- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 3, 2009

In Hollywood mythology, 1939 enjoys pride of place as the Year of Years for the American movie industry at its most proficient and enviable.

This choice has always owed a lot to the fact that Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the most prosperous and glamorous of the major film studios, had “The Wizard of Oz” and “Gone With the Wind” on its release schedule that year. As a matter of fact, most of the country didn’t see the latter until the first quarter of 1940, but that technicality tends to be ignored.

To commemorate the 70th anniversary year, there will be fresh DVD and Blu-ray repackagings of “The Wizard of Oz” and “GWTW” and other Classics of ‘39 in the months ahead. The first commemorative title is a bit surprising: the Fleischer Bros.’ animated version of “Gulliver’s Travels,” which Paramount commissioned in rapid response to Walt Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” after scrutinizing its box-office returns in the first quarter of 1938.

Max and Dave Fleischer, raised in New York City by Polish immigrant parents, had been pioneer animators since World War I. They owned numerous patents, including one for the tracing technique known as rotoscoping, a conspicuous method in “Travels,” where the Gulliver figure, whose cinematic journey begins and ends in Lilliput, is obviously traced from a live-action model — specifically, a Miami radio announcer named Sam Parker, who also dubbed the role.

The Fleischers were originally renowned for the “Out of the Inkwell” series, in which Max played the resident live-action cartoonist who interacted with an animated clown, KoKo. They also launched early sing-along cartoons and the Betty Boop character; they had been making Popeye cartoons for Paramount since 1933. The major studio agreed to bankroll a new shop for the Fleischers in Miami, in part to outmaneuver the union organizers who had become anathema to the brothers in New York.

The filmmakers were obliged to deliver an animated feature by the end of 1939. The deadline was met, and the holiday release of “Gulliver” proved successful, perhaps at the expense of Disney’s magnificent “Pinocchio,” which appeared in February 1940 but failed to duplicate the success of “Snow White.”

The rapid construction and massive hiring that had made “Gulliver” feasible as a competitive brainstorm of 1939 failed to preserve the relocated and expanded Fleischer studio. A subsequent feature, “Mr. Bug Goes to Town,” failed so decisively in 1941 that Paramount foreclosed on the Fleischers, who had also become personally estranged.

“Gulliver’s Travels” proved something of a last hurrah for the Fleischers in the process of racing to catch up with Walt Disney as a producer of animated features. It was way too early to foresee that the unfortunate “Mr. Bug” might become a long-lost prototype for “A Bug’s Story” or “Antz.”

A company called North Hampton Partners restored “Travels” for a DVD edition 10 years ago. They’ve now refurbished that effort and added a Blu-ray edition for the 70th anniversary, more or less kicking off the parade of 1939 commemorations. While unlikely to be No. 1 on many lists of ‘39 milestones, the movie has its beguiling and intriguing aspects.

The Fleischer comic idiom had been road-tested for a generation, and certain situations suit their illustrative playfulness: the spectacle of diminutive monarchs in a wrestling match or characters whizzing about trailing speed lines or jet exhausts. The industrious nature of the Lilliputians while binding and transporting the unconscious Gulliver occupies a great deal of footage, which might be more effective at an accelerated tempo.

Many of the episodes have a short-winded or absent-minded quality that suggests insufficient story analysis and compression while the movie was being rushed into production. It’s difficult to ignore that a major work of English literature is being diminished in this format, even though a good deal of Swift’s novel would seem to lend itself to animated invention.

Walt Disney was more prudent when selecting material for his first generation of features: “Snow White,” “Pinocchio,” “Bambi” and “Dumbo” do more to flatter their sources. Swift is acutely shortchanged by the Fleischer “Travels,” which might have been titled more cautiously and accurately, “Gulliver in Lilliput.”

Maybe it’s time for an animation company with seemingly awesome imaginative resources, Pixar, to take a fresh look at Swift as the inspiration for an ambitious satirical fantasy. At one point, the Fleischers and Paramount evidently considered casting Popeye as Gulliver. That might have been the happier alternative in 1939, especially if he shared castaway status with Betty Boop. At this point, a new Gulliver might have to combine the personality traits of Dr. Lemuel Gulliver with those of Jack Sparrow and assorted pirates of the Caribbean.

TITLE: “Gulliver’s Travels”

RATING: No MPAA Rating (released before the film rating system)

CREDITS: Produced by Max Fleischer. Directed by Dave Fleischer. Scenario by Dan Gordon, Cal Howard, Tedd Pierce, Edmond Seward and Isadore Sparber, based on the novel by Jonathan Swift. Music by Victor Young and Ralph Rainger. Restoration supervised by Thomas R. Reich.

RUNNING TIME: 77 minutes, plus supplementary material

DVD EDITION:E1 Entertainment WEB SITE:

WEB SITE:www.kochvision.com

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