Judge Roman Martel is about to find out the true meaning of the phrase "Ultimate Gulliver."
Our reviews of Gulliver's Travels (1939) (published March 12th, 2009), Gulliver's Travels (1996) (published September 3rd, 2008), and Gulliver's Travels (2010) (Blu-ray) (published May 3rd, 2011) are also available.
I always felt that something was missing from the massive collection of Gulliver paraphernalia. But along comes this, An Ultimate Gulliver Collection. I think my life quest is about to be completed.
Gulliver's Travels was written by Jonathan Swift back in 1726. It's a testament to the story and characters that filmmakers keep returning to it for inspiration. Swift's original tale combined action, satire, and fantasy all into one. The first two adventures are the most famous. With the first finding Gulliver arriving in Lilliput and towering over the inhabitants. In the second adventure, Gulliver finds himself the miniature man in the land of the enormous Brobdingnagians. The last two adventures are rarely adapted; these involve the floating island of Laputa and the land of talking horses. Much of the humor is derived from comparing and contrasting the denizens of these fantastic worlds with modern society, and Gulliver's acerbic observations.
Usually film versions tone down the satire and concentrate on the adventures and fantasy. Stop motion master Ray Harryhausen brought the first two adventures to life in The Three Worlds of Gulliver. Hallmark did an excellent adaptation of the entire novel in 1996 staring Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen. But what we get in this "ultimate" collection is a bit more obscure.
In the year 1939 Fleischer Studios released their first big budget feature length animated film. It was Paramount's direct challenge to Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. It had comedy, songs, adventure and was based on a classic tale. It couldn't lose. According to the history books, the film did well and spawned a followup set of shorts as well as made a few songs like "All's Well" and "Faithful Forever" popular ditties.
Looking at this film from a animation historical point of view it's pretty interesting to compare the approaches of this film to Disney's classic. Both use rich color and plenty of action to keep viewers interested. But Gulliver's Travels does things a bit differently.
First off, Gulliver was completely rotoscoped for this film. In other words, actual footage of an actor was shot and then animated over to give him a more realistic look compared to the obviously cartoony fantasy characters. It actually works well, giving the whole movie a unique look, one that remembered vividly from my previous viewing of the film when I was a kid.
The second difference is that Gulliver's Travels focuses more on gags and songs than plot. While Snow White focused on its title character and her adventures, it injected humor with the dwarfs, but never at the expense of taking away from the main focus of the tale. Sure Dopey stole almost all his scenes, but he never became the focus of the story. Gulliver often gets sidetracked by focusing on the Lilliputians, their petty arguments, their silly behavior and most of all the set pieces of physical comedy. These were probably entertaining in the '30s, but to modern eyes, they just go on and on and on.
That's the main problem here: the story is thinner than onion skin. Gulliver is shipwrecked. The Lilliputians get in an argument with a rival nation. Then the Lilliputians find Gulliver. He is captured, awakens, befriends the king and then saves the kingdom. There are some subplots with the star-crossed prince and princess in a Romeo and Juliet romance, as well as a plot dealing with three enemy spies who try to remove Gulliver from the picture. But their scenes feel more like bumps in a road that needed a bit more streamlining. According to some research, I found that the script went through several revisions and it really feels like it.
The end result is a film that is only about 75 minutes long but feels a bit longer because of all the padding and antics. Gulliver's Travels has so much potential for animation, its a shame that what we end up with here is so flimsy. But when you look at it from a historical standpoint, its quite an achievement for early animation. It just doesn't hold up these days. You can only watch lilliputians cavort around so long before you start hoping Gulliver will squish one just to get the plot back on track.
The print here is a bit of a wash. The dark scenes look murky, but the brighter scenes look pretty good considering the age and the fact that you are watching a public domain print. There are places where the picture is pretty beat up, but it's not unwatchable. My only major issue is that this image may be cropped. While watching the opening titles you can see that part of the titles is cut off. This just makes you wonder if the whole image suffers the same fate. The mono soundtrack is clear enough, but sounds archival as well.
As an extra of sorts you get a set of Gabby cartoons. Who's Gabby? Well he's the loudmouthed town crier of Lilliput. He has a lot of personality and you can see how Fleischer might have hoped he'd make a good spin off character. Most of the shorts are harmless stuff. Gabby gets into a jam, does all kinds of ridiculous things and gets out of it. Again this is vintage cartoon humor, so your mileage may vary. I didn't get much out of them.
Up next is one of the strangest animated films I've seen, Gulliver's Travels Beyond the Moon. Made in 1965 by Japanese company Toei, this movie is as out there as you might think judging by the title.
It all starts off with Ricky, a little street urchin who gets kicked out of a theater showing a film version of Gulliver's Travels. He wanders around a street, gets hit by a car, and the meets a talking toy soldier and a talking dog. They decide to go to a closed amusement park and have some fun while playing around during an extended song montage (get used to these) and then getting chased by the security guards.
Just when you're wondering where the heck Gulliver is, Ricky and his pals jump on a large firework and escape the security staff. They land on a mysterious island. There they find Gulliver older (one would hope since it's been a couple hundred years since anyone had heard from him). Turns out Gulliver has built a rocket to go to the "Star of Hope." He trains Ricky and his two pals (in another musical montage) and they jump aboard the ship with Gulliver and his pet crow. They blast off with all the animals on the island waving to them.
You getting all this? OK, so they deal with weightlessness, get bombarded by a meteor storm, and finally get pulled into a nebula of youth. Everyone starts growing young (the crow ends up an egg). But before things get really weird (too late) a spaceship saves them from the nebula. The explorers are forced to land on the planet next to the Star of Hope. There they are greeted by a bunch of goofy robots.
Turns out that these folks were forced off the Star of Hope because they built robots that were too powerful. Those robots rebelled and kicked the goofy robots off their planet. Now we know where the plot for The Matrix came from! Just then the evil robots attack, and steal away the princess robot and the talking dog. Ricky, Gulliver, the crow and the toy soldier pursue the evil robots using a secret weapon to defeat them and save the princess. Things are going peachy when the plot takes another twist (which is pretty obvious if you've been paying attention) and there is more singing as the credits close.
What the hell?!
OK, I admit it, this movie was actually kinda fun. It never stopped throwing weird and wacky things at you. It moved very quickly and the vintage Speed Racer style animation worked really well. It's got a good message about hope buried in there, and it doesn't overstay its welcome clocking in at around 80 minutes or so. This should have been the hidden gem of the collection.
Sadly there are quite a few problems with this presentation. First off the print is in horrible, horrible shape. It's murky the entire way through, and blurry in many places. You can tell there is a lot of color in this anime, but the print is so horrid that it makes everything head toward a brownish orange tinge. The aspect ratio is also wrong. There are many times during the film where a character is talking to another who isn't visible because he's been cut out of the frame. No panning or scanning, just a hacked up image.
On top of that is the dubbing. This was dubbed in the '60s by a cast that tries their best, but just makes the whole thing sound like a fever dream. Seriously, there's some dialogue that makes no sense at all. It's good for unintentional laughs, but takes away from the storytelling. Finally there's the music and songs by Milton Delugg. Fans of Santa Claus Conquers the Martians are familiar with Delugg's work. He stays true to form creating some of the most obnoxious songs and music I've heard in a while. You haven't heard whimsy cranked to 11 until you've heard Delugg. All these added up to make this movie a slog to remain conscious through.
This print would be fine for Rifftrax fodder. But honestly vintage anime fans would probably get a kick out of this movie if it was given a proper release with a good print, solid dub and in the correct aspect ratio.
To wrap things up, you get a very short film by cinema pioneer Georges Melies, made in 1902. This is silent film experimentation in it's purest form. There is no real story to speak of, just some pantomimed moments taken from Swift's story. You get a man dressed up as Gulliver interacting with Lilliputians and the giants. There are no title cards, but none are needed. Its actually kinda fun to see how they used different practical techniques to make people look small or large, and it's pretty effective. It's given a nice piano score to support the action. The image is pretty beat up, but still watchable.
To be honest I don't know who's going to get anything out of this release. Both Fleisher's Gulliver's Travels and Gulliver's Travels Beyond the Moon are worth checking out for animation fans. Families with younger kids may enjoy these movies (even those "Gabby" cartoons may provide some amusement), but the presentation is so poor its really hard to recommend. The best thing I can say is that you are getting a lot of content for the price.
Guilty of being far from "ultimate."
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Scales of Justice, Gulliver's Travels Beyond The Moon
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