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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » Max Fleischer's Gulliver's Travels (Blu-ray)
Max Fleischer's Gulliver's Travels (Blu-ray)
Entertainment One // Unrated // March 10, 2009 // Region Free
List Price: $19.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Adam Tyner | posted April 8, 2009 | E-mail the Author
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From the time it first splashed into theaters in 1939, Gulliver's Travels -- the second feature-length animated film ever produced on these shores -- has never been able to escape the shadow of Walt Disney. Rushed into a troubled production, Gulliver's Travels paled in comparison to the charm and majesty of Disney's competing Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and for some seventy years now, the Fleischers' initial stab at feature animation has been relegated to footnotes and cut-out bins. With Pinocchio having recently made its bow in high definition and Snow White slated to do the same come November, this Blu-ray disc of Gulliver's Travels is inevitably going to be compared to Disney animation of this same vintage, and as always, it's found wanting. Wow, and that's putting it lightly.

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Gulliver barely ranks as a supporting character in his own movie, and it bears little resemblance to the satirical Jonathan Swift novel. The film opens with Gulliver washing up on the shores of Lilliput, a sleepy little kingdom whose inhabitants are just a few inches tall, and he's quickly discovered by a dimwitted nightwatchman. Gabby darts over to the palace to deliver the shocking news that there's a giant on the beach just as war is brewing between Lilliput and Blefuscu over a wedding dance number. From there, he leads a gaggle of Lilliputians over to the sleeping man-mountain, tethering Gulliver to the ground until the kingdom clues in what a powerful ally this giant would be in the squabble with those warhawks in Blefuscu.

The Fleischers didn't step into feature animation on steady footing, and Gulliver's Travels frequently seems like a short subject uncomfortably stretched to fill its 76 minute runtime. Not chucking out virtually every last page of the Jonathan Swift novel probably would have helped, considering that the movie's most fundamental problem is that nothing happens. Gulliver spends literally half the film sleeping, and when he finally does open his eyes, the movie rarely bothers to do more with him than bellow a laugh, clap, or tap things with an oversized index finger. The spotlight is really aimed at the Lilliputians, although Gulliver's Travels' overreliance on clunky wordplay and slapstick really isn't enough to drive an entire movie. Some of the Rube Goldberg-ish hijinks the Lilliputians cobble together to deal with Gulliver are kind of cute and clever, but like everything else about the film, they drag on much, much too long. Gulliver himself is devoid of any sort of personality, the handful of Lilliputians that are given much of anything to do are saddled with one running joke a pop, and does anyone really care about or even remember the tepid, starcrossed romance between the pint-sized prince and princess? The rotoscoped animation of Gulliver and the two lovebirds doesn't gel comfortably with the more exaggerated designs of the rest of the Lilliputians, and nothing about the look of the film comes close to dazzling in quite the same way as Disney's far more accomplished Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

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As an admirer of the Fleischers' body of work and classic animation as a whole, I appreciate Gulliver's Travels for its historical value but not all that much as a movie in its own right. Actually, the story swirling around this Blu-ray disc is far more intriguing than anything about Gulliver's Travels itself. Despite being touted as a high definition remaster, this Blu-ray disc has really been sourced from an ancient composite, standard definition video master that's been cropped, squashed, and overprocessed within an inch of its life to pass itself off as HD. Scathing reviews on Amazon have been deleted en masse, representatives from the label that issued it claim that there's some sort of online conspiracy against the movie, and some Internet exhibitionist has been rallying subscribers to her site to post fake comments on blogs and assorted websites to counteract all the dismal press that's floating around. I'd like to think anyone reading this is bright enough to shrug all of that off, but there's no need to take my word for it. Click on the screengrabs scattered throughout this review to get a sense of just what a trainwreck Gulliver's Travels is on Blu-ray, and after you scrape your jaw off the floor, I'm sure you'll agree that this is the single worst title to find its way onto the format to date. Skip It.

I understand that this is a release from a small label that lacks the resources to match the sorts of multimillion dollar restorations that Disney can lavish upon its classic titles, but that's no excuse for something this dismal. Simply put, Gulliver's Travels is unwatchable on Blu-ray. The original animation has been mauled apart to fit 16x9 displays; it's both cropped and stretched, with negligible pillarboxing on the sides to give it an aspect ratio closer to 1.74:1. Not only has Gulliver's Travels not been retransferred to high definition for this Blu-ray disc, but it doesn't even appear to be culled from a digital master at all. There are what look to be tracking errors -- thin horizontal bands continually crawling up the screen -- on display throughout the film. In a misguided attempt at compensating for the deficiencies of this cropped, distorted image, Gulliver's Travels has been slathered in an inhuman amount of digital noise reduction. This ravages the linework and any trace of fine detail, and it's used so excessively that I wouldn't be surprised if competing standard definition DVD releases would easily trump this Blu-ray disc. All sense of texture and clarity has been digitally smeared away, leaving Gulliver's Travels looking less like an animated film and more like a jittery oil painting.

This isn't hyperbole or any sort of exaggeration. Click on the screenshot below to see it in its full 1920x1080 dimensions:

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Just to be perfectly clear, this image has been culled directly from the Blu-ray disc. It was not snapped with a digital camera, and I've readily duplicated the results on multiple Blu-ray players and high definition displays. Imagine this splashed across a 60" television or, even more appalling, projected onto a hundred inch screen. It's barely VHS-grade.

Open the full-size version of this screen grab and shudder at the bleeding colors and ghosting, most glaringly to the right of Gabby and his chair.

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Gulliver's Travel is a complete and unredeemable disaster in every conceivable way. This low-bitrate MPEG-2 encode is marred by compression artifacts. The frame rate lacks the fluidity I've come to expect from the Fleischers, and the running theory seems to be that frames were snipped out to ease the cost of this cut-rate "restoration". Black levels are muddy and anemic in the number of night scenes throughout Gulliver's Travels, and its colors are consistently dull and lifeless. Contrast is poor, and the constant ghosting and tracking issues suggest an ancient analog video source worlds removed from the film elements mentioned in the disc's liner notes. With a cropped, distorted image devoid of any clarity, detail, or texture, Gulliver's Travel is in no way a proper high definition release. Standard definition? Try substandard definition. Absolutely abysmal.

At least its audio is listenable. Gulliver's Travels piles on three soundtracks: a Dolby Digital 5.1 remix (448 Kbps), a stereo track, and its original monaural audio (both at 384 Kbps). To my ears, at least, the movie sounds more comfortable in mono; I sampled the other tracks but quickly found myself switching back. Although it can't shake the strain of whatever elements were used, Gulliver's Travels sounds reasonably robust. There's also a fair sense of distinctness in the mix, and the effects and music never really come across as muddled together. It's an unremarkable but passable effort.

For anyone who's curious, there aren't any subtitle streams or dubbed soundtracks this time around.

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This Blu-ray disc adds on a pair of six minute shorts starring Gabby, who trashes half the castle while "Swing Cleaning" and is gussied up as "King for a Day" after the guy with the crown is sent an awfully shocking letter in the mail. Last up is a full-color vintage featurette following every stage of production on a Popeye cartoon at the Fleischers' studio in sunny Florida. Unlike Gulliver's Travels itself, these three shorts are properly pillarboxed to preserve their original aspect ratio. All three are heavily filtered as well, although for whatever reason, "Swing Cleaning" isn't ravaged nearly as badly as "King for a Day".

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The Final Word
Honestly, even an exceptional high definition release of Gulliver's Travels would be tough to recommend to much of anyone outside of classic animation completists. It's more notable for its footnote as the second ever feature-length animated film on these shores -- and the first produced outside of Disney's studios -- than it is as a movie in its own right. Gulliver's Travels would've been much more compelling as a twenty minute short, but it strains to fill its meandering 76 minute runtime, and it's wholly lacking the charm, vivacity, and visual splendor of the competing Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

It's a moot point, though. Blu-ray has been around for nearly three years now and has racked up a library of some 1,500 titles, and Gulliver's Travels not only gets the nod as the single worst release on the format, but it's such an unmitigated disaster that there really isn't even a close second. Upconverted from ancient standard definition video and passed off as high-def, Gulliver's Travels would be substandard for a DVD, let alone a newly-minted Blu-ray release. This is appallingly shameful. Skip It.
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