Wildly inventive, slightly demented, Jiří Barta´s Na půdě aneb Kdo má dneska narozeniny? (in English, that´s In the Attic, or Who Has a Birthday Today?) is a wonderful little children´s picture that´s plenty of fun for adults (especially animation buffs) to boot. Barta, a stop-motion animator who received some international acclaim for his shorts in the 80´s (particularly for Krysar, a dark take on The Pied Piper of Hamelin) seemed to have disappeared after the fall of communism in Czechoslovakia; his last major work was in 1989. He´s back 20 years later with Na půdě, his first feature (though at 75 minutes, it´s only about 20 minutes longer than Krysar) and one of the best Czech films in recent years.
While its style couldn´t be more different, Na půdě´s story recalls Pixar´s Toy Story, or more precisely, Toy Story 2, which had a similar kidnapping plot. In the Attic live a group of forgotten toys (and other, not-so-toy-like creatures). Our heroes live in a suitcase home, and a daily roll of the dice decides who has a birthday: there´s Buttercup, a fair blonde-haired doll; Teddy, a reserved teddy bear; Mr. Handsome, a marionette forever struggling with his strings, and Schubert, a lump of clay with a pencil nose, button ears, and a bottlecap hat. Around their attic town live other assorted residents, including a makeshift mouse repairwoman and radio presenter and assorted chess pieces.
On ‘the other side of the world´ reside our enemies, headed by a menacing statue bust who is aided by the house´s tomcat, a real cat who becomes a stop-motion creature when he dons a costume to trick buttercup into accompanying him to the dark side of the attic. When a toy train crash sufficiently distracts the town´s residents, Buttercup is snatched and Teddy, Mr. Handsome, and Schubert must traverse perilous caves, snow-covered mountains and black seas in order to rescue her.
Of course, they´re really only travelling across dusty furniture and mountains of old boxes. But there´s an unbridled joy in how Barta relates the attic setting to real-world peril, as Teddy and Mr. Handsome trek up a cabinet mountain with hammer & nails gear to reach pillow clouds & feather snow at the top. Couch cushions become dark caves, and a wave of garbage bags becomes a thick sea. The benevolent mouse turns a vacuum cleaner into an airplane, and then a boat, bringing the town residents along to catch up to our heroes in their rescue attempt. It´s beautiful stuff to watch, and animation fans can really appreciate the craft that has gone into the film; the stop-motion is seamless, and every few scenes had me wondering how Barta and his animators accomplished what they did.
Despite the attic stand-ins, the danger is never less than real, and perhaps too intense for the youngest kids. The statue bust, called, quite simply, The Head (who reminded me of the clay head in Švankmajer´s Darkness/Light/Darkness), and some of his insect henchmen can be extremely creepy. This is the best kind of imaginative, just-slightly disturbing kids´ film that has all-but vanished from screens in the US.
There are fewer and fewer stop-motion animators working today, but the genre still remains popular (at least on the cult circuit) within the Czech Republic, having been locally fathered by figures like Karel Zeman and Jiří Trnka from the 1940´s to the 60´s. Their style can be observed through today´s animated films, such as Fimfárum Jana Wericha and Fimfárum 2, compilation efforts from directors Vlasta Pospíšilová and Aurel Klimt and others based on Jan Werich stories, and Jan Balej´s excellent Jedné noci v jednom městě (One Night in One City).
Still, it´s only the rare director that has much success internationally; as good as a film like One Night in One City is, it seems to have settled in mild obscurity. But there´s a worldwide appetite for animation that has arguably resulted in Jan Švankmajer becoming the most well-known contemporary Czech director worldwide, even if he remains an acquired taste in his homeland.
Barta acquired a similar level of international attention in the ‘80s, and now he´s back in a big way after disappearing for twenty years. Na půdě is not piece of cult animation, but a film of heart and high craft that will appeal to a large audience; in its own way, Barta´s film is as impressive as what´s coming out of studios like Pixar and Ghibli. A short(ish) runtime does not diminish its impact: this is a mini-masterpiece.
If you´re interested in more of Barta´s work, I highly recommend Jiří Barta: Labyrinth of Darkness, an R1 DVD compilation of eight of his best-known shorts, including Krysar (The Pied Piper of Hamelin).
Note: Na půdě will be screening with English subtitles at Kino Atlas from Thursday, 9.4.09.