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Walt Disney stayed ahead of his competition by any means possible; through much of the 1930s he enjoyed an exclusive contractual lock on the 3-strip Technicolor process for animation. The enormous success of Disney's bold gamble Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs didn't result in a flood of feature-length animated movies. The only studio to step up to the plate was Paramount. They had a close association with Max and Dave Fleischer, animation veterans that started before Disney and pioneered many of the basic processes of the craft.
1939's Gulliver's Travels was the first non-Disney full-length animated feature. History has unfairly relegated it to an also-ran slot. An expected simplification of Jonathan Swift's 1726 satire, the movie's wistful pacifist theme probably didn't help its box office chances in 1939, when the entire world was gearing up for war. Thrown to the vagaries of TV distributors and, with the video age, Public Domain video purveyors, the Fleischers' colorful musical fantasy hasn't been seen in its original glory for ages. Now comes a double DVD and Blu-ray release touted by its distributor as a major feat of restoration. More on that below.
It's easy to slam Gulliver's Travels in comparison with Disney's Snow White or Pinocchio; apparently Walt did so at every opportunity. True, Fleischer's film isn't nearly as refined artistically, but it's more than entertaining in its own right. Shipwreck survivor Gulliver washes ashore on Lilliput and witnesses a petty war begin between the Lilliputian King Little and King Bombo of Blefuscu. The marriage of Lilliput's Princess Glory and Blefuscu's Prince David is broken off when their fathers fly into a rage over the song to be sung at the ceremony. Gulliver intervenes by neutralizing Bombo's fleet and helping the romantic couple meet after hours.
Viewers accustomed to Disney entertainments will probably consider Gulliver to be less sophisticated. The film's characters have been "plugged in" from different genre backgrounds, and animated in conflicting styles. The giant Gulliver is rotoscoped from a live-action model. Fleischer's animators do nice work making him seem gentle and graceful, especially in a night scene when a bonfire illuminates his face. Also partially rotoscoped are the Prince and Princess, who look more or less like the delicately featured "bride and groom" figures from a wedding cake. David and Glory don't really have dialogue lines and do all of their communicating through the pretty songs of Ralph Rainger and Leo Robin. Their duets Faithful and Forever channel a definite Jeannette MacDonald - Nelson Eddy operetta vibe, that dates the movie but also lends it a warm romantic glow. 1
The other Lilliputians are more flexible, cartoony creations. The pear-shaped King Little is a craven coward and the burly Bombo is a blowhard. The comic "star" of the show is the town crier, Gabby, a feisty, slightly obnoxious know-it-all who discovers Gulliver on the beach. Gabby gets the most screen time, flailing about trying to be noticed, leading the mob that attempts to tie Gulliver to a giant rolling platform, etc. Gabby's slapstick antics never let up. Depending on the situation, he's always scared, angry or frustrated.
The movie's theme song "It's a Hap-Hap-Happy Day" and the Gabby character were retained by Fleisher for more cartoon shorts over the next few years. The song has been criticized as a Disney knock-off, but if you ask me, the reverse seems true: think of The Song of the South's tune "Zippety Doo Dah". There really was no love lost between Disney and the Fleischers.
Probably the most fun for adults are the antics of King Bombo's spies, a trio of bumbling hooded figures that almost succeed in killing Gulliver with his own cannon-sized pistol. 2 One of the spies is an endearing dunce-type who squares off against Gabby when the chips are down. Even cuter is a cross-eyed carrier pigeon that encounters comic difficulties delivering Bombo's executive assassination order.
Uniting all these disparate elements is the wistful music score by Victor Young. By sticking to its sweet love-conquers-all theme, Gulliver's Travels casts an appealing fairy tale spell. It's a reasonably charming cartoon adventure, particularly for smaller children not yet conditioned to reject "corny" content. The sentimental simplicity of Prince David's revival, with a pair of bluebirds waving their wings in joyous approval, is a little piece of childhood perfection.
The NHP DVD and Blu-ray of Gulliver's Travels is, unfortunately, a big problem, as it's been radically reformatted for widescreen video. Ever since viewers realized that CinemaScope pictures were being altered for television, they've been complaining about the practice of pan-scanning and other re-formatting tricks to jam a wide picture into a square video monitor. The new era of 16:9 DVDs and widescreen Blu-ray discs now gives us an opposite outrage: Gulliver's Travels' original, proper Academy Ratio (1.37:1) has been "adapted" to the 1.78:1 wide screen shape. The disc's insert liner notes state:
"This process was done frame-by-frame without stretching characters or losing any image beyond standard vertical safe areas. In fact, more picture is now visible on the left and right side of the frame than ever before."
The first part of the statement simply isn't true. Characters often look squashed out. The rest is a disingenuous attempt to confuse the reader with video terminology. The "standard vertical safe area" the text refers to is the gross crop given to video images, to mark off an area considered absolutely safe for graphics, so they won't be cut off on poorly-adjusted TV monitors. So what the blurb actually says is that their revision doesn't cut off any image that an old overscanning TV monitor wouldn't. Unless the comparison is with a grossly cropped TV image, NHP version doesn't add any information to the sides. And it chops plenty off the top and bottom of the frame.
The new disc of Gulliver's Travels blows up, distorts and repositions the original squarish Academy image. It begins with a blowup of the Paramount logo, almost but not quite maintaining a circular shape for the stars around the mountain. A newly-added circle wipe is used to segue to the main titles, which are horizontally distorted to fill the frame.
For most of the rest of the film, the movie is both enlarged and (slightly) horizontally stretched to fill the wider screen shape. The degree of cropping and stretching appears to change from shot to shot. Animated characters' heads now graze the top frame line, while the lower frame line cuts them off at the knees. Marching figures in some shots barely peek over the bottom of the frame. Objects and characters on screen are slightly wider than they should be.
Not helping is the fact that the new DVD has been sourced from a 35mm Technicolor print. Dense Tech prints are wholly unsuited for transfer; the resulting video is almost always soft-looking and exhibits higher contrast; dark areas tend to clog up. That's why the night scenes in Gulliver are so dark. The expert I consulted said that transfers of Technicolor prints were once considered "good enough" for lo-res VHS, but in no way do they suffice for DVD and Blu-ray.
That said, the NHP people have made their source print look very attractive. They've treated their transfer to heavy-duty digital cleanup, which results in a mostly smooth presentation -- image stability is excellent and color values aren't bad either. But the image sharpness varies from shot to shot. Motion tends to blur as film frames are semi-dissolved together. Mild bumps are all that remain of splices in the original print. But the digital processing has also altered fast action. This can be seen when the comic spies slide a wooden partition up and down quickly to let the "dunce-spy" join them in a horse stall. The computer tries to minimize the violent motion, producing an odd dissolve-bump effect that obliterates the original animation!
On the plus side, the soundtrack is certainly helped by a digital working-over, and NHP also includes an original mono.
The word "restored" has been diluted to near meaninglessness by video marketers. NHP has cleaned up a print of a classic film for video. As no film is involved, they haven't restored anything back to an original form. 3
Gulliver's Travels is not a "lost" film but a title caught in a gray copyright area. In 1955, Paramount sold all of its live action shorts and animated cartoons made prior to 1951 to Television, except for Popeye and Superman cartoons, which were tied up with other rights holders. Included in the sale were the two animated feature films made by the Fleischers for Paramount, Gulliver's Travels and Mr. Bug Goes to Town, aka Hoppity Goes to Town.
The TV syndicators derived plenty of income from Gulliver's Travels and even gave it a national theatrical reissue in 1957. After a long chain of name changes (U.M.&M., National Telefilm Associates) and buyouts (Republic, Spelling Entertainment, Viacom), Paramount bought Viacom, recouping everything they had sold back in 1955. 4
So Paramount has Gulliver's Travels back again. Is the film now in the Public Domain? Yes and No. The problem is that NTA did not renew the initial 28-year copyright when it came due in 1967. But, technically, its music score should still be under copyright.
I'm informed that Paramount still has the complete original nitrate elements deposited with UCLA. A proper film restoration to re-combine the Technicolor film strips in the digital domain would cost at bare minimum several hundred thousand dollars. That's exactly why so few original Technicolor films have been fully rejuvenated.
The NHP discs contain two Gabby cartoons, said to be made from scenes not used in the original feature. Ironically, they're presented in the correct 1:37 aspect ratio. With Fleischer's original compositions intact, they look great, without the cramping and distortion present in the main feature. A third extra is a featurette showing the Fleischer studio in Florida, where a Popeye cartoon is in production. Curiously, the main credits are missing from all three short subjects.
Even if we don't approve, we understand the marketing factors that encourage disc producers to revise movies for home video. We tolerate colorized DVDs when the disc producers are thoughtful enough to include a normal un-colorized version. If NHP had included a properly framed Gulliver's Travels, we'd have little to complain about -- they've done about all that can be done with the source material they had to work with, and the image quality is pretty good.
So the sad news is that the new DVD and Blu-ray of Gulliver's Travels has been grossly "adapted" for widescreen. "It's only children's fare" was always the excuse given when video companies used to transfer anything animated flat screen only. I hope that "filling widescreen monitors" doesn't become an equally obnoxious trend. 5 NHP's marketing language can't cover up the damage done to the Fleischer legacy they claim to be honoring. When Prince David and Princess Glory sing in the moonlight, they do it under a slightly off-round moon!
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Gulliver's Travels Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Very Good +
Video: Poor Good color considering the source; unforgivable format & composition tampering
Supplements: two cartoon fragments, docu fragment
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 17, 2009
1. Frankly, I think I showed the movie to my son David a couple of years too soon; at a sensitive three or four he bought into the Glory / David tragedy all too strongly, and had to be consoled at the conclusion: "Look, look, it's all right, see?" Naturally, a memory association like that now makes Gulliver an emotional experience! Does my son even remember seeing the movie? I'll have to ask.
2. Hey, if Gulliver's such a kindly fellow, why's he packing heat?
3. What's a good analogy for this that doesn't overstate the case? How about doing a very exacting Photoshop clean-up job on a scratched, damaged photo of the Mona Lisa? Is that restoring the painting?
4. I'm told that the only items that departed the collection were, "100 live action shorts which Raymond Rohauer cherry-picked away from a clueless NTA executive in the late '60s." The rascally Ray Rohauer has to figure in there somewhere, or it wouldn't be a real Hollywood story!
5. I don't know if they're still doing it, but I remember hearing from angry European correspondents when 'scope films were cropped to 1:78 for presentation on their widescreen European TV systems.
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