Bozena (Veronika Zilkova) and Karel (Jan Hartel) are a young couple living in a city in Czechoslovakia, who have just been told by doctors that they can’t have children. The next week, in the country, Karel on a whim carves a tree stump into a puppet, and presents it to his wife as a substitute for a baby. Bozena loves the stump, and treats it as her own child. Over time, twitching and palpitating, it comes to life, and gradually turns into an all-devouring monster.

That’s the premise of Little Otik, a new film by the great animator Jan Svankmajer based on a Czech folk tale. For years known principally as the creator of wildly inventive shorts combining puppetry, claymation and cartoon, Svankmajer produced his first feature film in 1987. Introducing “live action” into the mix, the feature was a puckish variation on Alice in Wonderland, a story that had held Svankmajer’s imagination since he made a short film based on Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” in 1971 (a version that influenced Terry Gilliam’s rough treatment of the same material in 1977). Two other features followed, a version of the Faust legend in 1994, and in 1996, Conspirators of Pleasure, a movie about fetishes of everyday life among a group of Prague residents. Throughout, a constant was the surrealism of the ordinary: In Svankmaker’s version of Alice in Wonderland, Alice never leaves her room, and the wonders and horrors she encounters are the surroundings of her daily life.

Svankmajer’s work shares themes and styles–metamorphosis and surrealism–with his countryman Franz Kafka, but the treatment is antic, zany and ghoulishly whimsical, closer in spirit to the faux-folk-tales of Nikolai Gogol. Ooze, glop, slime, goo, milch, sludge, pap, gel, pus, sputum, and pasty, gluey cloaca: These are the textures beloved of Svankmajer, the cheerfully impudent bard of viscosity. We probably don’t need Jean Paul Sartre to tell us that these textures provoke disgust because they appear to violate boundaries. Life-giving fluids, such as porridge and paste, make up the body’s insides, and when we encounter these things in the world, so said Sartre, we feel disgust at the sense that the line between outside and inside has been hideously broached. Svankmajer’s vision takes this violation to its conclusion. Glop converts into milch, skin turns liquid, wormy substances slither in and out of porous organisms, and in these images of metamorphosis, Svankmajer suggests that we may be less terrified of existential solitude than of the opposite possibility, that the boundaries between self and other are all too permeable.

Tales of metamorphosis, from The Golden Ass to Gogol’s “The Nose” to the Alice books to Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis,” have typically been allegories against conformism. Even at their most tragic–and they’re almost always tragic–they admit the possibility of rebellion against imposed forms. This tendency may account for the gleeful quality of much of Svankmajer’s metamorphic imagery, but it clearly has its provocative side; at times the director just seems to get off on freaking people out. In Svankmajer’s world unpredictable change is the norm, and his stories typically involve characters who long for metamorphic freedom but are terrified of it when it prevails. His movies thrive on the anarchic fun of thrusting gross substances in our faces, the same impulse that drives kids to show half-chewed food in their mouths. Just as kids express an impish awareness of the paradox that food becomes disgusting once it’s masticated, so Svankmajer wants us to think about what we really desire, when we fantasize change.

Svankmajer’s point is double-edged. Change is the only freedom, his films suggest, but freedom is frightening, and in an insane world, private hallucinations might as well be general realities. His recent films are even more suggestive of these slip-knots than his animated shorts, because they make little distinction between the hallucination of cartoons and the reality of “live action.” In the first scene of Little Otik, Karel glances out a window and sees a vendor in the street fish a baby out of a vat of offal, slap it onto a newspaper, wrap it up, and present it to a nonchalant customer. Karel then turns away, as if the hallucination were too familiar to warrant notice. The scene is startling in its blunt surrealism, and oddly moving in that it’s the only exposition, aside from a brief glimpse of Bozena in tears, of the ostensible point of the scene: to show the couple’s longing for the child they can’t have.

A combination of stop-motion photography, claymation and full-fledged animation suggests different levels of reality in the film, but there’s a continuity between them that’s fundamentally characteristic of Svankmajer’s procedures. Despite its immense sophistication, his technique is simple and even a little primitive, wildly at odds with the digital, high-tech morphing of other current filmmakers. He keeps the motion spasmodic and jerky–and accompanies it with hilariously repellant squishing or retching sounds–so we’ll never lose sight of the basic inertia of the materials he’s animating. The figure of Little Otik is the best example. With off-kilter knots as eyes, and a protuberant shoot as a snout, the stump looks just human enough so that we can see how Bozena is able to project her motherly impulses onto it, and when the thatches of twig that make up its hands and feet start to twitch, it’s both creepy and cute.

For the first half of the film, Svankmajer is up to something like what the Coen Brothers attempted in Raising Arizona, in trying to show both the grotesquerie and the pathos of baby-fetishism. During this phase the movie is haunted psychically by Pinocchio and Eraserhead, with nods to the comic paranoia of Roman Polanski; Hartel, the actor playing Karel, even looks like a young Polanski at times. In the second half, the film moves into a more impersonal and allegorical territory, and loses its stride, since the attitudes toward its folk-tale materials never quite come clear. Is this cautionary moral against tampering with “nature” still relevant in quite the same way in the postmodern age? It’s surprising that instead of really interrogating these materials in the film’s second half, Svankmajer simply pursues them.

In a famous essay on puppet theater, the great German Romanticist Heinrich von Kleist argued that all spontaneity was lost in the modern age. Because of that loss, Kleist said, paradise was shut in front. But puppets, he went on, were the last vestige of spontaneity known to us, combining automatism with humanism, and through them, he claimed, we could go all the way around the world, to see if we could get back into paradise, through the rear door. That is just the roundabout journey Jan Svankmajer has pursued in his unique and distinguished career. Little Otik is one of its high points. EndBlock