The Elusive World of Karel Zeman

When I was in seventh or eighth grade, I was devouring every movie book I could get my hands on.  The Internet didn’t quite exist as a thing regular people were actually using, rather than merely hearing was going to be the next big thing.  CD-ROMs were an awkward novelty that were still trying to figure out what their “interactive multimedia” was actually for, and I did not know of such proto-IMDb efforts as Microsoft’s Cinemania.  When I stumbled on the rare laserdisc, I assumed it was an LP record.

Libraries still used card catalogs.  I was able to find every movie-related book they had anyway.

And then I came across this review in one of Pauline Kael’s books:

The Fabulous World of Jules Verne

Czechoslovakia (1958): Fantasy

83 min, No rating, Black & White, Available on videocassette


Among Georges Méliès’ most popular creations was his 1902 version of Jules Verne’s A TRIP TO THE MOON (which was used at the beginning of Michael Todd’s production of AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS). Another great movie magician, the Czech Karel Zeman, also turning to Jules Verne for inspiration, made this wonderful giddy science fantasy. (It’s based on Facing the Flag and other works.) Like Méliès, Zeman employs almost every conceivable trick, combining live action, animation, puppets, and painted sets that are a triumph of sophisticated primitivism. The variety of tricks and superimpositions seems infinite; as soon as you have one effect figured out another image comes on to baffle you. For example, you see a drawing of half a dozen sailors in a boat on stormy seas; the sailors in their little striped outfits are foreshortened by what appears to be the hand of a primitive artist. Then the waves move, the boat rises on the water, and when it lands, the little sailors-who are live actors-walk off, still foreshortened. There are underwater scenes in which the fishes swimming about are as rigidly patterned as in a child’s drawing (yet they are also perfectly accurate drawings). There are more stripes, more patterns on the clothing, the decor, and on the image itself than a sane person can easily imagine. The film creates the atmosphere of the Jules Verne books which is associated in readers’ minds with the steel engravings by Bennet and Riou; it’s designed to look like this world-that-never-was come to life, and Zeman retains the antique, make-believe quality by the witty use of faint horizontal lines over some of the images. He sustains the Victorian tone, with its delight in the magic of science, that makes Verne seem so playfully archaic. Released in the U.S. with narration and dialogue in English.

Now, I was the sort of kid who had read every Jules Verne book I could find (with Facing the Flag definitely not among them).  And who loved anything to do with special effects or creatures (even if I was confused by King Kong when I rented one of the only monster classics the local Blockbuster had in a colorized version.  Why did it take so long to get to New York and why wasn’t Kong a truly detestable bad guy?)  And yet, I could tell that the weird movie Kael was describing was something unique even in my wheelhouse.

Fast-forward to my college years.  I had become vastly more knowledgeable, and sometimes even wise, about all aspects of film.  Kim’s Video sure had a lot of the hard-to-find movies that I had read about in high school but weren’t at Blockbuster!  I had started to get into artsy animation, renting pretty much everything Kim’s had, but was still mostly confined to American or Japanese stuff.  And then my friend Niff introduced me to the new area of Czech animation, particularly the stop-motion animation with Rankin/Bass-style flexible-but-freestanding puppets by such luminaries as Jiri Trnka and Karel Zeman.

Eventually, I realized that the Karel Zeman who Niff was talking about was one and the same with the director of the oddball movie that Kael had so adored.  Like Ray Harryhausen and George Pal, Zeman had transitioned from making shorts with puppets to full-length features with human actors, but the same special effects ingenuity and imagination they had done in their shorts.  I finally was able to catch a screening of Zeman’s feature Baron Munchausen.  But The Fantastic World of Jules Verne itself never showed up.

So, Kael’s review has stuck in my head for almost two decades, but I have never had a chance to see the intriguing movie described.  Until now.

Thanks to a new restoration premiering at The Museum of the Moving Image, I have finally had the chance to see one of the most elusive gaps in my film history.  Could it possibly live up to near-decades of expectations?

I’m overjoyed to be able to report that it does.

to be continued…


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