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DVD SAVANT

Savant Review:

The 3 Worlds of Gulliver


The 3 Worlds of Gulliver
Columbia TriStar
1960 / Color / 1:37 flat full frame / 99 min.
Starring Kerwin Mathews, Jo Morrow, June Thorburn, Lee Patterson, Gregoire Aslan, Basil Sydney, Charles Lloyd Pack, Martin Benson, Mary Ellis, Marian Spencer, Peter Bull, Alec Mango
Cinematography Wilkie Cooper
Art Direction Derek Barrington, Gil Parrondo
Film Editor Raymond Poulton
Visual Effects Ray Harryhausen
Original Music Bernard Herrmann
Writing credits Arthur Ross and Jack Sher
Produced by Charles H. Schneer
Directed by Jack Sher

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

The 3 Worlds of Gulliver was Savant's first real introduction to the wonders of stop motion animation and special effects (at the age of 8), but it hasn't aged well. It's just not as appealing as Ray Harryhausen's other pictures, and not simply because it has few of his monsters. The most enjoyable aspect of it now is hearing Bernard Herrmann's great score. Columbia TriStar has released this colorful fantasy in their ongoing Ray Harryhausen Signature Collection, in a distressing full-frame-only presentation.

Synopsis:

Doctor Lemuel Gulliver (Kerwin Mathews) decides to leave home to find his fortune, and his fiancee Elizabeth (June Thorburn) stows away against his wishes. But he's washed overboard and onto the shores of Lilliput, where everyone's four inches tall! A petty principality run by irrational prejudices and ridiculous credos, Lilliput's court politics are a constant round of scheming and backstabbing for position. Gulliver is hard put to please anyone, even though he preps a new farmland and destroys the fleet of the enemy Blufescu. Unappreciated, he leaves in a handmade boat, only to wash ashore in the equally backward land of Brobdingnag, amid a population of giants. There he finds Elizabeth, and lives with her in a child's dollhouse after being married by the King. But the court sorcerer schemes to have Gulliver branded a witch. He's made to duel with a pet crocodile, until the sympathetic young Glumdalclitch (Sherry Alberoni) comes to the aid of her two doll-friends.

Ray Harryhausen is the greatest one-man act in the history of special effects, always accomplishing more with less using his personally-invented Dynamation system. The 3 Worlds of Gulliver is his second color feature.

While not exactly trashing the Jonathan Swift classic, no attempt is made to even approach the satirical edge of that great writer. A good and fair man, Lemuel tries to understand the intolerant politics of petty tyrants who fight over issues as ridiculous as what end of an egg everyone should crack open. Rulers are thoughtless dolts overly concerned with their status, and their advisors are constantly suggesting that 'the giant' or the 'doll-man' be killed for one reason or another. Gulliver tries to ingratiate himself with the Lilliputians, but it's just impossible. He averts war by confiscating an enemy fleet, but the King then demands that he slaughter the entire opposing kingdom. In Brobdingnag, Gulliver's rationality and scientific knowledge only cause him to be accused of sorcery. He humbles the King by winning a chess match against the him, also a bad move. The complex satire in Swift's tale, meant of course to criticize his own government, had a much more vitriolic edge - this is the wit who proposed with a straight face that England serve up its poor children as a food resource, to simultaneously solve the hunger and overpopulation problems.

Schneer and Harryhausen's The 3 Worlds of Gulliver is not about much more than a guy's problems with disproportion - in other lands he stands out and doesn't belong, and the only lesson offered is that living a simple life back in Merrie England isn't so bad an idea after all.

The Bernard Herrmann score is charming, and holds much of the picture together with its period sense and establishment of mood. Gulliver's Travels is a story that requires constant special effects outside the means of a lowbudget movie. Although his control over color shows great improvement, and the sodium vapor travelling mattes and perspective tricks are adequate, Harryhausen and Schneer's show has a storyboarded, stilted look. What's lacking is a superior sense of design - almost every angle is mandated by what the limited effects allow. Most shots are locked down, and although decent miniature and oversized props and settings are used, there's always the feeling that Kerwin Mathews was hired because he does such a good job hitting precise marks and directing his attention to the correct part of the screen. Compared to the (admittedly far more expensive) Darby O'Gill and the Little People, the effects now seem primitive, especially without an engaging story to carry them.

Harryhausen often remarked on the necessity of finding fresh locations for his effects extravaganzas, but most in The 3 Worlds of Gulliver are recycled from The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad. Gulliver's home in England is on the same hill where the first Cyclops smashed sailors with a tree trunk. Likewise, the angles on the beach and among the seaside rocks just look too familiar. When Gulliver is washed ashore on Brobdingnag - it's still the same damn beach. Charles Schneer produced a technical miracle of a movie on a minimal budget, but it's just not enough - what Gulliver needed more was more visual variety and a superior script.

Kerwin Mathews is even better here than as Sinbad, with a calmer role and better dialogue to speak. He makes a fine, likeable Lemuel, and is indeed an ace at 'selling' the effects scenes. The battle with the Rhedosaurus-like crocodile is nothing new as a Dynamation highlight, but his mime-swordwork is as believable as ever.

The rest of the cast plays mostly as an ensemble. June Thornburn doesn't have much opportunity to show spirit, as did Kathryn Grant - but she does get a Honeymoon scene of sorts. Columbia ingenue Jo Morrow (Our Man From Havana) is wasted in a couple of walk-ons as the Lilliputian love interest. Of the various pompous foreigners, only Peter Bull (Dr. Strangelove's Russian Ambassador) stands out. Sherry Alberoni is satisfactory, but her eyelines never seem to match up properly when she smiles down at her 'doll people'. And her mischievous dark-haired girl antagonist is totally undeveloped.

Gulliver's Travels has always been a problem story, as the giants 'n midgets angle only goes so far. It defeated Max Fleischer, whose 1939 animated operetta version is still more entertaining than this attempt. Jack Sher and Arthur Ross's script just hasn't got the forward momentum. At one point Gulliver is grabbed by a giant squirrel and tucked away for Winter along with the rest of the nuts. True, that's not something you see every day, but it simply doesn't advance the story.  1


Columbia's DVD of The 3 Worlds of Gulliver is very scary, mainly because the studio that's been a beacon of virtuosity when it comes to widescreen and 16:9 enhancement, is now 'experimenting' with full-frame releases on scattered library titles. Hopefully it's just that and not the beginning of a full-on abandonment of correct aspect ratios in favor of VHS-mindset 'mass audience' homogeneity. Columbia once recalled Silverado over a detail, if you remember - because its ratio was 1:85 instead of 2:1. Back in the first years of DVD, 1997-1999, the web made a great contribution to the format by battling DIVX (remember?) and goading reluctant studios into getting involved. People talk about studios abandoning DVD features that the growing mass market doesn't appreciate ... if letterboxing and 16:9 enhancement are in danger, I say it's time for an oldfashioned Steve Tannehill - type tirade. I'm writing Columbia a letter, and I hope others do too. Not to scream or whine, but to say that we want their old commitment to widescreen DVD reinstated. When their package text touts a 'Full Screen Version!' as a special feature, something needs to be said.

Otherwise, the present DVD is a decent one. The image looks fine, with the only flaws being a bit of dirt here and there built-in to the effects back in 1960. The long Richard Shickel docu added to First Men IN the Moon is here too, along with a new featurette with Ray in person, trailers, and the original 'This is Dynamation!' featurette.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The 3 Worlds of Gulliver rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Good - but inexcusably presented full frame
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: See above
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: April 18, 2002


Footnotes:

1. Arthur Ross wrote The 30 Foot Bride of Candy Rock the year before. I can imagine some idiot exec reasoning that that made him ideal to contribute to this screenplay - one movie about giants and shrinking men is the same as another, right?
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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