Coming on the heels of Disney’s landmark Snow White, Gulliver’s Travels, from rival Fleischer Studios, is an intriguing case study in the elusive gap between decent work by talented animators and a successful and satisfying film.
Max and Dave Fleischer were animation pioneers, and the Fleischer studios produced some terrific shorts from the silent era to the early 1940s. They were weak, though, on storytelling fundamentals like characterization, drama and emotion, as well as thematic heft — qualities that may or may not be needed in a five-minute Koko the Clown short, but are indispensable in a feature-length story, especially a fairy tale.
Gulliver’s Travels, the first of the Fleischers’ two feature films (followed by the 1941 Mr. Bug Goes to Town), showcases only some of the Fleischers’ strengths and all of their weaknesses. It’s second-rate imitation Disney, with a royal love story, little people and a song-filled soundtrack — inevitable after the success of Snow White, perhaps, but the Fleischers’ creative juices flowed in other directions, and they didn’t know what to do with this material.
The film’s best moments reflect the Fleischers’ love of process and technical problem-solving — on both sides of the camera. Gulliver himself is a fascinating effect, rotoscoped (traced frame by frame) from live-action footage to uncannily naturalistic effect, with painterly shadows and persuasive movements and gestures. The binding of Gulliver on the beach by the Lilliputians is vintage Fleischer, a massive engineering project involving arrays of archers, cranes, tunnels, horses and a makeshift dolly. Striking images crop up here and there, such as the prone Gulliver rolling slowing under the arch of a bridge just barely high enough for him to pass, and a scene in which the Lilliputians repair Gulliver’s clothes.
But there’s no getting around Gulliver’s failure as a story. There’s no main character, for one thing, if there are even any characters at all. Gulliver himself is an indulgently benevolent giant with no personality to speak of; he’s just passing through, and has no emotional investment in the events of Lilliput and rival kingdom Blefuscu. Among the Lilliputians, the irascible town crier Gabby (Pinto Colvig of Goofy fame) figures prominently, but he’s annoying rather than funny, and winds up sidelined during the climax.
Prince David and Princess Glory, lovers from rival kingdoms, are so generic that their relationship consists entirely of serenading one another in the anthems of their respective nations, “Faithful” and “Forever.” (Snow White’s Prince Charming isn’t a lot better, but there’s a reason it’s called Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, not Snow White and Prince Charming.) Bombastic King Bombo might be mildly amusing for a few minutes as a foil to Popeye or Donald Duck, while dithering King Little makes almost no impression at all. Not helping matters is the score, which is pleasant at best, rather than memorable or moving.
The contrasting animation styles are jarring, with ultra-lifelike Gulliver, the cartoony Lilliputians, and David and Glory somewhere in between. In all these respects Disney did these things better: Snow White used rotoscoping for gesture and movement, but, rather than literally tracing their subjects, the animators redrew Snow White’s anatomy with more stylized proportions that worked better with the ultra-cartoony dwarfs. With Bambi, likewise, while the animators studied and evoked deer anatomy much more realistically than, say, Snow White’s shapeless deer among the forest creatures, Bambi’s deer are still stylized enough not to seem jarring next to cartoony Thumper and Friend Owl.
Gulliver’s Travels isn’t bad work. There’s talent and experience at work here, and it’s fitfully diverting. Open-minded children may enjoy it, and serious animation buffs will appreciate it historically. Even its limitations are of some critical interest. Gulliver’s Travels is the second-best 1930s animation studio’s best shot at a feature film. It’s worth seeing just to enhance one’s appreciation all that went magically right, but did not have to, in the early Disney classics.
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When I was a child, I loved the animated Gulliver’s Travels — they used show it on one TV station or another every year, and I must have watched it five or six times. A number of years ago, I watched it as an adult and was less impressed, but I still saw the attraction of it. You may be speaking more for today’s audiences in your evaluation than for the audiences that originally watched it.
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My problem with the Fleischers’ version of Gulliver’s Travels is that it seems to have cut out most of Swift’s social satire—much of which is still on target today—and concentrated on the cuteness of the Lilliputians.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.