written and directed by Jan Svankmajer runs Feb. 8-14 at Varsity
THIS GROTESQUE updated Czech fairy tale about a ravenous tree-root baby should resonate here in the chastened, postcrash Silicon Forest. "This can't end well," worries Karel, the storklike father of the carving-come-to-life, yet his desperate parental yearning wins out. He sounds like someone who greedily bought Amazon stock at $135 per share—then had his misgivings disastrously realized.
Karel and his wife, Bozena, can be forgiven their longing for a child. In his fertile imagination, Karel envisions babies everywhere—inside a melon or netted from a fishmonger's tank. So, in Jan Svankmajer's whimsical vision, it follows that Karel sees the form of an infant in a stump he pulls from the ground and shapes into a gift for his despairing wife. In an increasingly feral manner, Bozena embraces the illusion and feigns pregnancy in order to bring the baby home (under the suspicious gaze of the neighbor's precocious child Alzbetka). Reluctantly, Karel goes along and names the child Otik, but in private he warily calls it Otesᮥk—referring to the folktale of the tree-root child that comes to life with a rapacious, destructive appetite.
As you might expect from Svankmajer (admired by Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam for his surrealist puppet films), Otik indeed comes to life in stylized stop-motion animation. He develops teeth and an eye—plus a grisly taste for the cat and the postman. Alzbetka recognizes the story, too, and tries to prevent the monster's inevitable end.
Although the movie drags at 127 minutes, Svankmajer's fecund creativity is impossible not to admire. He fires at his target with the broad imprecision of buckshot, peppering his theme of desire and its devastating consequences with the pretty lies of TV ads and an elderly pedophile who frailly pursues Alzbetka. The final, vivid effect of Otik leaves us happily stumped.