Karel Zeman was a Czech animator, creator of some of the most lavishly stylized Jules Verne-inspired fantasy films ever made. His mature movies combined live actors with cutout animation and eye-popping three dimensional sets that defy imagination, with geometries that would make Escher scratch his head. Although the three major films chronicled here all made it onto an international stage and were dubbed into English, this pioneer remains known today mainly to a small group of cult movie fans and animation nerds. The Criterion Collection sought to rectify that oversight in 2020 with a very cool box set of three of Zeman’s best and wildest fantasies, newly restored and with a host of extras—many courtesy of the Karel Zeman Museum in Prague (yes, he’s that big of a deal in the Czech Republic).
In Zeman’s playful spirit, the Blu-ray set comes in a fold-out package with pop-up art (a dinosaur, a balloon, and Baron Munchausen riding a cannonball). The DVD set costs a few bucks less and is more modestly packaged. Otherwise, the extra features are the same between the formats. Each includes a foldout Michael Atkinson essay that’s presented like a vintage newspaper or playbill. Although the Blu-ray packaging is both chic and retro, the three fantastic journeys are the star features.
Disc 1: 1955’s Journey to the Beginning of Time is the perfect introduction to Karel Zeman. It tells the story of four boys who take off downriver, traveling backwards through time as they row along, first encountering woolly mammoths, then dinosaurs. This is the kind of movie a Disney might have produced in America, full of wholesome adventure and a healthy dose of scientific facts to nourish growing minds. At times, it plays more like a trip to the natural history museum than a rousing adventure yarn; but the kid actors are surprisingly good, and the stop-motion animation is often the equal of (and sometimes better than) Zeman’s American counterpart, Ray Harryhausen. It’s unmistakably a kid’s movie, and more simplistic in craft than the director’s future features, but you can already tell a sure hand is on the rudder.
Like all the discs, the first includes a Czech trailer and a selection of short “museum documentaries” from the Karel Zeman Museum. The footage from these museum documentaries, which provide context for each film and reveal some of Zeman’s techniques, run about two to six minutes each, and will later be incorporated into disc 3’s full-length documentary. It’s handy to have the bits specific to the film you’re watching collected in one place, however. This section of the disc also presents a short before-and-after restoration demonstration. Other supplements include the complete dubbed, Americanized version of the film from 1960, which ditched Zeman’s prologue to start with the boys (stand-ins seen from behind) at the American Museum of Natural History, and ends clumsily by tacking on quotes from Genesis to hide the film’s godless Communist origins. It’s fair to say this cut is a curiosity only, although you could show it to children too young to read subtitles. Criterion also throws in “Directed by Karel Zeman,” a 12-minute appreciation by director John Stevenson (King Fu Panda) created especially for this edition.
Disc 2: Invention for Destruction (1958) is a massive leap forward for Zeman, the full blossoming of his distinctive style. From the opening moments, with a steam-powered schooner plowing a sea teeming with dolphins while a bicycle powered dirigible crawls the sky above, the film is full of marvels. In black and white, with every prop and cutout pinstriped to create the illusion of cross-hatching, the entire movie looks, incredibly, like a Gustave Doré woodcutting come to life. Invention freely switches between animation, live-action, and combinations of the two, and conjures numerous “how did they do that?” head-scratching moments. The plot, “freely adapted from the writings of Jules Verne,” is a simple anti-nuclear parable, but serves mainly as a structure to support outrageous set pieces like an undersea manhunt and a daring balloon escape from a pirate’s hideout hidden inside an inactive volcano.
Disc 2 is heavy on extras. Beyond the museum documentaries and trailer, Criterion provides the Hugh Downs-narrated opening to the U.S. version of the film (titled The Fabulous World of Jules Verne and hawking the film’s animation technique as “mysti-mation!”) “Making Magic” is an informative 20-minute conversation between special effects veterans Jim Aupperle (Flesh Gordon, Evil Dead II), and Phil Tippet (Starship Troopers, who gets in a plug for his “Mad God” short series). They analyze Zeman’s techniques in depth from experts’ perspectives. The highlight of this disc is also the most important group of supplements in the set: four short films Zeman made in the later half of the 1940s, before Journey to the Beginning of Time. “A Christmas Dream” (1945) is a charming diversion about a little girl dreaming that her rag doll comes to life on Christmas Eve. 1946’s “A Horseshoe for Luck” is a little comedy featuring Mr. Prokouk, Zeman’s signature character, who went on to star in a popular series of shorts. The most impressive of the batch is “Inspiration” (1949), made to celebrate the Czech glass-blowing industry. Glass figurines come to life and go ice-skating; it’s luminous, and inspiring to consider the massive amount of work that had to go into animating glass figurines. The longest short is “King Larva,” a wordless 30-minute fable about a barber and a king cursed with donkey ears, done in a style resembling Rankin-Bass. With the possible exception of “Inspiration,” these shorts don’t approach the majesty of the features, but each is entertaining on its own.
Disc 3: The Fabulous Baron Munchausen (1962) takes the craft pioneered in Invention for Destruction and adds luscious color (and a colorful character). Like Invention for Destruction, it features a rousing score by Zdeněk Liška, Czechoslovakia’s greatest film composer. The story follows the exploits of the legendary blowhard, and adds comedy to the spectacle. The scenario begins with a modern astronaut discovering Munchausen living—with Cyrano de Bergerac and others—on the moon. The pair fly back to earth on a sailing ship drawn by flying horses to rescue a woman abducted by a sultan, and have other adventures (including more deep sea environments, a locale Zeman’s imagination dearly loves). I’ll stop the description here—read the Apocryphally Weird entry for more—except to say that Munchausen is Zeman’s masterpiece, a must-see for anyone interested in classic fantasy, animation, or unfettered imagination.
Anchoring disc 3’s extras is the full-length documentary Film Adventurer Karel Zeman which, as previously mentioned, incorporates most of the footage found separately in the “museum documentaries.” Dotted with talking-heads bits from distinguished Zeman admirers Terry Gilliam and Tim Burton and others, the film is cleverly structured as a challenge to a group of Czech film students to figure out how Zeman accomplished some of his illusions. The youngsters recreate the feats (like Munchausen leaping over a cliff on horseback) on their own. Trailers and museum documentaries fill out the rest of the supplement slots.
Criterion’s “Three Fantastic Journeys by Karel Zeman” is highly recommended, with only one reservation: after feasting on this bounty, you may develop a yen to seek out the rest of Zeman’s more difficult-to-find catalog. Here’s hoping Criterion comes out with “Three More Fantastic Journeys by Karel Zeman.”