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
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.
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