassing the rocking-horse could also have been truncated – and the origami scene was rather repetitive for what it was. Svankmajer has made better films than this though it’s not bad generally. I’d have preferred something a bit more whimsical, a bit sadder and with an ending of heroic failure.

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