Karel Zeman isn’t nearly as well known in the UK as he should be, but the Czech animator’s influence isn’t too difficult to spot. It’s there in Wes Anderson’s films, Terry Gilliam’s, Tim Burton’s, and pretty much everything Pixar has ever done. Invention For Destruction (Vynález zkázy)– his third feature after A Treasure of Bird Island (1952) and A Journey To the Beginning of Time (1955) – is a 1958 adaptation of the Jules Verne novel, Facing the Flag. Zeman was a huge fan of Verne and every frame of this exquisite 4K restoration is a love letter to the fantastical worlds the 19th Century French novelist created.
When Professor Roch (Arnost Navrátil) invents a new explosive material, he is kidnapped by pirates and, along with his friend, Simon Hart (Lubor Tokos), taken by submarine to an extinct volcano, which evil Count Artigas (Miloslav Holub) is using as his lair. There, the professor is put to work helping the Count’s scientists develop the missile-like “supergun”. Hart determines to escape and warn the world of Artigas’s intentions. It’s breathless, B-movie stuff although, under the derring-do and clunky story, there’s a serious message about the dangers of technology going unchecked. In truth, though, the plot and acting are the least arresting parts of the film – it’s all about the visuals and the exuberant creativity on display, as well as Zeman’s extraordinary attention to detail.
Zeman – who passed away in 1989, aged 78 – combined live action with all sorts of different animation techniques to create something that still seems pretty unique even now but must have blown peoples’ minds 60 years ago in Czechoslovakia. He used stop motion, cut-outs, all sorts of different models and, as Kung-Fu Panda director John Stevenson points out in one of this disc’s many extras, the fact you can see the joins and the imperfections only make it even more special. It is meant to look “made” – a hand-crafted gift from a filmmaker to his audience.
The animator was clearly fascinated by texture and movement. Many of the visual elements in Invention For Destruction – especially the backgrounds and buildings – have been fashioned to resemble the endlessly detailed illustrations we see in Verne’s books at the beginning of the film. But Zeman didn’t just want his animations to sit and look pretty, he wanted them to live and breathe too. So he gives us huge moving pistons on Artigas’s stolen submarine, a whole host of vessels and contraptions taking to the air or moving across the sea, skies full of birds, all manner of peculiar marine life beneath the ocean. For all its oddities, this feels like a functioning world, albeit one fired and fuelled by the imaginations of two men – the animator and his inspiration.
There are some wonderfully eccentric moments – camels on roller skates, undersea vehicles fitted with bicycle bells (Ring-ring! Ring-ring!), pirates having sword fights on the ocean floor when they’re supposed to be busy pillaging a sunken vessel. It is a joyous, charming, thoroughly impressive piece of work that feels decades ahead of its time.
Two of Zeman’s animated short films – Inspiration (1949) and King Lavra (1950) – are the main draw in a bountiful set of extras. The former is a delicate, graceful piece that sees an artist struggling for inspiration on a rainy day. His mind wanders as he imagines a world inside a droplet of water. Figures made of glass – fish, an ice skater, a clown, penguins, swans, a horse-drawn sled – dance, swim or caper across the screen in a stop-motion animation inspired by the Italian Commedia dell’arte. I may have enjoyed this even more than the main feature. It is absolutely gorgeous and set to beautiful music.
King Lavra is longer and more ambitious but doesn’t contain enough of Inspiration’s sheer charm. Another stop-motion piece, it concerns the titular monarch going to extraordinary lengths to conceal the fact he has ears like a donkey, including having the royal barbers executed when they discover his secret. It is broad and fun but a message of accepting people for being different is somewhat undermined by the fact the king has had so many of his subjects’ heads lopped off.
The interview with Stevenson – who returned to the director’s chair this year with knockabout kids’ animation Sherlock Gnomes – has him telling a funny story about how he first encountered Zeman’s work on a British TV show in the 1960s. He became obsessed with it but, in those pre-Internet days, had no way of finding out more about the director and his films. Desperate, he ended up contacting the Czechoslovakian embassy in London and getting a sympathetic person there to send him photocopies of articles about the animator. They were in Czech, so he couldn’t even read them but marvelled at the pictures. Stevenson talks with such enthusiasm and knowledge about Zeman’s films that, if you are unfamiliar with the late animator, his interview might be a useful resource to dive into before you get to the main feature itself.
The disc also boasts several short films (between one and three minutes in length) about the making of Invention For Destruction and its recent restoration, plus another that offers a quick peek inside the Karel Zeman Museum in Prague. You also get a trailer, a booklet featuring a new essay from critic and historian James Oliver, and the US version of the film – retitled The Fabulous World of Jules Verne and dubbed into English, with a new (and rather stiff) introductory segment explaining exactly who the novelist was.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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