Max Fleischer's Gulliver's Travels (1939)

Actors: Sam Parker, Jack Mercer, Pinto Colvig, Jessica Dragonette, Lanny Ross
Number of Discs:
E1 Entertainment
DVD Release Date:
March 10, 2009
Run Time:
77 minutes



It's hard to conceive that anyone could ever challenge the animation hegemony of Walt Disney Studios, but back in the 1930s and 1940s someone did just that.

The sibling duo of Max and David Fleischer established their own brand of animated entertainment, matching Disney step for step in many cases while bringing a more surreal and adult sensibility to the cartoons they produced. Disney ultimately triumphed of course - the Fleischers done in by a mixture of bad luck and personal conflicts - but animation fans fondly acknowledge the brothers' invaluable contributions to the medium.

Gulliver's Travels works best as a time capsule of that rivalry: an artifact from the days when the two sides went at it hammer and tongs. Its shortcomings demonstrate part of why the Fleischers eventually succumbed to their rival, even as its strengths remind us how unique and different their vision truly was. As a film, it can't compare to Snow White - the Disney hit which it was intended to match - and it pales in comparison to the Fleischers' forgotten gem Hoppity Goes to Town just a few years later. But it holds interest both for animation buffs and for the sheer quality of its visual palate.

Gulliver uses just a single episode from the Jonathan Swift novel at its source: the title character's adventure in Lilliput, whose population is just a few inches tall. Washed ashore during a storm, he slumbers soundly on the Lilliputian beach while a lunkhead night watchman named Gabby spots him and raises the alarm. They soon have him tied to the ground, even as war brews with the neighboring (tiny) country of Blefuscu over ruined marriage plans between Lilliput's Princess Glory and Blefuscu's Prince David.

Very little of that actually appeared in the Swift novel, which forms a big part of Gulliver's problem. Unused to the demands of feature-length storytelling, the Fleischers fell back on interminable physical gags, which the cartoonish Lilliputians provide in spades. Gabby bumbles over various physical obstacles, Blefuscian spies skulk around in the dark, and the process of binding Gulliver's body involves a number of Rube Goldberg-like mechanical contraptions. They hold their charms, but they also lend the story a decidedly clunky feel . . . which doesn't let up after Gulliver awakens.

The title character was rendered via rotoscoping - animation placed over film of a live human model - while the Lilliputians are more overtly caricatured. It draws a sharp visual distinction between the two, but it also lends Gulliver a strangely waxen pallor, compounded by his utter lack of personality. The dull romance between Prince and Princess weighs events down further, and despite a feature-length running time, the story fails to match the epic grandeur of the Fleischers' various Popeye adventures such as Aladdin and Sinbad the Sailor.

Against those shortcomings, the film exhibits a lovely sense of color and balance which take fascinating visual advantage of the story's particulars. Gulliver's prone body seems to merge into the landscape, confusing the Lilliputians and providing thematic resonance which the narrative never hopes to match.

The restored print looks beautiful after many years of inferior public domain versions, and the detail which went into the backgrounds and characters matches that of the medium's true masterpieces. Though Walt Disney pooh-poohed the film upon its release, he wasn't above swiping some of its concepts, notably the film's two kings, who bicker about their children's wedding much the way a similar pair of figures do twenty years later in Sleeping Beauty.

It doesn't make for a masterpiece, but it can be compelling at points, especially for those interested in this era of animation. Would that the Fleischers had a chance to develop their feature-length vision more fully. Gulliver's shaky steps led to a remarkably sure-footed effort with Hoppity and had that film not struck out at the box office (it opened in December, 1941, when the U.S. was otherwise occupied), additional movies might have gone still further. As it is, we just have these two: windows into an era long gone, but which retain a certain interest as much for their shortcomings as their strengths.

THE DISC: Sadly bare bones. The transfer itself remains the key selling point, along with a digitally remastered soundtrack, but there's little in the way of additional features. Just a pair of cartoons featuring some of the same characters and a brief historical documentary which Fleischer fans will recognize from recent Popeye collections. Considering the movie's brief running time, surely there was enough space on the disc for a little more.

WORTH IT? Anyone who's had to put up with a cheap public domain knock-off will be thrilled by the quality on display here. Otherwise, you'd be better off purchasing one of the other Fleischer collections instead: Popeye, Superman, or especially a version of Hoppity if you can find one.

RECOMMENDATION: Animation buffs are the primary audience of course, Disney fans may appreciate it for comparison purposes, and undemanding children should be enthralled as well. Anyone else can probably skip it without any undue fuss.

- Rob Vaux



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