Journey to the Beginning of Time (Cesta do praveku)

Director: Karel Zeman
Screenplay: J.A. Novotný and Karel Zeman
Stars: Vladimír Bejval (Jirka / Jo-Jo), Petr Herrman (Toník / Tony), Zdenek Hustak (Jenda / Ben), Josef Lukás (Petr / Doc)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1955
Country: Czechoslovakia
A Journey to the Beginning of Time Criterion Collection Blu-ray
A Journey to the Beginning of Time

Karel Zeman’s Journey to the Beginning of Time (Cesta do praveku) was the great Czech animator’s second feature-length film. He had already made 10 short films using a range of animation techniques and one feature-length film, A Treasure on Bird Island (Poklad Ptacího ostrova, 1952), which was based on a Persian fairy tale. Journey to the Beginning of Time was different in that it was primarily a live-action children’s adventure yarn in which a quartet of daring adolescents float down a fantastical river that takes them deeper and deeper into prehistory.

The film, as the title suggests, was inspired by the works of Jules Verne, whose 19th-century tales of the fantastical fired Zeman’s imagination as both a child and adult; Zeman and co-writer J.A. Novotný use Verne’s favorite literary device—the first-person journal—to take us into the story. In this case, the journal within the film was written by the oldest member of the group, Petr (Josef Lukás), who keeps it with him throughout the journey, writing down the group’s experiences, drawing pictures of the prehistorical creatures they see, and tracking their progress along a timeline from the Cenozoic to the Archaeozoic era (their primary motivation is to see a living trilobite, which they saw in fossilized form at a natural history museum in Prague). The other members of the group are Jirka (Vladimír Bejval), Toník (Petr Herrman), and Jenda (Zdenek Hustak), who together represent an engaging cross-section of adolescent energy and curiosity and silliness (it is not surprising that, with a slightly different framing story, the film was easily distributed in the U.S. in the 1960s with English dubbing). The boys josh and spar with each other and occasionally poke fun, but overall they are good friends who look out for each other and genuinely care about each other’s well-being as they traverse the various geological eras (the structure of the narrative lends itself to an obvious educational intent).

The kids, though, are just the excuse for the journey; the film’s real stars are Zeman’s clever special effects and animations that bring all the various prehistoric animals to life. None of it is “realistic” in the conventional sense, but it is done with such care and creativity and love of the craft that it doesn’t matter. The stop-motion mammoths and pterosaurs and even a Phorusrhacos (a giant, carnivorous bird) have a delightful Ray Harryhausen quality that emphasizes detail of movement and character that is often quite surprising. One of the film’s most memorable and moving moments follows a battle between a stegosaurus and a Ceratosaurus in which the stegosaurus, having successfully fought off its attacker, nevertheless succumbs to its wounds while poignantly watching the sun set. Stop-motion is the most frequently used technique, but at other times Zeman employs two-dimensional animation to bring the animals to life, which turns the film into a kind of smorgasbord of animation techniques that promises a new surprise around every turn (each bend in the river takes them into a new era with new creatures).

While there is always danger, from both the creatures and the environments (they first find themselves in an ice flow and are later dragging through a murky swamp), the tone is consistently one of plucky adventure and discovery; like the kids on screen, Zeman and his crew are clearly in love with the wonders of what predated us on the planet and want to give them their much deserved moments in the spotlight. Journey to the Beginning of Time is a visually sumptuous amusement, a love letter to the tactility of hand-crafted animation and the wonders of the fantastical and magisterial. It is the best kind of charming, unpretentious fun.

Journey to the Beginning of Time Criterion Collection Blu-ray
Three Fantastic Journeys by Karel Zeman Criterion Collection BoxsetJourney to the Beginning of Time is available as part of The Criterion Collection’s “Three Fantastic Journeys by Karel Zeman” boxset, which also includes Invention for Destruction (1958) and The Fabulous Baron Munchausen (1962).
Aspect Ratio1.37:1 (all three films)
Audio
  • Czech Linear PCM 1.0 monaural (all three films)
  • SubtitlesEnglish
    SupplementsJourney to the Beginning of Time
  • “Directed by Karel Zeman” featurette
  • “The Birth of a Film Legend” featurette
  • “Why Zeman Made This Film” featurette
  • “Where Was This Film Shot” featurette
  • “Special Effects Techniques” featurette
  • Restoration demonstration
  • U.S. theatrical version
  • Trailer

  • Invention for Destruction
  • Alternate U.S. opening (3:00)
  • “Making Magic (23:29)
  • Four early short films by Zeman: A Christmas Dream (1946), A Horseshoe for Luck (1946), Inspiration (1949), and King Lavra (1950)
  • “Why Zeman Made the Film” featurette
  • “Special Effects Techniques” featurette
  • “About the Restoration” featurette
  • Restoration demonstration
  • Trailer

  • The Fabulous Baron Munchausen
  • Film Adventurer Karel Zeman documentary
  • “Why Zeman Made the Film” featurette
  • “Cast” featurette
  • “Special Effects Techniques” featurette
  • “Karel Zeman The Legend Continues” featurette
  • “Karel Zeman and the World” featurette
  • Restoration demonstration
  • Museum Promo
  • Trailer
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    SRP$79.96
    Release DateFebruary 25, 2020

    COMMENTS
    All three films in Criterion’s beautifully designed and executed Karl Zeman boxset, which features pop-up artwork for each film that is worth the price alone, has been digitally restored in 4K as part of “Restoring the World of Fantasy,” a joint project undertaken by the Karen Zeman Museum, the Czech Film Foundation, and Czech Television. According to the liner notes, all three films were scanned from their original 35mm camera negatives (Journey to the Beginning of Time also made use of a 35mm duplicate positive because parts of the negative were damaged beyond repair). The images are absolutely gorgeous and bear no traces of age or wear. Journey’s colors look a bit faded and muted, but that seems to be the original look of the film. The Fabulous Baron Munchausen, on the other hand, is bright and bold, with a deeply saturated color palette. Invention for Destruction, the only one of the three in black-and-white, is also gorgeous, with the high-definition resolution drawing out the unique visual details that make the film appear as though it is an animated woodcut (all those thin, closely spaced horizontal lines must have been horrible in creating moiré effects in lower resolution video versions). The original monaural soundtrack for each film was mastered from the original 35mm sound negatives (with Journey once again making use of a 35mm duplicate positive) and sounds great.

    The supplements are quite extensive and are all but essential viewing if you are not fully familiar with Zeman’s story and his work. Each of the discs includes a series of short featurettes produced in 2015 for the Karel Zeman Museum that focuses on different aspects of the film: why Zeman made it, the special effects used, and how it was restored. Journey to the Beginning of Time also has a featurette about the locations where it was shot, while Baron Munchausen has one about the cast and two titled “Karel Zeman: The Legend Continues” and “Karel Zeman and the World,” as well as a short museum promo. Each of these featurettes runs between three and five minutes. The Journey disc also includes “The Birth of a Film Legend,” a 5-minute overview of Zeman’s life and career, a trailer, and the complete 1966 U.S. release version of the film, which differs quite substantially in the beginning and end because new footage of American kids (always with their backs to the camera) visiting an American museum was shot and edited in place of the opening footage in the original version (the transfer is not as good as the Czech version, but it still looks very good). The Invention for Destruction disc includes “Making Magic,” a fantastic 23-minute featurette in which special effects veterans Phil Tippett (Return of the Jedi, RoboCop) and Jim Aupperle (The Thing, Dreamscape) discuss what made Zeman’s work unique and innovative; four of Zeman’s short films—A Christmas Dream (1946), A Horseshoe for Luck (1946), Inspiration (1949), and King Lavra (1950); and the alternate opening credits sequence for the U.S. release version, where it was retitled The Fabulous World of Jules Verne. Finally, the Baron Munchausen disc includes Film Adventurer Karel Zeman (2015), a 100-minute biographical documentary that features interviews with many of Zeman’s collaborators as well as those who have been inspired by his work, including Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam.

    Copyright © 2020 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (3)



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