The Czech filmmaker Karel Zeman didn’t start his professional career in anything to do with film or animation. During his twenties in the 1930s, he worked at an advertising studio. Trying something unique to sell a product, he used animation in an ad for soap. This creativity, linked to technical fluency and patience, must have struck something deep because he fell in love. Clearly some things are just meant to be.
A decade later, he had started working at an animation studio and created his first short film in 1945, A Christmas Dream, where Zeman animates a little girl’s doll. The next year he released another short, A Horseshoe for Luck, which was the first to feature Mr. Prokouch, a wooden puppet he created and set in motion. Probably the best sign of what was to come in these early years, though, was the stunning Inspiration, from 1949, which is the result of a bet; a friend didn’t think Zeman could animate with glass. His friend was wrong. This little film is as delicate as its dancing figurines.
Over the next few years he made several more shorts, including several more with Mr. Prokouch, as well as the longer, at thirty minutes, King Lavra. In 1953 he made his first feature, The Treasure of Bird Island, based on a Persian poem and with production design based on Persian miniatures.
Zeman loved making films that inspired imagination and that gave life to some of his favorite stories, especially those by Jules Verne. His next feature Journey to the Beginning of Time (1955), while not precisely an adaptation of Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth is certainly a close analog. He continued to push the limits of his imagination, both in terms of how to tell a story and what new techniques he could develop to tell it that way. Invention for Destruction (1958) and The Fabulous Baron Munchausen (1962) are stunning achievements that inspire wonder still. Zeman deserves the appellation the Czech-Méliès, for he is a clear heir of Georges Méliès.
Today The Criterion Collection is releasing a wondrous box set containing Journey to the Beginning of Time, Invention for Destruction, and The Fabulous Baron Muchausen. The set also includes the four shorts I mentioned above, as well as a host of supplements that go into Zeman’s life and the fantastic techniques he used to create these unique films.
Journey to the Beginning of Time
Journey to the Beginning of Time is, as I said above, pretty closely linked to Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth. When it begins, our narrator, a young boy who assumes the role of record keeper and scientist, is fixing a battered book. He tells us it is a record of a journey he and three friends made after they found a trilobite fossil. Knowing the fossil was hundreds of millions of years old, he and his friends are struck by how deep time is, and they decide to venture through a special cave and down a river to see it all in reverse.
Honestly, as a story, this one is not unique or particularly special. The children are never shown to be in any real danger, though predictable mild peril is frequent. It feels a lot like an episode of The Wonderful World of Disney. To be clear, I still liked it for this. I’m a sucker for things that simply marvel at history, even if it marvels from a distance and stays focused on the surface. It’s still fun to go through the ice age, witness a made-up wholly rhino fight, gasp at the dinosaurs, fret about the strange vegetation that was creeping up on the land, and, finally, to arrive at the rocky shore near the beginning of it all and find a living trilobite. The drama is the passage of time. And a lot of the excitement for me was seeing how Zeman pulled it off.
Invention for Destruction
If Journey to the Beginning of Time was inspired by Jules Verne, for Invention for Destruction Zeman made an explicity adaptation of Verne’s 1896 novel, Facing the Flag.
The plot is fun enough and definitely makes more room for itself than did the plot of Journey to the Beginning of Time. Zeman makes this clear from the beginning.
It involves pirates who kidnap a professor and his assistant in order to build a kind of super weapon. The professor works in comfort and does not know what has happened to his assistant, nor does he know he’s bringing about fantastic technology not to serve humanity but to harm it. The assistant knows all to well, though, and lays out his plot to thwart the pirates.
What’s better than the plot, though, is that Zeman also used the illustrations found in Facing the Flag to inspire his set design. The real treasure here is the visual feast and lovely sense of whimsy Zeman packs into the picture.
The Fabulous Baron Muchausen
For the last film in the set, 1961’s The Fabulous Baron Muchausen, Zeman moves away from Verne and adapts the stories of Baron Munchausen in a style inspired by Gustave Doré. Ah but wait! Zeman doesn’t move too far from Verne! This story has an astronaut landing on the moon and meeting there not only the Baron himself but also the characters from Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon.
The Baron decides to return to earth to show this “moon man” how to live, but when they start competing for the affection of a princess things get testy. This leads to a very fun film filled with what you’d hope for in a Baron Munchausen movie: one silly adventure after another.
This really is a special set of films, and Criterion also packs in lots of extras. Besides the shorts I mentioned above, there are many supplements about Zeman’s life, about his processes, and about these films. It comes with my highest recommendation.