Entertainment » Movies

Three Fantastic Journeys

by Sam Cohen
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Tuesday Feb 25, 2020
Three Fantastic Journeys

In the history of science fiction on the big screen, a lot of historians date a turning point from physical effects to computer-generated effects with "Star Wars," in 1977. Yet, the directors who still championed using practical over digital lived on, although we see much less of the textural pleasures of old today. Tim Burton, Terry Gilliam and Jan Švankmajer, all masters of their craft, were hugely inspired by Czech filmmaker Karel Zeman. Criterion has put together three of Zeman's most enchanting fantasies into a box set that's truly worth picking up the moment it becomes available. Packed with special features, a collection of Zeman's short films and packaging that incorporates the Czech director's style beautifully, "Three Fantastic Journeys by Karel Zeman" will probably live on as one of the best home entertainment releases of 2020.

Zeman, like other silver screen legends like Georges Méliès, was obsessed with the lines between live-action and animation, and where the two can join in harmony. As his career progressed, he created new ways for the audience to see wonders the likes of which they hadn't seen before. The hand-spun nature of his work is part of its overwhelmingly innocent charm. He wasn't a political man, as he was more adept to speak to mankind as a whole with his films. But as much as his most famous films are filled with technical beauty, they're filled with broad stroke emotions that work in part because of that beauty.

"Journey to the Beginning of Time," the first film in the set, is Zeman's 1955 adventure about a group of young boys taking off for a literal journey to the beginning of time. They hop on a canoe, row into a cave and are soon transported to the multiple eras that defined the earth. What's so charming about this particular flight of fancy is that these boys are obsessed with science as much as their own imagination. Everything Zeman shows in the film has been vetted by actual scientists and the story revels in watching these boys grow from learning about the past. They form a respect for how the earth was created and understand that what they've seen isn't there to be their personal playground. Respect for science is a recurring thread in many of Zeman's films, which is even more charming given that he was a craftsman working from raw materials to bring to life his own imagination.

"Invention for Destruction," Zeman's 1958 film about a private warmonger trying to use science to his advantage. The thirst for power drives for most of the film, with an unwitting scientist given carte blanche to fulfill his dreams of creating a new form of energy that will better the world. Of course, the warmonger would rather use it for nefarious reasons. To me, it feels like Zeman was reckoning with those who take advantage of science for their own personal reasons. It comes off resoundingly clear that Zeman wanted to use his imagination to inspire joy and action in everyone who watched his films. By showing the worst that can be done when science is misused, he's celebrating the human will to right that wrong. And in classic Zeman fashion, it's a visual delight that revels in the finite details and textures that he's best known for.

"The Fabulous Baron Munchausen" was probably the biggest influence on Gilliam, and it should come as no surprise. The film itself focuses on a priggish and boastful baron being constantly usurped by a much younger man with a stronger connection to nature and science. As Munchausen floats around like a specter of old royalty, his hardened exterior begins to soften and he's finally able to find the joy he once felt when he was younger. It's so compelling and heartfelt to see Zeman turn his talents toward reminding the world that imagination and the willingness to create may end up saving us all. And he does it all without being preachy.

A note about the textural pleasures of Zeman's work: He was a legend because of his work behind the camera. He was the kind of filmmaker that could fix a car, always interested and enthralled by how things work. Every frame in these three films is filled with practical beauty that never overwhelms because of an abundance of visual information. Zeman's creations are about putting the audience in a sense of awe. With all the swirling CGI dust and an overabundance of bodies being thrown the air in a lot of the blockbusters in theaters, watching all these three films was like taking a hard reset. You're constantly reminded of the possibilities of filmmaking.

There's a decent documentary about Zeman in this box set titled "Film Adventurer: Karel Zeman." It's mostly talking heads and brief overviews of the director's life, but it properly shows how the filmmaker was an autodidact and solitaire that truly was creating his own world. He defied easy categorization into the Czech New Wave or other movements because he was a singular mind pulling from early silver screen techniques to create something wholly new. I can't stress enough how important this box set is. As mainstream blockbuster cinema progresses toward adapting rather than creating, it's filmmakers like Zeman that remind us of the power behind storytelling. Other special features include:

• New 4K digital restorations of all three films, with uncompressed monaural soundtracks on the Blu-rays
• U.S.-release version of "Journey to the Beginning of Time" from 1960
• Alternate English-dubbed soundtrack for "Invention for Destruction," and the opening sequence of the 1961 U.S.-release version
• New programs with animation filmmaker John Stevenson and special-effects artists Phil Tippett and Jim Aupperle discussing director Karel Zeman and his complex visual trickery
• Four early short films by Zeman: "A Christmas Dream "(1945), "A Horseshoe for Luck" (1946), "Inspiration" (1949), and "King Lavra" (1950)
• Short documentaries produced by the Karel Zeman Museum profiling the director and detailing the production and effects of all three films
• Restoration demonstrations and an interview with restoration supervisor James Mockoski
• Trailers
• New English subtitle translations
• PLUS: An essay by film critic Michael Atkinson, along with (for the Blu-ray) deluxe pop-up art

"Three Fantastic Journeys by Karel Zeman"


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