Two pioneering animated films get new DVD releases

[10 March 2009]

By Bruce Dancis

McClatchy-Tribune News Service (MCT)


MAX FLEISCHER’S GULLIVER’S TRAVELS 2 ½ stars Director: Dave Fleischer Various writers (based on Jonathan Swift’s novel) Distributor: E1 Entertainment Not rated

Released within a few months of each other during the winter of 1939-40, Max Fleischer’s “Gulliver’s Travels” and Walt Disney’s “Pinocchio” had the distinction of being the second and third animated feature films made in the United States. They both followed in the formidable wake left by Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” the historic 1937 film that was not only the first full-length animated movie produced in this country but also a huge hit with both the public and the critics.

This week, new editions of both “Gulliver’s Travels” and “Pinocchio” are out on DVD, and they offer a useful opportunity to compare these two animation classics.

“Max Fleischer’s Gulliver’s Travels” (E1 Entertainment, $14.98/$19.98 Blu-ray, not rated) - a fitting title, considering how little of Jonathan Swift’s memorable 18th century satirical novel remains - was made by Fleischer Studios, the creators of Betty Boop, Popeye and Koko the Clown. Paramount Pictures, the distributor of Fleischer Studios’ films, intended “Gulliver” to be its answer to Disney’s “Snow White,” and Paramount provided the Fleischers (Max produced and brother Dave directed) with $1 million to make the feature, according to Richard Fleischer and Leonard Maltin’s “Out of the Inkwell: Max Fleischer and the Animation Revolution.” (“Gulliver’s Travels” was made in the Fleischers’ new studio in Miami Beach, Florida, where the company had moved from New York to escape union organizers. Fleischer Studios was later purchased by Paramount, which closed it down following the box-office flop of its second animated feature, “Mister Bug Goes to Town,” two years later.)

This version of “Gulliver’s Travels” includes only the first section of Swift’s novel, where a shipwrecked Lemuel Gulliver washes ashore on the island of Lilliput, whose denizens are only a few inches tall. The anti-war satire of Swift has been watered-down considerably but not entirely, as the war that breaks out between Lilliput and the nearby island nation of Blefuscu is based on the failure of two silly kings (think the Marx Brothers’ “Duck Soup”) to agree on which of their national anthems should be sung at the wedding of Lilliput’s princess and Blefuscu’s prince.

The most appealing aspect of the film - the Lilliputians’ reaction to discovering the giant Gulliver of their beach - doesn’t really begin until the middle of the movie. Those scenes are the most inventive, as the tiny Lilliputians labor furiously with bows, arrows and rope to tie up the unconscious Gulliver. And they continue with clever images such as a Lilliputian shaving Gulliver with a scythe or the Lilliputian king dancing with the giant’s fingers.

But these aspects are overwhelmed by the sappiness of the love story, including the syrupy, though Oscar-nominated, love song, “Faithful Forever.” And the animation disappoints, particularly in the rendering of the almost expressionless prince and princess.

Nevertheless, “Gulliver’s Travels” was a hit at the box office after its Christmas 1939 release, even though critics such as Frank Nugent of the New York Times lamented its mediocrity compared to “Snow White” and its “lack” of “the wit, the freshness, the gayety and sparkle, the subtlety, the characterization and, for that matter, the good drawing that are the trademarks of the Disney factory.”


PINOCCHIO 4 stars Directors: Hamilton Luske and Ben Sharpsteen Various writers (based on a story by Carlo Collodi) Distributor: Walt Disney Home Entertainment Rated G

Based on Carlo Collodi’s late-19th century story about a puppet who turns into a real-life boy, “Pinocchio” is out in Walt Disney Home Entertainment’s new 70th Anniversary Platinum Edition (two discs, $29.99/$35.99 Blu-ray, rated G).

Although “Pinocchio’s” didactic moralism and its messages of being “brave, truthful and unselfish,” “choosing between right and wrong” and “let your conscience be your guide” are laid on thick, the film is a visual knockout from start to finish. It’s filled with one memorable, even breathtaking, scene after another, including Pinocchio’s nose growing larger when he tells a lie, his pal Lampwick being turned into a donkey and an undersea spectacle unlike any other until, perhaps, “The Little Mermaid” nearly 50 years later.

“Pinocchio” cost a lot more than “Gulliver’s Travels” - Disney biographer Neal Gabler estimates its budget was $2.7 million - and those dollars show up on the screen. The Disney characters, from humans like the wood carver Geppeto to anthropomorphic talking animals such as Jiminy Cricket to cute, non-speaking pets like Figaro the cat to the little wooden boy himself, are all more distinctively drawn and animated than anyone in “Gulliver’s Travels.” And the innovative use of Disney’s multi-plane camera presents unequalled depth in various scenes.

Take comparable scenes in the two movies: Gulliver, thrown overboard during a furious storm at sea, struggles through thrashing waves before he lands, exhausted, on a beach; and Pinocchio, Geppeto, Jiminy Cricket, Figaro and Cleo the goldfish try to keep afloat in the torrents of water brought on by an onrushing whale before they, too, wash up on land. In every respect, from the richness of the color to the suspense of the scene and the power of the waves, “Pinocchio” trounces “Gulliver’s Travels.”

“Pinocchio,” which came out in February 1940, did so-so business upon its initial release, though reissues over the years have made it one of the top-selling animated films of all time. It was inevitably compared to “Snow White,” with Nugent calling it “the best cartoon ever made” and “superior to ‘Snow White’ in every respect but one: its score.” (Ironically, the two Academy Awards won by “Pinocchio” were for its score and the song “When You Wish Upon a Star.” Both “Snow White” and “Gulliver’s Travels” also received Oscar nominations for best score in their respective years, but neither won.)

“Max Fleischer’s Gulliver’s Travels” remains of interest as a historical curiosity and a noble effort. But “Pinocchio” is a timeless work of art. As Christopher Finch writes in “The Art of Walt Disney,” it “shares in all of the qualities that made (“Snow White”) such a success and adds to them a technical brilliance that has never been surpassed.”

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