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Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date: December 22, 1939
Rating: ★★★
Review:

Gulliver's Travels © Max Fleischer

Following the huge success of Walt Disney’s ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ other Hollywood animation studios considered the making of an animated feature themselves. In the end, only the Fleischer studio really attempted it, persuaded by their distributor, Paramount.

In fact, the Fleischers’ plans for a feature film dated back to as early as 1934, and the three Popeye two-reelers (‘Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor’, ‘Popeye the Sailor meets Ali Baba’s Forty Thieves’ and ‘Aladdin and his Wonderful Lamp‘) can be regarded as exercises in the longer format. Nevertheless, it was the enormous success of Disney’s first feature that prompted Paramount to demand a Christmas feature from the Fleischer animation studio.

To achieve this, the Fleischers moved to a completely new studio in Miami, Florida, and hired a lot of new personnel, including Snow White veterans like animators Grim Natwick, Al Eugster and Shamus Culhane. This huge undertaking resulted in ‘Gulliver’s Travels’, becoming America’s second animated feature, beating Disney’s second feature, ‘Pinocchio‘, by more than a month.

As often, ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ only depicts the first part from Swift’s famous book: Gulliver’s visit to the island of Lilliput. Indeed, the film seems to take considerable inspiration from the Soviet adaptation ‘The New Gulliver’ (1934), which looks surprisingly similar. Nevertheless, the story deviates mostly from Swift’s book, focusing on two kings who quarrel over a song to be played at their children’s wedding, instead. This quarrel and the discovery of Gulliver by a night watchman called Gabby completely take up the first part of the film. In fact, Gulliver only awakes halfway the feature!

Only after Gulliver’s rise the film gains some momentum, being otherwise surprisingly slow. For example, the scene in which the civilians find Gulliver and tie him up lasts no less than a quarter of an hour, one-fifth of the complete film. Luckily, in the second half there’s some suspense, when three spies conspire to kill Gulliver with his own gun, and Gulliver tries to reconcile the two estranged kingdoms.

Unfortunately, Gulliver and the wedding couple, Princess Glory and Prince David, never become real characters. Glory and David are clearly based on Snow White and Prince Charming, and they are even blander than the originals. Their semi-realistic designs are devoid of character, and only after 70 minutes they utter a little dialogue. One just doesn’t care about them. Gulliver, on the other hand, looks good – especially the coloring and shading on him is very well done, with the night banquet scene as a particular highlight. Yet, his realistic design and hi slow, rotoscoped movements don’t blend well with the cartoony inhabitants of Lilliput. And he, too, is surprisingly devoid of character.

In fact, only three protagonists have clear characters: king Little, king Bombo, and the omnipresent Gabby, who must be regarded as the film’s star, even though he fails as a comic relief, and lacks a story of his own. Indeed, the film’s best comical scene doesn’t feature Gabby, but goes to the three spies trying to think of a plan to kill Gulliver. This is great silent comedy, unmatched by the rest of the film.

Together with ‘Pinocchio’ ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ can be regarded as the epitome of 1930s aesthetics. The feature is very well made, with beautiful background art, very much influenced by that of ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’, beautiful coloring and shading, and spectacular effect animation, especially in the storm scene with which the film opens. The animation belongs to the best ever produced at the Fleischer studio, and certainly is the most Disney-like. Yet, at the same time the animation fails to reach the heights of the Walt Disney studio, and at times is over-excessive, for example in the scene in which King Bombo remembers his friendship with King Little. The songs, too, are pleasant, but nothing more than that. Most catchy is ‘It’s a Hap-Hap-Happy Day’, a clear attempt to give the film its own ‘Whistle While You Work’. More impressive than the songs, however, is the lush score by Victor Young.

In all, ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ is a beautiful film, but a slow one, and with a story that fails to catch the audience. Indeed, ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ doesn’t stand the comparison to its model, ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’, and it was only a small success upon release. What certainly didn’t help was that World War II had broken out in Europe, depleting the film of a huge foreign market. These problems of course also troubled Disney’s own ‘Pinocchio’, released in February 1940.

Despite the film’s modest profits, the Fleischers decided to make another feature to keep their enormous organisation at work (resulting in the 1941 release ‘Mr. Bug goes to Town’). This economically unhealthy path would eventually lead to their downfall.

Watch ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Gulliver’s Travels’ is available on the Thunderbean Blu-Ray/DVD set ‘Fleischer Classics featuring Gulliver’s Travels’. All other copies are considerably inferior to this one and should be avoided.

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