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Blu-ray Review: Gulliver’s Travels (1939)

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Gulliver’s Travels was the first full-length animated film from Fleischer Studios. It was also the first full-length to come from a U.S. studio other than Disney. The Fleischer Brothers ran Fleischer Studios with Dave acting as the director of animation and Max acting as the producer. They performed those roles on this film as well. Fleischer Studios is best known for its Betty Boop and Popeye the Sailor shorts. The long defunct Fleischer Studios never garnered the critical acclaim and continued popularity of Disney and Warner Bros., but there are many who feel its work has been underrated.

The movie adapts only the first part of Jonathan Swift’s book, Gulliver’s adventure on Lilliput. At the start of the movie Gulliver’s ship is caught in a storm and wrecks. Gulliver (voiced by Sam Parker) washes up on the shore of Lilliput passed out. Gabby (Pinto Colvig), one of the servants for the King of Lilliput, discovers Gulliver during his night watch. While Gulliver is a normal sized human, he is a giant to the inhabitants of Lilliput. Gabby rushes back to the castle to warn the king of Lilliput, King Little (Jack Mercer). King Little is busy however, with the impending marriage of his daughter Princess Glory (Jessica Dragonette) to Prince David (Lanny Ross), the Prince of Blefuscu. King Little is going over the arrangements with the King of Blefuscu, King Bombo. While they are discussing the wedding, a disagreement occurs. King Little wants to play the traditional Lilliputian wedding song while King Bombo wants to play the traditional Blefuscuian wedding song. The disagreement escalates so much that the countries end up at war. King Bombo and Prince David leave Lilliput quickly to begin war plans.

Gabby leads the men of Lilliput down to the beach, where they try to restrain Gulliver. It takes every man in the village to tie Gulliver down and bring him to the King. Nevertheless, when Gulliver wakes up he easily breaks the restraints. King Little and the rest of Lilliput are afraid that Gulliver is going to harm them. However, Gulliver assures King Little, Gabby, and the rest of Lilliput that he has no desire to hurt them. King Little then asks Gulliver to help Lilliput in its war against Blefuscu.

While the preparations for war are going on, Prince David and Princess Glory meet secretly. They still care for each other despite the war. Gulliver discovers this and agrees to intercede on their behalf. In the end, Gulliver does stop the war with the help of Prince David. King Little and King Bombo agree to a wedding song duet and there is peace between them. The Lilliputians build Gulliver a boat and he sails away in it.

The movie is frankly boring. There is not much going in the story and some of the main characters are uninteresting. Prince David and Princess Glory barely have any personality, both in the way they are drawn and in the way they act. They are drawn more realistic than the other tiny Lilliputians and Blefuscuians so there is nothing memorable about their look. In addition, they seldom do any more than sing their wedding anthems so they are boring characters as well. Gulliver does not have much of personality either; he comes across only as a jolly fellow who wants to help. Gulliver was rotoscoped (a live actor was traced over with animation); his character design is also more realistic and plain.

The only memorable characters are Gabby, King Little, and King Bombo. Gabby is a wisecracking coward full of false bravado. He is the comic relief of the picture. He was appealing enough to be spun into his own series for a few shorts. King Little and King Bombo are interesting because of their relationship. One minute they are hugging and congratulating each other, the next they are at each other’s throats. Their love/hate relationship seems very much like the relationship of a romantic couple.

The animation too does not hold up to the standard of a Disney feature. Gulliver always seems out of place in the movie because of the rotoscoping. The colors are flat, and the characters are not shaded. There is moderate detail in the backgrounds but it is a far cry from the lush details of the forest in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937).

There are also a few songs in this film. Most of them are not memorable; Gabby’s “All’s Well” is the only one you will be singing to yourself after watching the film.

The Blu-ray is presented in 1080p High Definition. The picture has been enhanced for 16 X 9 viewing. The picture looks crisp and clean. Colors are vibrant and the animation is sharp. A few scratches and blotches appear very seldom. They are not frequent enough to detract from the film.

Viewers have three audio options: Dolby Digital 5.1, Enhanced Stereo, and Restored Original Track. The audio is clear with no clipping or other volume issues. The stereo sounds fuller than the restored track, and the 5.1 track sounds fuller still. It is obvious the audio is pre-surround sound; there is nothing that gives you a feeling of surround. The effects and music are mixed more to side speakers, but all of the tracks still come out of the center speaker.

The disc has little in the way of bonus features. There is a short documentary entitled “The Making of a Cartoon”. It is from the time the Fleischers were still making films. It goes through the process of animation in a few quick minutes. This may have been interesting back when it was released, but today the average viewer may already know a lot about the process. In the age of commentary tracks, studio tours, and how-to books, the short is more a curiosity than an informative piece.

There are two bonus cartoon shorts featuring Gabby: “Swing Cleaning” and “King for a Day”. The colors are bright in these shorts and they are full of slapstick. The shorts have not been restored as the feature film has — scratches are frequent and there a few tone changes in the color scheme. While the shorts may hold your attention because of their energy, they are not on par with the Popeye and Betty Boop cartoon shorts.

There is no commentary track and no modern documentary. It would have been nice to hear from a historian or a current cartoonist on the influence and importance of this movie. Giving the movie historical context may have made it a more enjoyable experience.

I cannot recommend this film to most people. For today’s children it will simply be boring. Adults may be interested in its themes, but it does not have the artistic merit of better animated work. This is really only of interest to those interested in animation history and those who grew up with this film. I think those members of the audience would have appreciated more bonus features.

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About Mark Kalriess

  • http://www.breakingwindows.com Matt Paprocki

    This is being widely regarded as the worst Blu-ray transfer to date. Koch is going above and beyond to get good reviews, including those on Amazon where they’re oddly shilling a porn site to hand out positive reviews. Their marketing is deceptive, as this has not been restored and the “widescreen” presentation is merely a bad stretch job since the thing wasn’t in widescreen to begin with. Check out the AVS thread for more details, and links to screen shots.