The fantasy filmmaking duo of producer Charles H. Schneer and effects wizard Ray Harryhausen (The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, Jason And The Argonauts) bring us their take on Jonathon Swift's satire, Gulliver's Travels, while legendary film composer Bernard Herrmann (Citizen Kane, Psycho, Taxi Driver) provides a jaunty and fun score.
Facts of the Case
While on an expedition to the West Indies, Dr. Lemuel Gulliver (Kerwin Mathews, The 7th Voyage of Sindbad) is washed overboard and arrives first on Lilliput, a land inhabited by diminutive people. Gulliver becomes entangled in the Lilliputians' politics and their ridiculous rivalry with the people of Blefuscu. Having gotten on the wrong side of the Lilliputian emporer, Gulliver manages to escape with his life, only to arrive on the island of Brobdingnag where his previous situation is turned upside down: he is now a tiny man among giants. Reunited with his fiancée, Elizabeth, who had stowed aboard his ship to the West Indies, he must find a way to return to England.
First, let's deal with what really matters here: Harryhausen's work in The 3 Worlds of Gulliver is top-notch, although primarily matte-work and forced-perspective effects as opposed to the stop-motion work for which he is most famous. There are a couple memorable stop-motion sequences in the Brobdingnag portion of the film (one involving Gulliver's encounter with a giant squirrel and another his fight with an alligator). Unfortunately, the film itself provides a relatively weak context in which to showcase Harryhausen's efforts, as does the DVD presentation.
The 3 Worlds of Gulliver is simply uneven. I wasn't expecting it to reproduce Swift's biting satire. Frankly, I didn't even want that; I wanted the fun and wonder I remember from childhood viewings of Harryhausen's work (I think this may be the only one of his films I never saw on TV as a kid). Still, the Lilliput section of the film actually adheres to the basics of Swift's satire, presenting us with a land of little people driven by petty concerns, warring with rival Blefuscu over their opening of eggs from the large end rather than the small. This portion of the film is tight and humorous and plays pretty well to adults as well as children.
The wheels sort of fall off the cart, though, when we move on to Brobdingnag in the second half of the film. Swift's satire in this portion of his book—centering on the magnification of the Brobdingnagian's ugliness and flaws to tiny Gulliver—is more esoteric, not lending itself as naturally to filmic interpretation; Schneer and company abandon it entirely. There's still the tiny-people-in-a-giant-world thrill Harryhausen delivers so well, but it's aimless in comparison to the first half of the film. The entire section is little more than an excuse for Harryhausen to do his thing; everything feels contrived. Yeah, I seem to be contradicting myself, saying I wasn't expecting Swift's satire on the one hand, then slamming the second half of the film for being aimless on the other, but the first half exceeded expectations and I genuinely wanted the second half to be as clever. It simply gets to be a drag.
Overall, this is a good Harryhausen flick for small children who might be frightened by the monsters and sword-fighting skeletons in his other work. The satire in the first half of the film will fly over their heads, but they'll enjoy the corny jokes, and the second half isn't likely to bore them as it did me.
I wish I could say the DVD presentation here is outstanding, but it's not. My one complaint—and it's a big one—is the full-screen presentation. Why Columbia TriStar did this, especially when other entries in the Ray Harryhausen Signature Collection are presented in their original aspect ratios (The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, Jason and the Argonauts), is beyond me. It's likely because The 3 Worlds of Gulliver plays like a kiddie flick, and we all know how studios hate putting kiddie titles out in their original aspect ratios. Perhaps I'm wrong, but it seems to me the real market for this movie is adult fans of Harryhausen, and wouldn't they prefer widescreen? How many parents of young children are going to pass up the latest Disney release or The Wizard of Oz or Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory for a relatively obscure interpretation of Gulliver's Travels released in theaters 42 years ago? In the least, the DVD should offer both widescreen and full-screen presentations, like The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. But then again, what do I know?
Ignoring the fact a third of the image has been hacked off, the picture quality is strong for an effects-heavy film of its age. Some of the second-unit (or stock footage) material is grainy, and matte shots show some blemishes as well as standard generation-loss resulting from the processing, but it doesn't distract from one's enjoyment. Colors are vibrant and solid. The sad thing is the included trailer's in the original 1.85:1 aspect ratio and looks sharper than the film presentation itself (I'm assuming, based on the trailer, that the film was originally presented 1.85:1—I wasn't able to confirm that with absolute certainty).
The original mono soundtrack is clean and free of hiss. There's a hollowness to it that's probably a result of the way it was originally manipulated in order, for instance, to make giants' voices boom. It would be nice if Herrmann's score was more richly rendered but, again, existing flaws and limitations are in the source and not a result of transfer to DVD.
Extras include a 3 1/2-minute featurette called This is Dynamation, made during the production of The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and providing an overview of how Harryhausen creates his magic; a making-of featurette that is basically a 5-minute interview with Harryhausen; The Harryhausen Chronicles, an hour-long documentary that covers the entire span of his career (and is also available on both The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger DVDs); filmographies for director Jack Sher, writer Arthur Ross, Harryhausen, and Kerwin Mathews; and theatrical trailers for The 3 Worlds of Gulliver, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, and The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. The production notes listed as a feature on the back of the keep case's cover art are not present.
If you're looking to experience the delights of Ray Harryhausen, this isn't your best first choice. Go out and buy The 7th Voyage of Sinbad or Jason and the Argonauts. They're better films with more exciting effects work and superior DVD presentations. If you're a Harryhausen completist, unfortunately you're going to have to settle for full screen. Hopefully, this will be remedied in the future.
Columbia TriStar is found guilty of cropping the work of a true master, a man whose special effects are rife with quirky humanity, fun, and childlike wonder. Shame on them.
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