Gulliver’s Travels (1939)

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  • directed by Dave Fleischer
  • starring Sam Parker, Pinto Colvig, Jack Mercer, Tedd Pierce, Jessica Dragonette, Lanny Ross
  • Gulliver washes ashore on Lilliput and attempts to prevent war between the tiny kingdom and its rival.

“There’s a giant on the beach!”

This was Paramount’s attempt at a counterpunch to 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and though Max and Dave Fleischer wanted to make an animated feature as early as 1934, it wasn’t until Disney’s cultural, financial, and critical behemoth had risen that the brothers got the green light. And so with Gulliver’s Travels, the second-ever animated feature ever, thus begun the constant swatting down of the competition by Walt Disney which somewhat continues to this day. When you judge this one head to head with Snow White, it really illustrates the longstanding divide in quality between Disney and its competitors. In fairness, the Fleischers were granted something like one-third of the production time than what Disney had with its blockbuster. But it’s painfully clear throughout that the script and any sort of emotional undercurrent within the story suffered greatly from the rushed schedule.

There was nothing about Gulliver’s Travels that said ‘animated feature,’ something that should at the very least be sophisticated enough to have a broader demographic than just children who like to watch cartoons. It wasn’t an effective animated representation of Jonathan Swift’s classic novel as much as it was a 70+ minute version of one of those interstitial cartoons that you’d find as a buffer during a Saturday morning TV block. Never is this more obvious than during any of the montages that take what should be a brief scene that nicely sets up the story and then moves on, and expands it to a nearly 10-minute scene that features the Lilliputians doing cartoony things with no dialogue. It took forever for them to notice they were standing on Gulliver and then we have to see every little detail of the rigging system they construct to bring him into town for another period of forever. They groom him for forever. We have to wait forever for the two kings to have their dispute in the beginning so we can see them going through ..every…little…detail of the wedding plans. For a film that’s just over an hour, the amount of non-story going on is astounding.

I’d say the entire project was intended foremost to be a display of recent advances in animation techniques, but it took a large step backward from what Disney had already accomplished. The brothers do get credit, however, for using their original rotoscoping technique in animating Gulliver, which was hand-traced from live-action footage frame by frame. This effect looked really good at times, especially when moonlit or candlelit, and it really popped in contrast to the highly cartoonish Lilliputians and backgrounds. A variation on the Fleischer’s rotoscoping was used for segments of Yellow Submarine and for the lightsaber battles in Star Wars films.

I don’t want to just trash the film, which Walt Disney did himself after seeing it, reportedly saying, “We can do better than that with our second string animators.” That’s pretty harsh and I don’t think it looked that terrible aside from a few sore spots, such as Princess Glory’s face and hairline, which appeared to mutate and shift around in a couple of scenes  and sometimes within the same sentence.

I think the best thing that could be said about Gulliver’s Travels, unless you grew up on this version as a child and will always see it as special, is that it features occasional flashes of energy in the third act and that it’s a historically important film, being released at the ground floor of the feature animation industry in 1939, a year when studios must have thought it was a wide open market for the taking. Pinocchio and Fantasia coming out the next year surely rained on that parade.

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About classixquest
all the things I should have seen

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