CAPSULE: Czech animator Karel Zeman, nearly forgotten now, was a genius of the animated film. Here, as his masterwork, he adapts a lesser novel by Jules Verne into a highly creative screen adventure. Showing great imagination on a tiny budget Zeman emulates the look of the lithographs of Verne's early editions and makes his film a pioneer in the style that since has been dubbed "steampunk". Even though the style is satirical it is also loving and the film still has the power to captivate the viewer. Rating: +3 (-4 to +4) or 9/10
Karel Zeman was one of the leading Czech animators with a career from the 1940s to the 1980s, but his prime was in the 1950s and 1960s when he made films like JOURNEY TO THE BEGINNING OF TIME (1955), THE FABULOUS WORLD OF JULES VERNE (1958), BARON MUNCHAUSEN (1962) and THE STOLEN AIRSHIP (1966). His animation is punctuated with impish humor. It is claimed that Zeman was inspired and influenced by Georges Méliès. But his own work was later much imitated by Terry Gilliam and even Tim Burton. For THE FABULOUS WORLD OF JULES VERNE he illustrated a Verne novel with animation in the style of the Edouard Riou illustrations of Verne. The Riou illustrations were as closely associated with the Verne narratives as Tenniel's illustrations were for ALICE IN WONDERLAND. Riou was a student of great illustrator Gustave Dore, and the early editions of Jules Verne's novels featured lithographic illustrations by Edouard Riou. Throughout the film Zeman brings to life the Riou illustrations. In the Verne-like technology in the detail to show us detail to the steel plate and rivets. Shades of gray will be produced by lines of white and black as would be done in lithographs.
The film claims to have been shot in a process dubbed "Mysti-mation". This appears to be a process that involves mixing live-action, animation, model work, puppets, stop-motion, and whatever it takes to put an image on the screen. If the blend is not entirely successful that becomes part of the joke. Zeman gives the viewers the impression he is winking at them and offering a conspiracy that neither will notice the rough edges. And this viewer for one readily agreed.
The time is the world of Verne's novels, one with a world obsessed with the miracles of science. The story starts with the main character, one Simon Hart, traveling to visit the genius Professor Roch. On his way he marvels at the then-modern wonders of science, mostly taken from Verne novels. The effect is a symphony of steam and steel. There are bicycle-like flying machines, submarines and ships floating, huge train engines. The flying clipper Albatross flies over Hart's head and Hart is impressed. The land, the sky, and the water are filled with marvelous inventions of the modern age.
Roch, the professor, lives on an isolated and well-protected island where he is creating a new and highly powerful explosive. Unknown to either the main character or Roch there are evil men plotting to assault the island fortress, kidnap the professor, and steal the secret of the explosive. They do and hart finds himself taken with Roch. Behind it all is a villain with huge resources, Count Artigas. Artigas has his own arsenal of very modern weapons including a submarine that he uses to sink ships that are his victims. Unable to steal Roch's science, he steals Roch and forces the scientist to develop weapons for him.
Hart and Roch are taken to an even more isolated lab on a remote and supposedly volcanic island. But the volcano is dormant. The smoke that seems to come from it is really from the man-made manufacturing plant within the volcano's crater. Can Hart and Roch escape?
While all this is really based on an actual, though obscure, novel by Verne, one can see a great deal of 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA and other more familiar Verne stories as well as other Verne works pulled into the story. Much of the tale is narrated which helps keep down the amount of dubbing needed. The story is somewhat rudimentary, but it is the visuals that are the chief attraction. The plot is not as interesting as the retro-futuristic background.
Zeman creates his effect any way possible and does not worry about preserving realism of scenes. In one sequence a pirate ropes a man. The rope winds around the man in perfect uniform rows. The viewer is fully aware that actor was wrapped very smoothly with the rope, it is pulled off, and then the film is run backward. But Zeman knows the effect will be fun and does not try to be convincing. His style remains tongue-in-cheek and whimsical throughout.
There is a totally superfluous prolog to the film by NBC game show host and newsman Hugh Downs. Downs, from his 1961 vantage point, reminds us how far science has come from Verne's day and how much of the then-modern world was the fulfillment of Verne's visions. Perhaps that was inspired by Edward R. Murrow's prologue to AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS (1956).
It should be noted that this is one of Joseph E. Levine's foreign film discoveries. Levine was a film producer himself, being responsible for films like THE CARPETBAGGERS, A BRIDGE TOO FAR, THE GRADUATE, and ZULU. But he also would find foreign films that were then not likely to be released in the US and would arrange a US release. He did this with GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS; HERCULES (1958); JACK THE RIPPER (1959); MORGAN THE PIRATE; and SANTA CLAUS CONQUERS THE MARTIANS.
For a film made so far in advance of computer imaging and digital special effects, this film goes a long way to create the mood of Jules Verne's stories. It does that perhaps better than any other film has ever done. I rate THE FABULOUS WORLD OF JULES VERNE a +3 on the -4 to +4 scale or 9/10.
THE FABULOUS WORLD OF JULES VERNE is available on YouTube. Part 1 is at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pa6JMMItTcs. At the end of each part you can link to the next.
Film Credits: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0052374/
What others are saying: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/fabulous_world_of_jules_verne/
Mark R. Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Copyright 2012 Mark R. Leeper