Wednesday, 5 May 2010

The Fabulous World of Jules Verne (1958)

There is something immensely gratifying about not only being able to satisfy one's curiosity, but also being more than delighted with the result. In the course of a year I usually manage to delete a number of films from my "would like to see" lists, but too often the eventual viewing produces largely disappointment or at best a reaction of "I'm glad I've seen it finally, but...". In contrast, the above Czech film, also known as "The Deadly Invention", from animator-director Karel Zeman is a landmark of screen imagination and originality.

Although I understand that this film was something of a throwaway staple of television programming in the U.S. back in the '70s, I had never seen it; I listed it on the basis of an intriguing review posted by the mighty critic Pauline Kael (oh, how I miss her!). It is a movie that deserves to be better known and better distributed, since it is difficult to get across in words how unique Zeman's film is. Loosely based on several Verne novels, the storyline has an evil megalomaniac, keen on world domination, kidnapping a naive but brilliant scientist to develop the ultimate weapon of mass destruction. Sounds very up-to-date, doesn't it? He also unwittingly takes hostage the scientist's young assistant who must escape and warn the world of its impending doom.

What makes this film so unusual is Zeman's combination of live action, animation, puppets and painted sets -- all held together by a technique that he calls 'Mystimation' -- giving a baffling world of trick visuals and a melee of patterns and design. The action appears to be taking place in a landscape of steel engravings and litnographic images, pulled from the illustrated pages of Verne's novels. It is completely baffling how real people can be so seamlessly incorporated into such an obviously make-believe environment, with its carefully rendered undersea life (including gigantic beautifully rendered fish), intricate pumping machinery, and sprawling castle fortresses. The actors themselves seem somewhat superfluous in comparison with their fantastically-rendered backgrounds, but this is quite possibly intentional. They do, however, manage to get across the spirit of scientific experimentation, nefarious motivations, and bold adventure, so essential to the spirit of Verne's works.

My only small quibble is that the Czech film archive furnishing the print for this showing at the National Film Theatre decided to send an English-dubbed, rather than subtitled, copy. Fortunately this did not spoil the viewing experience, since the dialogue falls into minor significance as one stares happily at the director's amazing creation. One is tempted to rename this movie "The Fabulous Mind of Karel Zeman".
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