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Karel Zeman Criterion Collection

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Criterion Collection: Three Fantastic Journeys by Karel Zeman | Blu-ray Review

Criterion Collection: Three Fantastic Journeys by Karel Zeman | Blu-ray Review

If cinema can be viewed as an evolutionary form, a missing link would certainly be Czech director Karel Zemen. One must first ruminate on the necessary inspiration of classic literary figures whose words provided the impetus for visual storytelling. If Zeman can be cited as the successor to Georges Melies, we must include cinematic precursors like Jules Verne, whose texts provided the backbone for Zeman in particular, employing a pronounced hybrid style of live-action and animation. And extending from Zeman, we see his fingerprints on the works of his fellow countryman Jan Svankmajer and a host of American iconoclasts, from Terry Gilliam to Wes Anderson to Tim Burton. So why isn’t Zeman as internationally renowned as any of these auteurs? The Criterion Collection aims to fill in some missing pieces with an inspired box set of three of the six titles the director is best known for.

In Journey to the Beginning of Time (1955), Zeman creates what plays like a documentary travelogue loosely based on Verne’s classic novel Journey to the Center of the Earth, here transforming the text into an adventure tale in which a quartet of young boys take a boat down the ‘river of time,’ emerging in a primordial world wherein they travel farther back through geologic eras of time. As they come into contact with various extinct species specific to each period, they keep a journal of their discoveries, constantly dismayed at their inability to carry any of the artifacts they find with them. An inventive learning tool for children, Zeman’s lavish set pieces of various creatures rival the special effects of Ray Harryhausen and one can see how the boys’ journey in this film is later mimicked in Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (1993).

For the more narratively exquisite Invention for Destruction (1958), which was released in the US as The Fabulous World of Jules Verne, Zeman culls from several of Verne’s works, most notably the 1896 novel Facing the Flag. Zeman combines original illustrations from Verne’s text with live action and a film which is considered the most successful Czech film ever made. Focusing on the engineer Simon Hart (Lubor Tokos), a group of pirates kidnap a scientist in order to obtain access to his secretly developed weapon.

Lastly, perhaps Zeman’s most inspirational title in the collection is his take on the tales of Baron Munchausen (who originated in 1785 by Rudolf Erich Raspe) with The Fabulous Baron Munchausen (1962), also a vibrant mix of live-action and animation which was famously inspired by the engravings of Gustave Dore. Zeman won the Silver Sail at the 1962 Locarno Film Festival for the title, and while it’s not the first mounting of the famed fanciful character (Kino Lorber recently resurrected Josef von Baky’s 1943 version, filmed at the behest of Joseph Goebbels to celebrate the 25th anniversary of UFA) it should stand as the definitive zany configuration of the famed German nobleman, though Terry Gilliam’s 1988 version, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, is perhaps the best known to contemporary audiences.

Disc Review:

Criterion’s lavishly designed box set presents all three title in new 4K digital restorations, as well as the alternative US-release version of Journey to the Beginning of Time. Each title is presented in 1.37:1 with uncompressed monaural soundtracks. Picture and sound quality are well-attenuated in these restorations, but it’s perhaps the black and white Invention for Destruction which seems the most vivid. The collection also includes several new programs with animation filmmaker John Stevenson and special effects artists Phil Tippett and Jim Aupperle, along with four early short films by Zeman (A Christmas Dream, 1945; A Horseshoe for Luck, 1946; Inspiration, 1949; King Laura, 1950). Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam are part of a 2015 documentary Film Adventurer: Karel Zeman, which is also included, while a short documentary profiling Zeman by the Karel Zeman Museum is also available in the box set.

Journey to the Beginning of Time (1955)
Film Rating: ★★★/☆☆☆☆☆
Disc Rating: ★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆

Invention for Destruction (1958)
Film Rating: ★★★½/☆☆☆☆☆
Disc Rating: ★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆

The Fabulous Baron Munchausen (1962)
Film Rating: ★★★½/☆☆☆☆☆
Disc Rating: ★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2021: France (Bruno Dumont), Passing (Rebecca Hall) and Nightmare Alley (Guillermo Del Toro). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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