There's good and bad news for fans of Max Fleischer's "Gulliver's Travels" (1939), the second full-length animated feature that followed two year's after Disney's "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs." The good news is that the film, which had badly deteriorated over the years, has been restored and brought to Blu-ray. The bad news is that what was originally a 1.37:1 aspect ratio has been converted to 1.78:1 to accommodate today's widescreen televisions. And while we're assured by the distributor that they "color corrected 'Gulliver's Travels' using 100 percent accurate Technicolor palettes and remastered the film for the first time in 16x9 High Definition" using a process which was done "frame-by-frame without stretching characters or losing any image beyond standard vertical safe areas," to my eyes some of the characters look slightly distorted. And an MPEG-2 transfer was used when an MPEG-4 might have preserved even more detail and given us a picture that doesn't look quite as soft.
The liner notes for this nonetheless loving Koch release reminds us that "Gulliver's Travels" was a massive undertaking, with 600 artists and technicians producing 639,000 cells and 115,000 composite scenes in order to craft this feature. The Fleischer studios had given audiences "Popeye" and "Betty Boop," and the characters here have that slightly goofy look to them--except for Lemuel Gulliver, the seaman who finds himself washed up on a strange shore following a storm.
Based on the 1726 novel by Jonathan Swift by the same name--though officially the title was Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, in Four Parts, by Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon and then a Captain of several Ships--Fleischer's cartoon adaptation only drew from the first part: Gulliver's landing on the shores of Lilliput, where the Lilliputians are tiny compared to him. And no, the most famous scene in the novel where Gulliver puts out a fire in the Queen's bedchamber by peeing on it isn't included. This is a family movie, and there's nothing here that kids can't see. Swift's Lilliputians were one-twelfth the size of Gulliver, and that appears to be close to the ratio here too. First deemed a monster and tied up and brought into the city, Gulliver soon wins them over. Good thing, because he easily broke his bonds, and bullets and cannonballs just bounce off him. Arrows are nothing more than bee stingers to him, annoyances to be brushed off. But in no time at all the king decides to take advantage of the giant by having him defend Lilliput against their enemies, the invaders from Blefuscu. That, he does. Swift intended the "tiny warring people" to be a satire of the feuds and wars between England and France, but the animated version is less pointed. It's mostly a pacifist fable about getting along, with a Romeo and Juliet forbidden love thrown in for good measure.
In Swift's version, when Gulliver annoys the king by refusing to subjugate Blefuscu, he's sentenced to have his eyes put out, but escapes to Blefuscu and takes a boat out into the shipping lanes where he's eventually rescued (and deposited, after another shipwreck, on the doorstep of a world of giant Brobdingnagians. But the focus in Fleischer's tale is on the forbidden love between the two young folks and the peacemaking effect that Gulliver has in bringing the lovers (and their two countries) together. The only threat is to young love.
Though popular when it first played in theaters and though it received new life in television syndication with other Fleischer cartoons, "Gulliver's Travels" doesn't have the consistent charm of Disney's first animated feature. The quality of animation and drawing just isn't as high, and many scenes go on far too long, treated as if they were short subjects designed to entertain simply by their animation. But that gets in the way of the storyline. The characters themselves aren't as endearing, either, and so the more time we spend with them the more uncomfortable it can be. There's a curious blend of Thirties' style men and women (Gulliver and the two lovebird protagonists) combined with exaggerated comic characters that's both distinctive and specious. But even more curious would have been if the Fleischers (this is directed by Dave) went with their original idea to make Popeye the Gulliver character.
It's a decent diversion for families today, but not one of those films that the kids will be clamoring to watch again. Once is enough . . . for me, too, and I thought I'd be far more nostalgic about it having grown up watching "Gulliver's Travels" on TV.
Though the picture does in deed look cleaner--there aren't the sprocket slips, scratches, dirt spots, and bits of emulsion that occasionally popped up on the old TV reruns--it doesn't look anything like Disney's "Pinocchio," which was made just a year later. Whether it's true or legend, if Walt Disney really did say that his second-string animators could do better, I'd believe it, because "Gulliver's Travels" looks twice as rough as "Pinocchio." Colors aren't fully saturated, detail gets lost in what to my eyes looks like distortion, and there are still some noticeable flaws in the film that apparently couldn't be cleaned up--like a missing frame every now and then.
Koch released the DVD of this title at the same time, and the sound options are the same for both DVD and Blu-ray: a default Dolby Digital 2.0 or a Dolby Digital 5.1 which is more dynamic but also more distracting and artificial. This film always sounded as if the voices were coming from a mayonnaise jar, and waking up the rear speakers does nothing to help the flat timbre. I actually preferred option three: the original Mono. Why? Because it fit the film better. Visually, it's still so rough that Mono makes more sense--though again, the treatment this film receives is far from the norm these days with Blu-ray soundtracks.
Two cartoon shorts starring "Gabby," one of the goofy characters from the film, the town crier. But he was being showcased in this film the way major league teams shop prospects in games. Between 1940 and 1941 Gabby got his own cartoon series, and this was both his start and a way for Fleischman to test the waters. Personally, I found him annoying, and it was his routines in the film that often went on too long.
The only other bonus feature is actually a great one. It's "The Making of a Cartoon," which takes you through every step of the rotoscoping process that the Fleischers invented. Great archival footage!
Not all Blu-rays are created equal, and while I haven't seen the DVD of this newly remastered title, I'd be surprised if you could tell a huge difference. Oh, it looks better than the beat-up 35mm films that ran through projectors so kids could watch it on their television sets back in the 1950s, but it looks like coal compared to the diamond Disney just released ("Pinocchio").