Gulliver’s Travels

Gulliver's Travels. Fleischer Studios 1939.
Gulliver’s Travels. Fleischer Studios 1939.

Before watching the movie:

This is a story that gets remade every so often, probably because the state of film technology marches on and someone decides they can do better than the last one. Certainly, the recent version with Jack Black established the look very realistically. However, hardly anyone has adapted the entire book, and the title is almost universally considered to refer to only the Lilliput section, which this appears to do. Brobdingnang sometimes gets included since it’s just the reverse of the scale effect, but to my knowledge no version, or at least no enduring version, has attempted, for example, the island of the horse people. Not even the Harryhousen-powered The Three Worlds of Gulliver tried.

This is a staging by another great name in animation and effects, Fleischer Studios. I feel animation is underrepresented on this site, and I’m glad to bring in a historically significant animated feature now. I’ve never really cared much for the Fleischer style, so much as I’ve seen it, but Fleischer didn’t really endure long enough to develop as well as Disney and Warner Bros. did. But it should serve to tell the story adequately.

After watching the movie:

Lemuel Gulliver washes up on the beach of Lilliput, where the tiny people who live there are shoring up a treaty involving the marriage of Lilliput’s Princess Gloria to neighboring Blefiscu’s Prince David. The treaty falls apart when King Little and King Bombo can’t agree on which kingdom’s traditional wedding song should be sung at the wedding, and Bombo swears war upon Lilliput. The Prince and Princess are heartbroken to be separated, and King Little is fretting about impending war, but the giant who just turned up on his shore is an even bigger matter.

This movie has about as much plot to it as a ten-minute short. Gulliver doesn’t wake up until nearly halfway through, because until that point it spends a lot of time with gags in the royal court and gags tying him up, because the little people are almost entirely comic characters. The sequences of comedy without much story wouldn’t be out of place in a short, but they go on so long here that I got bored by them. It does pick up after Gulliver routs the first Blefiscu invasion though.

I’m not sure how I feel about the art style variety. The little people are almost all highly caricatured, while Gulliver is quite obviously rotoscoped. The rotoscope work looked a lot better than my general impression of rotoscope animation, but it’s jarring to go from him to the cartoon townspeople, especially the first time. I can’t necessarily fault them for the different levels of caricature though, since it worked for Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. The Dwarves have somewhat more grounded personalities though. The Prince and Princess stand apart as realistically-designed characters who are clearly not rotoscoped, but drawn without close reference. At times, this can result in them moving somewhat choppily, they’re always stiff, and they’re so pale they look like they’re made of porcelain, but I understood that they probably want me to read the characters as being extremely beautiful.

David and Gloria’s personalities are flat as well. They love each other. That’s it. They sing about it, they moon over each other, and they sing some more. There was more chemistry between Kings Little and Bombo than between their children. Sometimes it felt like a tempestuous marriage where the partners happen to have armies at their disposal for their tiffs. And yet, the story seems much more on their level than on Gulliver’s, to the point that Gulliver feels less like a character and more like a wise, benevolent godlike figure who comes in and makes everything right. Yes, his size gives them great power over them, and yes, he’s an outsider with a unique perspective and judgement unclouded by the local history, but there’s little depth to him and no real connection between him and the little people other than him believing he should use his power to help those without it, which skirts patronizing them in a way that seems to echo the White Man’s Burden mentality.

This was made as a response to Snow White, but it feels less like an animated feature and more like a feature length cartoon. I should go back to Snow White and see if it holds up now, as an adult, but I think the storytelling is still stronger there than here, Dopey sequences aside. The rotoscoped animation was lovely, and the “Stereoptical” backgrounds were seamless (I didn’t notice the physical models in the background at all), but this could be half as long and tell the story at least as well.

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