Judge Dennis Prince says poor Gulliver was clearly sent up the creek without an OAR—Original Aspect Ratio, that is.
Our reviews of Gulliver's Travels (1996) (published September 3rd, 2008), Gulliver's Travels (2010) (Blu-ray) (published May 3rd, 2011), and An Ultimate Gulliver Collection (published January 12th, 2011) are also available.
It's a tale of the tall and the small, one that has charmed folks for centuries. Unfortunately, good sense has been diminished to Lilliputian proportions, in this aberrant release from Koch Entertainment.
Adapted from a portion of Jonathan Swift's 1726 novel, we learn of Lemuel Gulliver's fateful sea voyage where his ship is demolished in a violent storm and he washes up on the shore of the island of Lilliput. Out performing his usual scouting duties, impetuous Gabby comes across a giant; a huge man of unbelievable proportions, easily thirty times bigger than the frightened Lilliputian. The giant, of course, is Gulliver. The Lilliputians gather to transfer Gulliver to their kingdom, securing him to the ground before he can awaken. When he comes around, Gulliver breaks the tiny bonds and reassures the Lilliputians he means them no harm. Of course, this is a relief to all, especially King Little who is warring with the nearby kingdom of Blefuscu over a squabble about which song would be sung during the wedding of Lilliput's Princess Glory and Blefuscu's Prince David. King Little intends to employ Gulliver to smite his new foe while Blefuscu's King Bombo sets about to kill Gulliver. In the end, it is Gulliver who must step forward to teach both kingdoms the foolishness and potentially fateful consequences of petty disagreements.
Let's be clear, this release has been long anticipated by classic animation enthusiasts more than ready to applaud Max Fleischer's achievements of nearly eight decades ago. The narrative is friendly, flowing, and free of dubious themes that would be unsuitable for children. Yes, this one is aimed squarely at youngsters, written to their sensibility at the time. Little tykes today will also be entertained by the inoffensive storytelling and songsmithing here. Technically, it's a breakthrough in cinematic storytelling, this being a full on, feature-length animated showcase of the best that Fleischer's team had to offer. There was only one problem for Gulliver's Travels: a girl named Snow White. Yes, honors of first feature-length animated feature go to Walt Disney and, as good as Fleischer's offering was, it could only cower in the shadow of Disney. A pity, really, since this likely caused the also-ran studio to miss the ever-elusive recognition it so dearly desired. Even so, Gulliver's Travels is still quite captivating and genuinely entertaining, the hap-hap-happy tale being infectious in it's purity and soothing to viewers weary of constantly fending off dubious social overtures disguised as "innocent" cartoons. This one is safe for all ages.
For the enthusiasts and animation aficionados, this particular release of Gulliver's Travels is an abomination. Before now, the film had slipped into the public domain and had been released by various studios in various levels of quality. To date, the most celebrated was the now out-of-print DVD from the Hal Roach Studios (distributed by Image Entertainment) whose picture was mastered from an original nitrate and presented faithfully in the original Academy Standard aspect ratio of 1.37:1. That, friends, is where this circular silver ship runs aground. Although Koch Entertainment boasted this to be a digitally restored and re-mastered edition, certain to dwarf all others which had come before, they fell prey to their own silly interpretation of what today's public wants in a DVD release: widescreen. Yes, this disc features a very colorful yet severely cropped 1.78:1 image, a new pan-and-scan offense for the new millennium. How to achieve 1.78:1 from a 1.37:1 source master: crop the top and bottom. The result is a soft image which easily looks overtly "zoomed in" for the duration. You'll feel crowded and cramped as you watch this, immediately aware that the image has been altered in a way that makes it look highly unnatural and robs the production of its original organic charm. You'll quickly reach for your remote to check for an alternate—and original—presentation, but to no avail. You might even be tempted to treat it as a flipper disc, hoping the silk-screened side might somehow produce the proper aspect ratio, but there's no data to be read there. No, this arguable classic has been altered in a way that has purists up in arms, they who have assembled in the halls of the AVS Forum and taken their outrage directly to the people responsible. Sadly, there's nothing to be done here and this disc (which gets the same botched treatment on Blu-ray) is useless to all except, perhaps, a curious toddler not yet aware of the need to faithfully preserve classic works in the digital age.
No doubt, the coloring here is purported to be the best among all versions heretofore released (that full body of evidence not available for this court's assessment), making the cropping offense all the more painful. However, there's that softness of the image, brought on by the zoom-in-to-crop approach then exacerbated by heavy-handed digital noise reduction. On the audio side, there has been an attempt to widen the soundstage with a newly mixed Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround track but it barely differs from the Dolby 2.0 Stereo and Dolby 2.0 Mono tracks. The audio is generally clear but nothing to shout about. Extras on the disc include two bonus cartoons featuring 'Gabby' (from the feature film). There's also a documentary about the making of Fleischer's Popeye short, Aladdin and his Wonderful Lamp, unceremoniously stripped of the original Paramount Studios identifiers.
To add insult to injury, before ever laying eyes on the defiled image, notice how the packaging design begins the deception, the cover layout looking confusingly similar to another major animation release of this day and date. I literally did a double take when I saw the exterior artwork, thinking it was a Disney retread made to look strikingly identical to their Pinocchio disc. It wasn't Disney pulling a quickie, though, it was the folks at Koch riding on the Big Animation Studio's coattails, likely hoping to find close placement in retail settings. In a word, this disc is shameful, inside and out.
There's nothing further to say except that fans of Fleischer's work are clearly offended by this digital transgression, furious at Koch's handling of an otherwise masterful feature.
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