Though my movie shelves are often overflowing, though I love the classic era with a burning passion, I am by no means an expert on the whole darn thing. World Cinema is an area that is something of a blindspot to me, and the win of Best Picture by Korean film “Parasite” should serve to us all as a reminder of how many wonderful cinematic worlds lie out there awaiting our discovery. One such world is the works of Czechoslovakian director Karel Zeman (1910-1989), whose work has been compared to such cinematic magicians as George Melies.
Three of Zeman’s films, “Journey to the Beginning of Time,” “Invention for Destruction” and “The Fabulous Baron Munchausen” are out this week in a new collection from those cinematic conjurers, The Criterion Collection” in a wonderful blu-ray set called “Three Fantastic Journeys by Karel Zeman.” I spent the last couple of nights exploring the set, and I went in completely cold to these films knowing nothing at all about Zeman, his work, his fans, or his style. Take my word when I tell that you watching these films were some of the most joyful, magical, inspiring, and delightful times I’ve ever spent watching a movie.
Before I even put a single disc into my blu-ray player, Criterion was dazzling my eyes as the initial release of this set comes in amazing, limited edition, pop up packaging. There’s a sort three-panel binder inside the box and each panel is for one film. Opening up a little flap reveals the delightful pop-up image for that film, along with the envelope the disc for that film is placed in. There’s also a little fold-out newspaper type deal with an essay on Zeman by Michael Atkinson, along with information about the restoration.
I’m gonna touch briefly on the narrative for each film, as overall, I’d like to discuss them as a whole. 1955’s “Journey to the Beginning of Time” is about five boys who decided they want to adventure into the past and do so by rowing through a cave on a river. Encountering all kinds of ancient animals and sights. From 1958, “Invention for Destruction” is based upon the works of Jules Verne, and shot in a black and white style that emulates the illustrations of those novels. The movie looks like a magical, old storybook come to life. It’s really something. Lastly, what became my favorite of the set, 1962’s “The Fabulous Baron Munchausen” an adventure film based on the legendary character and one of the most magical movies to ever flicker before my eyes.
There is visual wizardry to Zeman’s films that simply is delightful, the most amazing use of color, rich and vibrant, often changing to unique tints to fit the mood of each scene. The scenes set on the moon in Zeman’s “Munchausen” have some of the most dazzling shades of blue I’ve ever seen in my life. Zeman’s style is so unique, there’s nothing I can quite compare these films to. You can easily see how his work has influenced others, particularly Terry Gilliam and Wes Anderson.
What fascinates me most about the films is the way Zeman combines live-action and animation so seamlessly, everything looks so real and perfect together. Often the sets are sort of “illustrated cut-outs” and I don’t know that it can describe that without seeing it yourself. But it adds such a depth of wonder and magic to these fantasies. As I watched the movies I found myself feeling as if I was on a ride at Disneyland—and Zeman was a fan of Disney. The elation that I felt as these adventures played before my eyes were so welcomed. The joy of enjoying each of these travels, each of these dazzling displays of imagery, and the overall feeling of “Yeah, movies are the best.”
In addition to these incredible, delightful movies, Criterion has loaded this collection up so a great bounty of goodies. First off, there’s that aforementioned packaging, which is so incredibly fitting. Each film is presented from a 4K restoration with uncompressed mono soundtracks in the original Czech with English Subtitles. Both “Journey to the Beginning of Time” and “Invention for Destruction” are presented with their English dubbed versions as an option. There’s a documentary on Zeman featuring Tim Burton, Terry Gilliam, and others. Programs on the effects with various filmmakers, animators, and special effects artists. Four short films by Zeman made from 1945-1950.
Rounding this out is several short documentaries for each film produced and provided to the set by the Karl Zeman Museum from Prague, plus a look at the restoration of each film. There’s so much to mine here, It’s gonna take me a while to dive deep into everything, but therein lies the joy of a set like this. The dazzling films, and then all kinds of info help satisfy all the moments you went “How did they do that!?” while watching them.
This is, simply put, one of my most favorite sets Criterion has ever done and what a gift to discover the work of a filmmaker I never knew about, whose films are so dazzling, so delightful, so joyful, they have left me with a song in my heart. If you want to feel better about being alive in 2020 this is the box set you need to buy. I can’t imagine how you couldn’t be charmed by this wonderful flights of fantasy. Frankly, if watching these films don’t spark any amount of joy inside you, you must be an awfully dreadful person. “Three Fantastic Journeys by Karel Zeman” is highly, HIGHLY, recommended by yours truly. An absolute must buy. See you next week.