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"Gulliver’s Travels" Blu-ray, or How Not to Do Animation Squash and Stretch

by on April 7, 2009

Don't buy this Gulliver's Travels Blu-rayIn the 1930’s, the big animation rivalry was between the West Coast’s Walt Disney and the East Coast’s Max and Dave Fleischer. The Fleischers were probably even more popular than Disney at the time, with their Betty Boop and Popeye shorts making both characters into pop culture icons with their witty and subversive style and beautiful animation. The Fleischers were also technical innovators in the field, with the process of rotoscoping being one of their best-known inventions.

Unfortunately, a string of financial failures and an irrevocable estrangement between Max and Dave resulted in the studio’s self-destruction in the 1940s, and the tradition of irreverent animation passed to Warner Bros.’ Termite Terrace. Today, the Fleischers’ legacy is now largely appreciated only by the hardcore animation community. The Fleischers’ first feature film, 1939’s Gulliver’s Travels, has now been re-released by E1 Entertainment (formerly Koch Entertainment) on DVD and Blu-ray disc, and while the final result may be well-intentioned, it is also completely unacceptable.

Gulliver’s Travels is based on the famous novel by Jonathan Swift, although much of Swift’s political satire has been excised in favor of slapstick farce and a star-crossed romance. The sailor Lemuel Gulliver still survives a shipwreck and washes up on the shores of Lilliput, which is populated by people barely as tall as his thumb. Lilliput is at war with the rival kingdom of Blefuscu, in a dispute centering over music for a once-planned wedding between Lilliput’s Princess Glory and Blefuscu’s Prince David. The movie recreates several of the novel’s most famous scenes, such as the binding of Gulliver, and his hauling Blefuscu’s entire fleet by their anchor chains, but most of the events are fabricated from scratch, including the antics of the comic relief character Gabby.

Unfortunately, Gulliver’s Travels is definitely a product from a time when the studio was entering its creative decline. The film was a direct response to the success of Disney’s Snow White, but it fails to play to the Fleischer’s traditional strengths. As a result, it comes off like a pale Disney imitation, falling far short of the achievements in either Disney’s Snow White or Fleischer’s long-form Popeye films. The title character is practically a walking plot device in his own movie: He is repeatedly upstaged by Gabby, the Prince and Princess, and a trio of Blefuscu spies. The movie’s constantly shifting focus between all these characters also ensures that we don’t build up much affection for any of them. It’s mostly an entertaining trifle that is only redeemed in part by its technical accomplishments. Even there, the movie seems to be frustratingly inconsistent, especially with the clash of visual styles between the caricatured Lilliputian population, the more realistically rendered Prince and Princess, and the highly rotoscoped Gulliver. The individual components are well-executed (although Gulliver may suffer from the same “uncanny valley” problems that often plague rotoscoped characters today), but they just don’t tie together terribly well.

Old DVD release vs. new 'widescreen' Blu-ray
At left is a screen grab from one of the old DVD releases. At right is a digital camera snapshot of the new “widescreen” Blu-ray release. Note how the “Forever” spelled out in arrows is visibly cropped from the old image to the new.

Despite its shortcomings as a movie, Gulliver’s Travels still has non-trivial historical value, so having a good, remastered transfer to DVD and Blu-ray would be cause for celebration. E1 Entertainment clearly did not have the resources to restore the movie the way Disney could restore Pinocchio, but even so, the final result seems disappointingly washed out and fuzzy, even in the Blu-ray 1080p transfer. Even worse, E1 Entertainment made the tragic decision to convert the movie to a widescreen presentation from its original 4:3 aspect ratio. The liner notes state that this was done “without stretching characters or losing any image beyond standard vertical safe areas,” but this claim does not hold up to scrutiny. Jerry Beck at Cartoon Brew has compared frame stills to original cel artwork, showing that the image is noticeably squashed. He also claims that this remastered edition seems to have dropped frames of animation. In addition, comparison shots (at left) between this new version and an older, public domain home video release clearly show that picture elements have been cropped from the top and bottom. The decision to reframe the movie essentially ruins it as a historical document.

The Blu-ray offers three soundtracks in enhanced 5.1 Dolby Digital, enhanced stereo, and a restored version of the original soundtrack, with none standing out as especially excellent or poor. Extras include two Gabby cartoons, presented in their original full-frame format. Curiously, small segments of the second short, “King for a Day,” clearly seem to have been made from better source material, with razor-sharp ink lines and much better color quality. There is also a brief documentary on the Fleischers’ state-of-the-art animation facilities in Miami, which can also be found in slightly better shape on Warner Home Video’s Popeye Vol. 2 DVD set. Oddly, all these extras come without opening or closing credits. With all these disappointments, it seems like adding insult to injury to point out that the Blu-ray menus are nearly unusable, with the cursor being almost impossible to see against the background art elements.

Much is revealed by comparing this re-release to Disney’s recent Pinocchio re-release. Despite the claims of some of its fiercer critics, the Walt Disney Company has a powerful appreciation for its historical legacy, but the self-destruction of the Fleischer Studios and the estrangement of the brothers ensured that no single entity has ever had the interest, ability, or resources to treat their entire body of work with the same kind of care and attention. Disney clearly spared no expense in its restoration of Pinocchio, because the re-release is as much about burnishing Disney’s image and stature as it is about the movie itself. Confronted with an audience that gets upset over black bars on their television sets, they paid artist Toby Bluth to paint watercolor mattes that matched the style of the movie specifically for the Blu-ray release. Gulliver’s Travels has slipped into the public domain long ago, and the source material has deteriorated and never gotten a good restoration for home video. It also selects the worst possible solution to removing black bars.

Gulliver’s Travels would mostly be of interest to the serious animation aficionado, but the artificial widescreen presentation of the new DVD and Blu-ray discs make them entirely unacceptable to this audience. The fact that the Fleischers are so relatively obscure is a tragic injustice, but a home video release like this is no way to remedy that injustice.

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