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Gulliver’s Travels (1939, Max Fleischer) (Blu-ray Review)

22 Apr, 2009 By: John Latchem

Gulliver's Travels

$14.98 DVD
$19.98 Blu-ray
Not rated.

Fans of classic animation, and film history buffs in general, will find Max Fleischer’s Gulliver’s Travels, an adaptation of the Lilliput chapter of Jonathan Swift’s classic adventure story, an essential addition to their libraries.

Fleischer — whose animation legacy includes Betty Boop, Popeye and Superman — produced the 1939 film as the second full-length American animated feature, following Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937, and a few months before Disney’s Pinocchio in 1940.

Fleischer was clearly an innovative animator, but probably wasn’t the craftsman Disney was. Gulliver’s Travels, an adaptation of the Liliput chapter of Jonathan Swift’s classic adventure story, is awash in contrasting animation styles. The giant Gulliver was obviously rendered by rotoscoping, a process of filming live actors and tracing animation cels over the footage. This creates a naturalistic feel for the character that doesn’t quite mesh with his more-traditional animated surroundings.

In Gulliver’s Travels, one can see the influence Disney already was having on the genre. The rivalry between Lilliput and Blefuscu is reduced to a dispute over a royal wedding between a singing prince and princess not too dissimilar from Prince Charming and Snow White, while the design of many of the Lilliputians mimics the Seven Dwarfs.

This 70th anniversary high-def version is the culmination of a remastering process that began in the 1990s, with an upgrade to 1080p and a frame-by-frame color-correction. There have been some complaints the image has been improperly cropped to fit HDTVs, but one would have to be the most-ardent purist to care.

The image has a faded quality to it, creating a sensation of watercolors. Upon closer inspection, it doesn’t seem to be that bad of a transfer, which may say more about the quality of the original film and the limitations of upgrading 70-year-old animation.

The recent Pinocchio Blu-ray also exposed some of the old-school styles, and Gulliver’s Travels certainly didn’t have Disney dollars thrown at it. It ups the curiosity factor about how the Snow White Blu-ray will look when it comes out later this year.

The Gulliver’s Travels disc isn’t elaborately produced. There’s no pop-up menu to toggle between various sound options, and the only extras are a pair of short cartoons starring the Gabby character from the film, and a five-minute archival featurette about the Fleischer studio, showing the animation process used to make a “Popeye” cartoon. The short documentary is actually a pretty good primer on the basics of animation.

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