Three Fantastic Journeys by Karel Zeman
A one-of-a-kind silver-screen illusionist, Czechoslovak filmmaker Karel Zeman devoted his career to transporting viewers to realms beyond their wildest imagining. The deft, breathtaking combinations of live-action and animation techniques that he pioneered in the postwar years earned him comparisons to legends such as Georges Méliès, and an array of followers that includes Jan Švankmajer, Terry Gilliam, and Wes Anderson. Presented here are three of Zeman’s most enchanting fantasies—a boys’ adventure into the mists of prehistory, a Jules Verne–derived flight of fancy, and an exotic eighteenth-century tall tale—all of them treasure chests of wondrous sights, tactile textures, and headlong yarn-spinning that helped put Czechoslovak cinema on the international map.
The Criterion Collection presents a new Blu-ray set devoted to three of director Karel Zeman’s films, aptly entitled Three Fantastic Journeys by Karel Zeman, featuring the films Journey to the Beginning of Time, Invention for Destruction, and The Fabulous Baron Munchausen. Each film is presented on its own dual-layer disc and presented in the aspect ratio of 1.37:1, and all of the films come from new 4K restorations. All three restorations were also sourced from the 35mm original camera negative, though a duplicate negative had to be used for a handful of sequences in Journey to the Beginning of Time. All three have been encoded at 1080p/24hz.
All three films have unique, distinct looks and each high-definition presentation does an exceptional job delivering each one. If I had to pick the one that is weakest it would more than likely be the presentation for Zeman’s first feature film, Journey to the Beginning of Time. I was initially thrown by the colour scheme, which leans incredibly on the warmer side of things, the first shots of the film looking very yellow, but it ended up not being too much of an issue later. Going through the special features that show clips from the film, all obviously sourced from older prints or video presentations, the colours aren’t too far off of what’s here, so I’ll go with this being the intended look. At the very least this aspect doesn’t limit the image in any other way. There are a number of darker shots, but the blacks look decent enough and shadow delineation is still quite good; the image doesn’t look murky or washed out. Saturation overall is strong, with some nice looking greens to be found in the setting’s vegetation.
Most importantly, though, is that the image is still quite sharp and details levels are very high. I was most impressed by this aspect considering the effects in the film. There are comments in one of the special features on how in-camera and optical effects can lead to a degradation of the image quality because of the layering that can go off, but Zeman’s techniques usually got around this. I hadn’t seen this film before, so I was expecting that to be the case here, but it’s not. The effects are obvious, but it’s actually quite hard to separate where things are spliced in because, rather amazingly, everything looks to be in the frame together because the source print shows no sign of being duped or degraded in any part of the frame. Film grain is consistent throughout as well, coming off rather fine and rendered cleanly. Restoration work has also cleaned up damage surprisingly well. There are the remnants of some scratches but in comparison with what’s found in the restoration demonstration on this disc, the film was obviously in rough condition to begin with so what we get is a significant improvement. The notes indicate a duplicate negative was used to fill in places the negative was too far gone, but I couldn’t point these instances out. It’s a very clean presentation.
I was impressed so far but the presentations on the next couple of films were shocking to say the least. Invention for Destruction, on disc 2, ends up being the most remarkable presentation (by a hair) in the set, simply because of how well the digital presentation handles the film’s complex design. This is the lone black-and-white film in the set and it is a striking one. Contrast is wonderful, blacks are inky and rich, whites are bright without blooming or eating out details, and the transitions in the grayscale are smooth and clean. Just from this perspective alone the image looks wonderful.
The most significant element about this film’s presentation is its handling of the film’s fine details. The film is designed to look like the original carved artwork found in Jules Verne’s books, so there are a lot of fine lines and such throughout. They’re all over the place and a digital encode not up to task would be just a nightmare loaded with blurring lines, jagged edges, and enough shimmering to induce a migraine. This aspect is handled magnificently, and all of those fine lines and other details look perfect. I didn’t notice any jagged edges or any other artifact. It’s clean, those details are crisp and sharp, and the image looks incredibly photographic, with the grain still there to boot (it’s much finer in comparison to the previous film). Like the previous film, the complicated effects work doesn’t degrade the image in any fashion, though (as the restoration demonstration on this disc will point out) some of the slight imperfections are still there (divisions between what’s real and what’s a visual trick are a little more obvious here and there). Some remnants of scratches remain, but the restoration work has cleaned this up stupendously.
Disc 3’s The Fabulous Baron Munchausen shares a lot of the same positives with Invention for Destruction, though takes on a more elaborate colour scheme. I can’t speak for all of the sequences, but it appears the film is made up primarily of black-and-white footage that has been tinted different colours, maybe playing homage to silent cinema: one scene will be tinted blue, another yellow, another sepia, and so on. But then there are scenes that will blend blue and yellow, or another that will throw in a red object, or a scene will have a blue tint but then ease into an aqua in another portion of the frame. All of this is done cleanly and without issue, no bleeding or runs present. One of the more impressive looking sequences, tinted yellow, has red smoke/fog come into frame with seamless effects work. Even though the features get into how this effect was done I still don’t quite understand how it comes off looking as good as it does, and the digital presentation cleanly renders all of it down to the finer details of the smoke. The scene is sharp and crisp, the image never degrading, and, outside of a red-tinted fight scene that is a bit blurry, most of the film is similar. Like Invention for Destruction some of the seams of the effects show through, but this is of course all inherent to the materials. Like with the other titles, the restoration work has removed just about every blemish without harming the film-like texture of the image.
All of them look great, with the latter two allowing each film to look as though they could have been made recently. The presentations are all sharp and clean, and handle the complicated and tight designs of each film.
Journey to the Beginning of Time (1955): 8/10 Invention for Destruction (1958): 9/10 The Fabulous Baron Munchausen (1962): 9/10
All three films offer monaural presentations, presented in lossless single-channel PCM. They’re all limited by age, though the latter two films at least have a bit more depth and fidelity: Journey to the Beginning of Time sounds particularly flat. Louder moments can get a bit edgy but outside of that the audio is clean and doesn’t present any pops or clicks.
Invention for Destruction presents the original English dub used for the film’s North American release, though they don’t present an option to watch the film with the alternate opening (this opening is presented as a separate supplement, though). Though this track is presented in Dolby Digital mono, it does sound as though this track has also been restored, and it ends up showing some okay fidelity and no severe issues.
Criterion spreads features over the three discs, keeping the features in question specific to the title on the disc most of the wime, with a few general features covering Zeman and the films thrown in for good measure. The first disc, which features Journey to the Beginning of Time, starts things off with the 12-minute Directed by Karel Zeman, featuring animation filmmaker John Stevenson (Kung Fu Panda). Stevenson, a longtime fan of the filmmaker, talks about the appeal of Zeman’s work and gets into details about some of the techniques used by him to create his hybrid animated/live-action works (some visual aids are briefly used, pulled from other features found in the set). It’s a loving appreciation that doesn’t get too heavy into details, simply offering a view as to why Zeman’s films have had an impact on Johnson and leading nicely into the more thorough and technical features that appear throughout.
On top of newer trailers for each of the films (advertising the new restorations), all of the discs present a collection of ”museum documentaries,” short 2-5-minute videos that I assume were made for exhibits at the Karel Zeman Museum in Prague, with most of these featuring interviews with family and former collaborators, along with archival footage of Zeman himself. Disc one’s exclusive material to Journey to the Beginning of Time includes The Birth of a Film Legend (approx. 5-minutes), about the filmmaker’s early days and his inspirations, and Where the Film Was Shot (approx. 4-minutes), which revisits some of the locations used for the film. For Invention for Destruction, the second disc offers a feature about the restoration (over 3-minutes), providing a general overview of the restorations and the research that went into making sure the films look as Zeman intended in the end, while also making sure to leave the “fingerprint” of the special effects, meaning they left the mistakes, like a visible crew member. Munchausen’s disc presents a short piece on The Cast (approx. 2-minutes) explaining how Zeman treated his actors more like puppets, though they were always game, and then there are two about Zeman’s lasting legacy and his influence: Karel Zeman, the Legend Continues (over 3-minutes) and Karel Zeman and the World (approx. 5-minutes). The disc also features a short advertisement on the Karel Zeman Museum, which features a number of the props and sets used for his films.
Each disc also features a museum video titled Why Zeman Made the Film (running between 2 and 4-minutes each) where either the director, through an archival interview, or collaborators explain his reasoning behind taking on that particular project (whether it be showing the “scale of nature” or just wanting to take on Jules Verne’s stories). There are also pieces around each film’s Special-Effects Techniques (between 3 and 4-minutes each), showing—either through production photos or 3D computer renderings—how specific effects and shots were pulled off. And then each film also provides a restoration demonstration (between 2 and 4-minutes each), which showcases the software used and provides a number of before-and-after comparisons.
Getting back to material exclusive to each film and each disc, disc one also presents the alternate U.S. cut of Journey to the Beginning of Time, which is a composite edit put together from the best possible elements, and using an English dub (presented in Dolby Digital mono). For portions of the film that are the same between each version (which is, for the most part, the entire journey through the “beginning of time”) the edit uses the new 4K restoration. The opening and the end of the film (sourced from a deteriorated print) are completely different from the Czech version, moving the film to New York where stand-ins for the young actors (who we, rather amusingly, only see from behind) visit the Museum of Natural History before venturing to Central Park, rent a boat, enter a cave and travel back in time. In an interview elsewhere there is mention of a serialized version of the film and I’m wondering if this is it: though it’s not broken up, this has more of an afterschool special feel than the original, and the long-winded opening suggests this was aiming to be more of an educational program.
The second disc provides the alternate opening for Invention for Destruction. The film was a huge success internationally and Warner Bros. released the film in North America under the title The Fabulous World of Jules Verne with an English dub. Though (as far as I can see) the film was left intact otherwise, the North American release changed the opening credits and then added an introduction featuring Hugh Downs, who talks about how the world has advanced quickly the last hundred years and how Jules Verne has captured the imaginations of millions. From here, it jumps to the film’s opening (initially with Downs’ voice over) and continues the same as the original Czech version. The UK edition of the film released by Second Run provided the full version of the film with the alternate opening, though I’m guessing Criterion didn’t feel the need to do so here and instead offer the alternate opening separately, providing the English dub as an option for the main feature. I wasn’t too bothered by this, though I’m sure seamless branching could have been utilized to offer the full cut. (The alternate opening appears to be a standard-definition upscale, so that could be the reason Criterion didn’t go that route.)
Disc two also presents a new discussion on Zeman’s effects featuring visual effects supervisor Phil Tippett and visual effects artist Jim Aupperle. The first discuss how they each first came across Zeman (they both apparently saw the same serialized version of Journey to the Beginning of Time on television) and how that played into their eventual career paths before talking about what differentiates his animation and effects from others, including Ray Harryhausen (Zeman wasn’t aiming for his effects to look real but rather “hyper real”). The two then talk about certain sequences and effects found within his films, with both sometimes unsure on how he pulled off some of his effects, before the two explain how Zeman’s work inspired their own (Aupperle at one point shows one of his older dinosaur models, which Tippett then begins to manhandle with an obviously distressed Aupperle looking on). It’s a good appreciation that is also loaded with a lot of technical details about how many of these effects would have been accomplished.
Disc two also presents four short films by Zeman: A Christmas Dream (1945, 11-minutes), Horseshoe for Luck (1946, 5-minutes), Inspiration (1949, 11-minutes), and King Lavra (1950, 30-minutes). Christmas is a blend of live-action and stop-motion involving a doll (cast aside after she received new toys for Christmas) coming to life, while the others are straight stop-motion, Inspiration featuring a live-action opening and closing.
Horseshoe for Luck is a government film around the need to recycle specific materials, like metals, calling for everyone to do their part. It centers around a man who finds a horseshoe that ends up causing him a number of problems before he decides to take it in to a center. King Lavra is a bizarre and dark fairy tale around a king who executes the barbers he chooses to perform his yearly hair and beard trim so they don’t expose his secret: he has donkey ears and wants no one to know. I have to admit this one did very little for me, and it really outlasted its welcome.
Inspiration is the most impressive of the three shorts, and it was mentioned in Stevenson’s interview: apparently Zeman did it on a bet that he couldn’t make a stop-motion film using glass. With the film dedicated to glass makers, Zeman pulls that bet off and then some, using glass objects and figurines, apparently heating and bending the glass as needed to create the motion. It’s a gorgeous looking stop-motion film, very smooth and clean in its animation, and one of the more technically impressive ones I can recall ever seeing. All four films appear to have had limited restoration, but they’re digital presentations are all solid and they do retain a film-like quality to them.
Disc three, which features Baron Munchausen, holds the lengthiest feature: the 101-minute, 2015 documentary Film Adventurer Karel Zeman. Gathering together the filmmaker’s family and collaborators, along with other filmmakers who were inspired by Zeman’s work (like Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam), the documentary offers an incredibly in-depth look at the director’s life and work, while also offering surprisingly rich looks at the making of the three films found in this set. At the center of the of the documentary is a class of students who are tasked to recreate several the effect shots in the film using practical techniques. This rather clever focus, which also elevates this documentary above so many similar ones I’ve sat through, shows the creation behind each piece of sequences being created before being brought together for the final shot. We also get to see the difficulties that Zeman and his crew probably faced, which includes dealing with light and the weather (like the wind almost blowing a piece of a matte painting). I also appreciated the interviews with Gilliam and Koji Yamamura.
The set then includes a fold-out insert featuring an essay by critic Michael Atkinson covering the films in the set and Zeman’s career overall. Criterion also has fun with the packaging for the set, delivering three pop-up renderings of a scene from each film. I’ll warn that the case isn’t one of their sturdier boxes because of the pop-up aspect, but it’s a fun idea and looks great. Criterion advertises the packaging as limited edition, and I assume after that they might change it to one of their 3-disc cases.
Altogether it’s a lovely set, packed with some great material on the director and his work, and a fun package that sticks lovingly to the style of Zeman’s work
A great set, lovingly put together. It sports three excellent presentations, strong material, and a fun package. It comes with a very high recommendation.