In the annals of film history, few occupy a unique place quite like Czech filmmaker Karel Zeman. Clearly following in the footsteps of early film pioneer Georges Melies, Zeman produced a series of feature length films that combined live action and animation techniques that brought fantastic tales to life. Criterion has gathered three of his most famous works – Journey to the Beginning of Time, Invention for Destruction and The Fabulous Baron Munchausen – and released them on Blu-ray for the first time in a special box set.
The Production: 4/5
Journey to the Beginning of Time (1955; 3.5/5)
On a summer day, four teenage friends take a river rafting journey that leads them through a cave; on the other end they emerge into a prehistoric landscape. As they travel further upstream, they find themselves progressing further back in time into different eras and encounter different animal species from each prehistoric era. Along the way, they learn a lot about each era but also encounter different perils along the way.
Invention for Destruction (1958; 4/5)
In the 19th Century, Simon Hart (Lubor Tokos) is requested by Professor Roch (Arnost Navratil) to meet him at a secluded asylum for help with his work on a secret invention. However, the two are kidnapped by a band of pirates led by Count Artigas (Miloslav Holub) and taken to a secret island, where the Count has plans for the Professor’s invention – a giant gun that the pirates can use to their advantage in their larcenous capers. It’s up to Simon to escape the island and put an end to the Count before the weapon can be activated.
The Fabulous Baron Munchausen (1962; 4/5)
Living on the Moon, Baron Munchausen (Milos Kopecky) meets a astronaut from Earth and mistakes him for an actual resident of the Moon. The Baron takes the modern man to Earth (specifically 18th Century Constantinople) and the duo soon find themselves in a series of fantastic adventures; soon, the astronaut finds himself becoming a hero that rivals the Baron and finds himself falling in love with Princess Bianca (Jana Brejchova) along the way. However, when his own burgeoning imagination gets him in trouble with a ruler of a warring country, can our modern hero summon the same kind of fantastic imagination and follow in the Baron’s footsteps in order to escape?
With each of these three films, Karel Zeman demonstrated why has considered the natural successor to the late great film pioneer Georges Melies. Using a dizzying array of techniques involving animation and live action – such as matte paintings, stop motion animation and carefully designed sets to match – each film comes to stunning life; even more impressive is the fact that these unorthodox yet effective techniques are remarkably free of the herky jerky quality that marked several stop motion sequences in Hollywood in addition to the coarse look of melding stop motion and live action footage. Since Zeman chose fantastical stories tailor made for this kind of trickery (particularly Jules Verne & Gottfried Burger), the end result of each is still impressive even after 60 or so years. While these movies have hardly been seen outside of the former Czechoslovakia since their initial release, this film set finally shines a light on a sorely underrated director and his magical films that are sure to charm any viewer young and old.
For each film, some cast members stand out even amongst the impressive production values. For Journey to the Beginning of Time, Zdenek Hustak, Petr Herrmann, Josef Lukas, and Vladimir Bejval are all effective as the four friends on the long journey upstream on the river of time; in the Film Adventurer: Karel Zeman documentary included on this release, Hustak, Herrmann, and Lukas reunited to recreate a scene from the movie. In Invention for Destruction, the standout players here are Lubor Tokos as the hero Simon Hart, Arnost Navratil as the professor whose invention is coveted by the pirates who abduct him and Simon, Miloslav Holub as the Captain Nemo-like leader of the pirates, and Jana Zatloukalova as the love interest of Simon, rescued from a plunder by the pirates; in the American release of the movie – titled The Fabulous World of Jules Verne – famed newscaster and TV personality Hugh Downs appears in the introductory segment to the movie. Finally, The Fabulous Baron Munchausen has notable performances by Milos Kopecky as the Baron, Rudolf Jelinek as the astronaut mistaken for a denizen of the Moon, Jana Brejchova as the princess rescued by both the Baron and the astornaut, Rudolf Hrusinsky as the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire and Karel Hoger as Cyrano de Bergerac. While the unique blend of animation, special effects and live action are the main draw in each film, the casts here can hold their own as well.
3D Rating: NA
All three films are presented in their original 1:37:1 aspect ratios for this release, each one taken from brand new 4K digital restorations. Film grain is organic on all three films, with fine details rendered faithfully and each film’s respective schematic – black and white for Invention for Destruction, color for both Journey to the Beginning of Time and The Fabulous Baron Munchausen – also given a faithful representation. Problems like scratches, tears, reel markers and dirt range from nary in sight to minimal for each film, which means that all three films are likely given their best representation on home video.
All three films are presented in their original mono soundtracks on PCM tracks accompanying each film. Dialogue is strong and clear on all three films, with the sound mix given a faithful representation and clarity to it; the film scores for each have great fidelity and separation without intruding on the dialogue or sound mix. There’s hardly any problems to speak of – like crackling, distortion or hissing – making this release the best all three films will ever sound on home video.
Special Features: 5/5
Disc 1 – Journey to the Beginning of Time
1960 US release (83 min.) – The English language version of the movie, with newly shot footage, is presented here, taken from the best available elements provided to Criterion by Derrick Davis.
Directed by Karel Zeman (12:21) – Animation filmmaker John Stevenson goes over some of the details of Karel Zeman’s life and work in this newly filmed featurette.
Museum Documentaries – Five brief featurettes on the movie, its making, and the special effects; among those interviewed (in new and archival footage) include Zeman, his daughter Ludmila Zemanova, actor Zdenek Hustak and production manager Karel Hutecka: Birth of a Film Legend (5:12), Why Zeman Made the Film (2:35), Where the Film Was Shot (3:59), Special Effects Techniques (2:59) & Restoration Demonstration (2:10)
Theatrical Trailer (1:43)
Disc 2 – Invention for Destruction
Alternate Opening (3:00) – The opening for the 1961 US release of the movie, featuring the aforementioned Downs introduction, is presented here.
Making Magic (23:29) – Special effects artists Jim Aupperle and Phil Tippett go over some of the many tricks and tools Zeman used in making his fantastic movies in this new featurette.
Early Karel Zeman shorts – Four of Zeman’s early works are presented here, showing early notices of his unique artistry: A Christmas Dream (1945; 10:49), A Horseshoe for Luck (1946; 4:36), Inspiration (1949; 11:32) & King Lavra (1950; 29:41)
Museum Documentaries – Four brief featurettes on the movie, the special effects and the restorations of the movies in this set; Those interviewed here (in new and archival footage) include Zeman, his daughter Ludmila Zemanova, actor Lubor Tokos, and restoration supervisor James Mockoski: Why Zeman Made the Film (3:30), Special Effects Techniques (3:44), About the Restoration (3:34) & Restoration Demonstration (3:04)
Theatrical Trailer (1:38)
Disc 3 – The Fabulous Baron Munchausen
Film Adventurer: Karel Zeman (1:41:50) – A feature length documentary made for Czech TV about the director, his life and his movies; featuring clips from several of his movies and interviews with many of the cast and crew members involved with them in addition to contemporary filmmakers and historians. Among those interviewed include Karel Hutecka, Zdenek Hustak, Zdenek Ostrcil, Petr Herrmann, Tim Burton, Terry Gilliam, and Karel Zeman himself through archive footage.
Museum Documentaries – Six brief featurettes about the movie, the special effects, and the director’s lasting impact and legacy; among those interviewed (in new and archival footage) include Zeman, Zemanova, actor Milos Kopecky, filmmakers Terry Gilliam, Tim Burton and Koji Yamamura, Zeman associate Karel Hutecka, and historians Tony Dalton and Paul Wells: Why Zeman Made the Film (3:43), The Cast (2:21), Special Effects Techniques (3:28), Karel Zeman: The Legend Continues (3:32), Karel Zeman and the World (5:07) & Restoration Demonstration (2:36).
Karel Zeman Museum Promo (1:19)
Theatrical Trailer (1:42)
Trailer for Film Adventurer: Karel Zeman (2:27)
Though he’s mostly faded away from the mainstream over the years, Karel Zeman is still an impressive filmmaker whose unorthodox and amazing blend of live action and animation is worthy for rediscovery and appraisal. Criterion’s box set aids in that rediscovery, with great transfers of three of his best known films and an amazing slate of special features going into the director’s work and even a few of his early works. An early contender for best release of 2020 and very highly recommended.https://www.amazon.com/Fantastic-Beginning-Destruction-Munchausen-Collection/dp/B081KMSHT3/ref=sr_1_1?crid=373XZ7SUEZ44U&dchild=1&keywords=karel+zeman+criterion&qid=1585456589&s=movies-tv&sprefix=karel%2Caps%2C324&sr=1-1