These notes accompany screenings of Karel Zeman’s The Fabulous World of Jules Verne on December 5, 6, and 7 in Theater 3.
Our series is dedicated this month to an all-too-brief look at developments in the field of animation in the 1940s and 1950s. As Seth MacFarlane, creator of Family Guy, American Dad, The Cleveland Show, the new theatrical film Ted, and soon-to-be Academy Awards emcee said recently, “There’s a prejudice against the medium of animation.” He was referring to a historic tendency to write off the field as insignificant or lacking in seriousness. It is, indeed, hard to compare the fantasy-world nuttiness, the parallel universe, of animation with the classical gravitas of Renoir, Ford, Ophuls, Dreyer, etc., to say nothing of the in-your-face pretensions of Inception or The Master. Nonetheless, animation cannot and should not be ignored.
In 2010, we did a program on early animation, and then followed it in 2011 with a program of Walt Disney and Max Fleischer shorts from the 1930s. The era of animation features was ushered in by Lotte Reiniger’s The Adventures of Prince Achmed in 1926 (we will be showing one of the last films in her long career next week), and we showed Disney’s first two features, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Pinocchio. Feature-length animation was once a great rarity, but today in the computer era, it makes up in diversity what it might lack in overall quality.
The Czech Karel Zeman (1910–1989) is hard to categorize. In some sense, he blazed a trail for the Quay Brothers, whose MoMA exhibition is on view through January 7. Like them, he had experience as a graphic designer; some of his imagery seems to resemble some of theirs; and his animation often makes use of live action and features miniatures and puppetry. Since he worked entirely in Czechoslovakia, it goes without saying that he shared in the Eastern European roots that have so influenced the Quays. There is also, it seems to me, a decided bent toward eccentricity that they share. Zeman worked as the contemporary of the other great puppeteer Jiri Trnka (whose The Song of the Prairie we will also show next week), and both men were named National Artist of Czechoslovakia.
Dozens of films were made from the works of Jules Verne (1828–1905), beginning with Georges Méliès’s A Trip to the Moon, arguably the most famous title in the history of cinema. The Fabulous World of Jules Verne (An Invention for Destruction) came close on the heels of a Verne and science-fiction revival, fueled by Mike Todd’s Around the World in Eighty Days and Sputnik, which set off the real-life race to the Moon. Face au Drapeau (Facing the Flag) was pretty obscure as Verne novels go, but, like so much else, he seemed to have anticipated the era of nuclear weapons.
Zeman’s film combined live action, animated drawings, and lithographs, all packaged under the process of “Mystimation,” a term compliments of Joseph E. Levine. The overall look of the film was intended to replicate the illustrations in the original edition of the 1896 novel, and it also seems to pay homage to Verne’s first great cinematic adapter, Méliès. Zeman uses two-dimensional backdrop sets like Méliès, and although the plot aspires to scientific authenticity (the search for heavy water and pure matter), there is an undeniably poetic fairy-tale quality to it (camels on roller skates, underwater bicycles, etc.). In a sense, the scientific element focused on the evil under-belly of science, informed by the hindsight of Hiroshima. There are influences from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and less-familiar works like Stuart Paton’s 1916 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, which brought to Captain Nemo’s screen debut the services of an expensive giant octopus and the pioneering underwater cinematography of the Williamson Brothers (George M. and J. Ernest). However, the net effect of Zeman’s film was a bubbling over (gurgling over?) of unprecedented imagination.
Zeman was to follow up in a similar style with an adaptation of Baron Munchausen, Gottfried Burger’s fantasy tales that provided fodder for a number of films, including a Nazi-era color spectacle from Germany that Goebbels produced to mark the 25th anniversary of the UFA studio and Terry Gilliam’s Adventures of Baron Munchausen in 1989. Zeman also made a number of other Verne adaptations and a series of films on Sinbad the sailor, in direct competition with the American Ray Harryhausen, the inventor of Dynamation, whose innovations had a direct effect on George Lucas.