A Journey through Worlds of Wonders: Three Films by Karel Zeman

At the very least since I first watched Star Wars recorded off ITV onto a Betamax video tape, I’ve had a keen interest in special effects, and in films that use special effects to create unique and different worlds and beings. In this respect, though, the last twenty years or so have been something of a disillusionment: while CGI visual effects have become more and more realistic and indistinguishable from reality, they only rarely recapture one of the things I enjoyed most as a kid. See, the kind of special effects I’ve enjoyed most were never about verisimilitude, at least not first and foremost. A fantastic world is made believable and engaging by the imagination going into it more than by the number of pixels and shaders. And sure, I prefer a well-made green screen effect providing the illusion that those kids on broomsticks can really fly to a bad green screen effect aiming for the same thing and failing, but the special effects that stick most in my mind are the ones that transport me to a different, more interesting world – and that can be achieved by miniature spaceships suspended on threads you can make out if you look closely.

The films of Karel Zeman, three of which were collected by Criterion in 2020 (see? the year got some things right after all!), are great illustrations of this. Sure, Journey to the Beginning of Time (1955), Invention for Destruction (1958) and The Fabulous Baron Munchausen (1962) aren’t perfect, but they are visual marvels that succeed through personality. Realism wasn’t what the Czech director was after when he made these – it was style.

If Criterion’s box set (which is another beautiful effort by the company, complete with storybook pop-ups in keeping with the three films’ stories and settings) has one flaw, it is the first film. Journey to the Beginning of Time has its charms, but the story it tells is simplistic practically to the point of being inexistent and the characters, quite frankly, are dull. Four boy take a rowboat along a river that takes them back through time, where they encounter prehistoric animals, from sabretooth tigers and terror birds to dinosaurs and finally living trilobites, yet the adventures they have are exceedingly tame, and the protagonists barely have anything in the way of personality. Zeman’s focus was clearly on creating striking and evocative visuals of prehistoric creatures through different techniques of animation, but we still spend 90 minutes with these bland characters. Journey to the Beginning of Time makes sense in the context of the box set, which shows how Zeman developed as a director and storyteller, but the film is difficult to enjoy as more than a historical stepping stone.

Invention for Destruction still doesn’t exactly show Zeman to be a gifted storyteller, but there is more of a story here to be enjoyed. The film is a remix of various Jules Verne stories, primarily his 1896 novel Facing the Flag – but more than this it is a remix of the iconography of Jules Verne. We get real actors aboard flying machines and submarines, engaging in underwater skirmishes and battles with giant underwater creatures – and Zeman uses his visual trickery to give everything the look of Victorian line engravings, sometimes by superimposing the textures on the footage in post-production, sometimes by painting the shading lines onto the props and scenery. The effect is not too dissimilar to the animated magic books and newspapers we’re familiar with from the Harry Potter films: we might be looking at old-fashioned storybook pages come to life. As with Journey to the Beginning of Time, though to lesser extent, Zeman’s characters in his freeform adaptation of Verne are secondary to the aesthetic, which is the real star of Invention for Destruction.

It is The Fabulous Baron Munchausen that Zeman comes into his own as a storyteller, and the famous trickster Baron is a perfect character to match and even enhance Zeman’s visual flair. Taking his cue from the engravings of Gustave Doré, Zeman takes his blend of animation and live-action in a less literal, more associative and also funnier direction. The film revels in the surreal and the satirical, evoking a joy that wasn’t evident in the earlier two films. Where Journey to the Beginning of Time and Invention for Destruction very much were boys’ own adventures, The Fabulous Baron Munchausen is essentially about storytelling. The film revels in the stream-of-consciousness freedom of its story. To some extent, what Zeman was doing with the earlier films was illustration by cinematic means – the images are charming, but other than moving they do not go beyond the material they’re supposed to evoke. Munchausen, on the other hand, transforms its material into something else, something that is both more poetic and more anarchic. It is easy to see how Zeman would have inspired the likes of Jan Švankmajer, Tim Burton, Wes Anderson and, most obviously, Terry Gilliam (who would retell the story of the Lying Baron himself in 1988). There is a sly wit and an eclecticism that is a joy to watch – and in this context it makes sense to have these three films as a single box set, as The Fabulous Baron Munchausen completes the journey the director has taken as an artist and storyteller. Zeman first took us back in time, then to the far flung corners of the world, but his artistry is at its best when he takes us to the moon – and beyond.

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