Friday, June 27, 2014

Gulliver's Travels (1939)

Director: Dave Fleischer

During the initial release of Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs there was no other studio that had put near time, effort, or finances into an animated production before. The Fleischer Studios was their closest competitor, yet was a distant second when it came to quality. Producer Max Fleischer had long wanted to produce a full length animated feature himself, and with the success of Snow White he was given the finances for what would be the second hand drawn animated feature in an adaptation of the Jonathan Swift tale Gulliver’s Travels. Like Snow White this picture was shot in rich Technicolor and captures a fairytale story, but lacked the quality that was championed by its chief competitor.

Gulliver’s Travels is an animated feature of a man that shipwrecks on land populated by tiny people and his attempt to stop a war between these little villagers and their rivals. Set in the year of 1699 Gulliver (voiced and modeled by Sam Parker) awakens after a shipwreck in Lilliput, a place where Gulliver appears as a massive giant over the population that resides there. After their initial fear of Gulliver, the Lilliputians welcome the giant as fiend and protector of their land from their chief rivals. Gulliver learns that their war is over the silly spat of which song was to be sung at the wedding of the two king’s children, a trivial issue that Gulliver resolves by having the two songs combined. With that the two kingdoms are married together in happiness as Gulliver sets sail onward in his travels.

The plot is a bit overly simplified and frankly surrounds how many gags the studio can animate surrounding this fanciful story of a man appearing as a giant in a land of tiny people. This feature appears to be inspired by the model structure of an animated feature set by Snow White, copying a similar structure. What stands out the most in this feature is the lack of timing and tight quality control that was seen in the first animated feature. Being that Gulliver’s Travels was only the second such feature ever to grace the silver screen it was still a massive achievement of its time. In a matter of just a couple of years Fleischer Studios was able to release a daunting production that could only be compared to only other full length animated feature ever made.

Rotoscope mimicked life-like visuals in animation.
The Fleischer Studios was one of the most successful animation studios in the motion picture industry. With famed characters such as Popeye the Sailor Man, Betty Boop, and the screen version of famous Detective Comics superhero Superman, the Fleischers, brothers Max and Dave, were seen as the premier animators of cartoons predominantly focusing on human characters and not anthropomorphic animal creatures. To achieve life-like movements the Fleischer’s invented rotoscope which was animating by film live individuals and tracing its characters around movements of live actors on animation cells. With this look the human characters, such as Gulliver in this feature, had a bit of a shaky, yet life mimicking movement.

Max Fleischer had the dream of animating the first full length feature back in the mid-1930s, but costs and risks of not knowing how audiences would react to such a long cartoon financiers were not willing to back such a production. With the immense success of Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs suddenly a full length feature was seen as possible dollar signs and Paramount Pictures would finance Fleischer’s effort at his own picture.

Fleischer Studios was given the finances to build a brand new studio, but in the unconventional city of Miami, FL. This was done so to give the studio space to expand, as it would dramatically increase in size in time, as well as avoiding the unionization of the industry that was taking place in New York, the original home of Fleischer Studios where they experienced a strike in 1937. The feature would go into full swing quickly as the studio pushed for a Christmas release date in 1939, packing their facilities to overflowing in order to meet the deadline.

Pulling from a section of the Jonathan Swift novel where Gulliver visits the land of Lilliput, the Fleischer’s found a story were they could mix both their rotoscope, used primarily for Gulliver, as well as the two love interests of the princess of Lilliput and the prince of Blefuscu, while the rest of the tiny characters were very animated in the usual playful cartoon manner. Some might mirror this style with Snow White as Snow White, the Prince, as well as the evil Queen were inspired by rotoscope, while the Dwarfs were goofier caricatures animated in more traditional forms. Gulliver’s Travels would be filled with gags and plot they relied heavily on the size of Gulliver compares to the villagers, as well as a number of very simple cartoon songs like “It’s a Hap, Hap, Happy Day” and a love story with little to no actual emotional connection to the audience.

Despite these weaknesses it is important to remember that this was only the second such endeavor to reach the screen as animation was usually seen as silly fodder at the movies that ran sometime earlier in the bill when one attended the movies. The picture does feel a bit more like that of a child’s story as the visuals and gags are entertaining, but pointless, and the drama is severely lacking.

 It difficult not to compare Gulliver’s Travels to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs as they were the only two such features of their kind. It would be a glaring contrast as one would critique the two. Walt Disney took his time with his first feature writing, re-writing, testing, animating, cutting, and re-animating various parts of the picture to perfect the story and the quality. Fleischer in less than two years had built a new studio, hired animators, wrote the story, and animated the full picture, which is nothing to point your nose up to. However the film feels like it was rushed as it remains a bit rough along the edges, including ill-timed comedy and frankly poorer animation in general moments that appear to could have been cleaned up a bit more if they had more time.

Gabby was voiced by Pinto Colvig
Providing the voice and modeling for the title character of Gulliver was a voiceover talent by the name of Sam Parker. His actions, although small and subtle were filmed and become the literal model for the character, however the actor would not do much work in Hollywood otherwise. Pinto Colvig would a more recognizable name in the animation world, providing the voice of Gabby, the character that discovers Gulliver and helps lead the charge of the village. Colvig would be best known as the first voice of Disney’s character of Goofy among other voices throughout animation history.

Supplying the voice of the King of Lilliput, among others in the feature, was voice actor Jack Mercer. Mercer was best known as the voice of Popeye the Sailor. Interesting to note that in the initial phases of writing Gulliver’s Travels it was considered to put Popeye in the role of Gulliver, but Max Fleischer would decide against it to make the film a more legit tale instead of attempting to bank of a character from their shorts.

Gulliver’s Travels would be decent success at the box office, perhaps predominantly from the draw of it being a full length animated feature. The picture was actually nominated for two Academy Awards, for Best Original Score and for Best Song for the romantic song Gulliver marries in the movie “Faithful Forever.” Apparently the song was a problem for the filmmakers as the tune, which is two songs overlapping, never meshed well to Fleischer’s liking.

Fleischer Studios would not last much longer as the box office numbers were not very strong for their next feature film, Mr. Bugs Goes to Town. The two brothers’ relationship would greatly clash causing the two to break up and sell their shares to Paramount, effectively ending the second best animation studio in the business, although Disney claimed his second tear men were far better then what the Fleischer’s produced. Looking back, Gulliver’s Travels is buried by the other great animated films put out by various studios as well as Disney, but this picture is remembered for being the second attempt at a medium that many thought would never work as this Technicolor cartoon would continue to entertained younger audiences for many years.

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