Weird, wild, and wonderfully inventive: director Radek Beran’s new film Malý Pán (The Little Man) is the kind of children’s film they just don’t make any more. Filled to the brim with imaginatively-designed characters and surreal storytelling techniques, the movie continues a long tradition of superb Czech animated features, though it isn’t, technically, animated.
Malý Pán is a live-action puppet movie brought to life through the use of marionettes controlled off-screen by skilled puppeteers. The film never attempts to hide its origins, and strings and rods can be seen piloting the characters in every scene. Somewhat surprisingly, this never becomes a distraction, and highlights the film’s craft; we only notice the editing tricks employed when the characters, for example, enter a door or pick up an object.
The technique used here is what makes Malý Pán almost entirely unique: while films in the Muppet series (and others) can be considered puppet movies, the only other live-action marionette films I can name are the 2004 Danish production Strings (also excellent), Team America: World Police, and the two Thunderbirds feature films from the 60s.
Malý Pán skews a little younger than the aforementioned features, but there’s a lot of weirdness that will endear the film to adults, too. I’ve always found marionettes vaguely disturbing – with those blank, expressionless eyes and disembodied voices – and the characters here are no different; some scenes in the film reminded me of that creepy sequence from The Adventures of Mark Twain.
The titular Malý Pán (voiced by Saša Rašilov, best known from David Ondříček’s Samotáři) is a young man who has who has built a house and a life for himself alone in the woods, where he only encounters a travelling fireworks salesman (in the film’s Hobbit-like opening sequence) and a friendly postman (Tomáš Procházka).
But our little man has a mysterious dream suggesting that something is missing in his life.
This sets the film off on a whirlwind shaggy-dog of a story: Malý Pán visits a giant stone head (Valérie Zawadská) who can explain what the dream means, but the head must first have some special sparkling water. To get the water, he needs to defeat a witch (Vanda Hybnerová); but to defeat the witch, he needs to get a book; to read the book, he needs a special pair of glasses; to repair the glasses, he needs to go to a mechanic, who needs…
And it goes on and on like that at a fever pace, introducing wonderful new characters every few minutes like the tiny repairman (Vladimír Javorský) who lives inside a robot’s head and a pickle farmer (Miroslav Táborský) who grows his crop using fertile questions. Yes, the pickles grow from questions that the farmer types up on punch cards and plants in the soil.
This is delirious stuff, and I loved every minute of it.
The do-this-to-get-that plotting is a familiar storytelling technique, but Malý Pán takes is to absurd levels; devout attention is needed to keep up with the weird and wonderful paths the story branches out on, pretty unusual for a children’s film. The film was scripted by Lumír Tuček, adapting the children’s book “Velká cesta Malého pána” by Jiří Stach and Lenka Uhlířová.
The story is in the journey, of course, and along the way Malý Pán meets a kind larvae (Klára Sedláčková) and must outsmart the witch’s henchman (Pavel Liška) at every turn. Other characters include an ugly witch who wants to be beautiful (Tatiana Vilhelmová) and a bird mechanic who pilots a small plane (Miroslav Krobot).
While there are evil characters here – and, warning to parents, they are dealt with in a vaguely disturbing manner that you wouldn’t see in a typical children’s film – most of those who Malý Pán comes across are kind and helpful. There’s a warmth and benevolence to the film that we don’t see enough of in the cinema.
Marionettes have a long history in the Czech Republic, and their appearance is ubiquitous at the tourist shops that litter the streets of central Prague. It’s great to see the local film make such wonderful use of marionettes as Malý Pán has, complete with a sensibility that feels innately Czech.
The memorable music throughout the film was provided by Milan Cais. While almost entirely puppeteered, there’s also some sparse use of paper-drawn animation and CGI visual effects in certain scenes.
Keep an eye (and ear) out for obscure cultural references that no child will get: one of the characters is named Captain Beefheart (after the avant garde musician responsible for Trout Mask Replica), and I swear I caught an advertisement for Critters in the newspaper that Malý Pán reads early on in the film.
The first few months of 2015 have seen some wonderful animated features hit cinemas, including the Shaun the Sheep Movie and the Oscar-nominated Song of the Sea. But this local product ranks right up alongside them: lovingly crafted and beautifully shot on miniature sets – complete with a surreal bent that owes to Terry Gilliam and Tim Burton – Malý Pán is a wild ride.