For 38 years, Jan Svankmajer has produced some of the most provocative imagery in cinema. With 26 short films and four features to his credit, the Czech surrealist has used stop-motion animation to create a bizarre universe of everyday objects come to life. But with each successive feature film, Svankmajer has moved away from animation and concentrated on his actors' live performances. The director's newest feature, Little Otik, reveals the artist's further progression into live-action and total immersion in dialogue. As strange and intriguing as his previous work, the movie is also his most accessible.

Based on a Czech folk tale, the film centers on an infertile couple, Bozena (Veronika Zilková) and Karel (Jan Jartl), who adopt a tree stump as their baby. Under the care of Bozena, the chunk of wood, affectionately dubbed Otik, takes on a life of his own. He develops an appetite so ravenous that he devours the cat, the postman and a visiting social worker. Hoping to starve him to death, Karel locks the unruly sapling in the basement, where he is befriended by Alzbetka (Kristina Adamcová), a brassy little girl who has an avid interest in sexual dysfunction and an aversion to her neighbor, a decrepit pedophile. Desperate for a playmate, Alzbetka helps the creature by luring her neighbors into his grasp, but in the end, she is unable to save Otik from his tragic fate.

Svankmajer's main source of inspiration here is childhood, not so much children themselves, but the way they perceive the world and, oftentimes, misconceive it. While the film works as an examination of the fears of parenting, it is the irony of Karel and Bozena having a na™ve understanding of raising a kid that gives Little Otik its humor and horror. In the film's opening fantasy sequence, Karel waits in a doctor's office full of pregnant women, imagining himself in line to buy a baby from a street vendor, who scoops infants out of a water tub and wraps them up in newspaper. This surreal scene plays out like a child's warped interpretation of how babies come into the world. After taking in Otik, the couple become like curious children who create an elaborate make-believe family.

The couple's acceptance of a tree stump as their baby may sound implausible, but it works. The underlying eeriness of the situation and the way the actors skillfully play off each other gives the scene the psychological depth to make it believable. Svankmajer's ability to successfully translate the original fairy tale's absurdity onto film reveals his growing strength as a narrative filmmaker.

While the film focuses on live actors, Svankmajer doesn't completely abandon animation; Otik is brought to life through the filmmaker's stop-motion techniques. With his writhing branches and incessant screaming, Otik is strangely disturbing--although in the film's bloodiest scene, the overgrown baby appears as a lumbering, full-costumed monster, looking like something out of a bad horror B-movie. But the film's mix of dread and black humor overcomes its campy moments.

As in Svankmajer's 1994 feature Faust, Little Otik offers a modern retelling of an old myth: Interfering with the natural order of life results in punishment. This film's warning takes on even more resonance as human cloning becomes an ever-increasing possibility.

--Daniel Steinhart