What is it about stop-motion puppetry that is so innately unnerving? There’s something in the way those miniature humanoids or inanimate household objects (the latter a particular favorite of the art form’s practitioners) are manipulated in such herky-jerky fashion that strikes a deep, disturbing chord in viewers. To watch ’30s Polish animator Wladyslaw Starewicz’s eerily active insect corpses or the shadowy figures of current MoMA darlings the Brothers Quay traipse stiffly through nightmarish landscapes is like wallowing in someone else’s Freudian flotsam and jetsam. And in terms of primo stop-motion surreality, you simply can’t beat the Czechs: Two of the country’s best animators, Jan Svaknmajer and Jirí Barta, have used the medium to explore unsettling undercurrents in various fairy tales and classic kid-lit fantasies.
Barta is the one responsible for Toys in the Attic, a blend of bedtime storytelling and social parable, in which playthings engage in an East-West rivalry, but woe to anyone who first encounters his work here. Rather than presenting the original Czech version, American distributors have opted to release an English-dubbed edition, headed up by writer, director and actor Vivian Schilling (who voices the kidnapped doll Buttercup)—and the result is a tonal disaster. Adding famous voices to foreign toons may have worked wonders for Disney and Studio Ghibli collaborations, but the longer you endure celebrities such as Joan Cusack, Forest Whitaker and Cary Elwes employing ridiculous get-moose-and-squirrel! accents and the half-baked whimsicality that Schilling clumsily lays over Barta’s icky, intriguing imagery, the more you feel a vision—anyone’s vision—is smothered to death. Barta’s shorts are available on DVD; you’re better off getting a dose of the uncut goods.