By G. Michael Dobbs
A triumphant restoration and a philosophical martial arts film are in this week’s movie review column.
Fleischer Classics featuring Gulliver’s Travels
Thanks to a copyright renewal error committed many years ago, the second American animated feature film fell into the public domain. While this made “Gulliver’s Travels” (1939) easy to find in the VHS era, as well as on DVD, it also meant that audiences didn’t have the opportunity to see the film in its original Technicolor lushness. Any washed out print or copy of a copy sufficed for these releases.
The reputation of the film certainly suffered, which was ironic as it happened during a time when more and more film enthusiasts rediscovered the work produced at the Fleischer Studios. Producer Max Fleischer was an animation innovator who brought Popeye, Betty Boop and Superman to the screen as well as developing “the bouncing ball,” which is still used in commercials and other productions to this day.
With the success of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” in 1937, Fleischer’s distributor, Paramount Pictures, wanted an animated feature as well. With a goal of making a Christmas 1939 release date, the studio scrambled to find the correct subject material as well as enlarge the staff to meet the deadline.
The studio settled on producing a musical version of Jonathan Swift’s satiric classic “Gulliver’s Travels.” Instead of having a conflict between two nations on which end of an egg to break open, the screenwriters instead made the argument between Lilliput and Blesfusco about their national songs and which should be performed at a wedding of the children of the two kings.
The ship-wrecked sailor Gulliver towers over these people, and is able to help Lilliput settle this dispute uniting the two young lovers.
The film is charming and, at times, genuinely funny. The songs are catchy 1930s pop tunes that at least for me remain appealing.
The restored color shows the animation and design work of the film in its best possible light.
The studio used a technique known as rotoscoping to animate Gulliver. Played by a Miami, Fla., radio announcer named Sam Parker, the staff took movie footage of Parker in costume acting out his part. They then used that footage as the basis for their animation of the character complete with shadows. The result is a stylistic difference between the Lilliputians and Gulliver that makes the fantasy more defined.
This meticulous restoration by Steve Stanchfield of Thunderbean Animation is a revelation. Stanchfield took the best print material he could find and digitally restored the color, while also eliminating dirt and scratches. The results are impressive.
He also assembled a great group of bonus features, including other cartoons from the Fleischer Studio as well production artwork from the film, publicity materials, other recordings of the songs, the original trailer for the film and even a rare pencil test.
He also published liner notes in a booklet on the film, which – in the spirit of full disclosure – included a short essay by this writer.
While some will certainly argue the artistic value of the film, no one will be able to say they’ve seen a better-looking version of this historic film.
To purchase the disc, go to www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00ITE4XUM
The story of martial arts legend Ip Man has inspired at least four other movies besides this one as well as a television series. For American audiences, Ip Man is most quickly described as Bruce Lee’s teacher.
For Chinese audiences, Ip Man is a figure of near myth, a man who introduced the Wing Chun school of fighting to many people.
This film is not any run of the mill martial arts film, though. Instead it is a thoughtful interpretation of Ip’s life and philosophy told in a moody, almost film noir fashion by director Kar Wai Wong. Known for art films such as “Days of Being Wild” and “Chunking Express,” Wong wisely chose one of the best action directors working to complete his vision. Yuen Woo Ping choreographed fight scenes for such classic films as Jackie Chan’s “Drunken Master,” Donnie Yen’s “The Iron Monkey,” even Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill Vol. 2” and does marvelous work in this film.
The film’s story stretched from the 1930s just before the Japanese invasion and occupation of China to Hong Kong in the 1950s and ending there in the 1970s.
Tony Leung is a superstar in Asian cinema and he brings a restrained nobility to the title role. He is matched by Zhang Ziyi, the actress known for her roles in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” as well as “Hero” and “House of Flying Daggers.”
I love Asian films and “The Grandmaster” is a good title in which to start your own exploration.