Most special effects artists try to convince audiences that what they’re seeing is real—that the giant dinosaur, the 100-foot tidal wave, the alien invasion are really there and sharing the same physical space as the performers. Most, but not all. For a handful of cinematic dreamers, artifice is the goal, not the obstacle. These few, these happy few, see celluloid as a canvas to be speckled and spattered with their paint-stained fingers, creating images and phantasms too fantastic, too joyfully strange to be real. They are the fabulists: Georges Méliès with his jump cuts and hand-painted double-exposures; Jan Švankmajer with his surreal puppets and stop motion monstrosities; Ray Harryhausen with his claymation cryptids and skeleton armies; Ishirō Hondo with his ostentatiously fake tokusatsu effects and rubber-suit kaiju. And then there’s Karel Zeman, no less a pioneer of the hallucinatory and strange than these legends, but largely unheralded outside Eastern Europe.
Born in present-day Czech Republic, Zeman was trained in advertising and only fell into filmmaking after being scouted by director Elmar Klos while shooting a newsreel about his award-winning work as a store window-dresser. From there he joined an animation studio making stop-motion short films before working his way up to full-length features. Over the next several decades—and all under the watchful, oppressive eye of Soviet authorities—Zeman amassed a modest but idiosyncratic filmography that stretched the limit of what was visually possible and conceivable with movies. Heavily inspired by the scientific atlases, Gustave Doré wood-engravings, and Jules Verne novels of his youth, he created a cinema that mimicked the fever-like daydreams of childhood, mixing live-action performances, hand-drawn animation, stop-motion creatures, and dizzying matte paintings into something truly new and unimagined. Brazenly repurposing illustrations from sci-fi novels and drawings from instructional textbooks, he galvanized universes of found images—think the scientific films of Jean Painlevé by way of Terry Gilliam.
But because he spent his career on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain, Zeman remains largely unknown to much of the West. Thankfully, the Criterion Collection has answered the call with a truly tremendous boxset—Three Fantastic Journeys by Karel Zeman. Collecting three of his most famous full-length features and four of his early short films, the release is the most obvious and indulgent passion project to grace the Collection since their mammoth Showa-Era Godzilla boxset. The amount of love and care on display here is astonishing, from the children’s pop-up book disc holder to the gobsmacking number of special features including literal hours of documentaries, interviews, and special effects breakdowns.
But the main draw, of course, are the films themselves. The four short films are a curious entry point into Zeman’s career because they capture an artist in the act of self-discovery, uncovering his own inborn talents and fine tuning them to a point of aesthetic splendor. The first, his debut short, is the charming A Christmas Dream (1945) which follows a toy doll coming to stop-motion life to woo back the affections of its little girl owner after she’s distracted by new Christmas presents. In addition to demonstrating his knack for mixing the fantastic with the realistic—the doll interacts with the live-action human performer—we also see a nascent talent for slapstick and absurd humor which blossoms in two of the other shorts, A Horseshoe for Luck (1946) and King Lavra (1950). The first sees the debut of Zeman’s beloved character Mr. Prokouk, a jolly everyman chap prone to comic misfortunes who would go on to star in several other short films that would make him one of the most famous characters in Czech animation. The second, the most ambitious of the four shorts, clocking in at a full half hour, tells a fairy tale parable about a wicked king with a terrible secret and a nasty habit of executing his barbers. Both films are flawed—the former suddenly becomes a government recycling PSA halfway through and the second suffers from occasionally confused storytelling—but they demonstrate the whimsy that would come to define Zeman’s oeuvre. The last short, and easily the best, is the achingly lovely Inspiration (1949), a tribute to Czech glass artists that uses glass figurines and characters from the Commedia dell’arte to tell a tragic love story. The short feels like a lost Fantasiasegment as it strives to not just tell a story but to capture and express the mood of the music by renowned Czech composer Zdeněk Liška.
The three main features are as dazzlingly varied as the four shorts. The first, Journey to the Beginning of Time (1955), is a sci-fi fantasy adventure about four young boys who decide to travel back in time to see the strange creatures that lived in the past. What follows is essentially a theme park ride backwards through time as the boys ride a boat down a river through increasingly prehistoric eras, giving Zeman ample opportunity to flex his SFX muscles as he conjures hand-painted giraffe herds, stop-motion wooly rhinos, and life-sized puppet dinosaurs in a medley of techniques that would impress Willis H. O’Brien. How do the boys travel back through time? They simply do because they want to. Such is the dream logic that makes Journey so unique: hats and torches seem to appear when they need them and binoculars and cameras when they want them. The film feels like a breathless child telling you in real-time about an adventure they had while daydreaming. There’s not a drop of sarcasm or insincerity anywhere, merely wide-eyed wonder. This is what keeps it from feeling like an overproduced after-school special. (One of the more interesting special features in the boxset is the 1961 US-release version. In addition to an English dub, the American distributor shot new sequences bookending the film that contextualize the narrative as a shared dream experienced by four schoolboys who fall asleep while visiting a museum. But the most bizarre part of the American release is how it expanded Zeman’s final scene with footage of volcanoes literally forming the earth as one of the boys reads passages from the Book of Genesis!!)
If Journey was Zeman’s love letter to science fact, then the next film Invention for Destruction was his ode to science fiction. A hodgepodge of various Verne novels (it was originally released in English as The Fabulous World of Jules Verne), the film follows two scientists who are kidnapped by a Captain Nemo-esque pirate with an advanced submarine who forces them to build atomic weaponry on a secluded island. The story is overly languid and at times tedious to follow, but this is a film where the story is a mere skeleton upon which to hang the flesh and blood of its images, not the other way around. And what images! Meticulously creating sets and costumes with bold patterns of white and black (even the ocean is crosshatched like a nineteenth century wood engraving), Zeman creates a living, breathing Doré illustration upon which he casts bizarre, impossible creatures of the deep and bizarro caricatures of colonial Europe like a squad of British soldiers riding roller-blading giraffes. Watching it, one is reminded of what Peter Bogdanovich told Orson Welles about his film Touch of Evil (1958): “I’d seen the film four or five times before I noticed the story.” Invention for Destructionl is one of the most superbly realized pieces of visual art to grace 1950s cinema.
The last film in the trilogy is The Fabulous Baron Munchausen, Zeman’s own gonzo take on the much-beloved story cycle about the reality-warping, seemingly immortal German nobleman. He hits on many of the character’s most famous story beats: impossible naval exploits including being swallowed alive like Jonah by a massive fish; riding cannonballs like horses while on a battlefield; even traveling to the moon! (One can only imagine what Zeman could’ve accomplished if he’d attempted to film the famous sequence where the Baron’s horse gets cut in two!) Zeman depicts these scenes like fever dreams of early silent films, each segment being extravagantly dyed with different color filters while utilizing disorienting forced perspective to summon exotic Turkish cities and besieged European fortresses. But the most characteristically Zeman-esque flourish is the introduction of a framing story in the form of a cosmonaut who travels to the moon and discovers the Baron living there alongside a number of other literary dignitaries like Cyrano de Bergerac. Dismissive of the cosmonaut’s insistence that he came from earth, the Baron spirits the cosmonaut back down to the planet only for the twentieth century spacefarer to find himself transported back in time to the eighteenth century of his host. It’s this insistence on the presence, validity, and importance of science amidst the Baron’s fantastical proto-Looney Tunes madness that makes the film distinctly Zeman’s own.
Located at the crossroads of science and fantasy, animation and live action, Karel Zeman is one of the paltry few filmmakers who were literal originals. Small wonder that he inspired a legion of imitators as diverse as Tim Burton to Wes Anderson to Steven Spielberg. Time will eventually see Zeman vindicated as one of the great dream-weavers of the cinema, but until then this boxset should be mandatory for every aspiring filmmaker and film-lover.