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Every fanboy knows Ray Harryhausen, the stop-motion pioneer whose giant octopus destroyed the Golden Gate Bridge in It Came from Beneath the Sea and whose hydra tormented Jason and the Argonauts. But how many have made the acquaintance of Karel Zeman, the Czech animator whose technological development happened in parallel with the Hollywood guru’s, but who, unlike Harryhausen, was publicly credited as the sole auteur of his features? Tomás Hodan sets out to remedy Zeman’s underexposure in Film Adventurer Karel Zeman, getting help from famous fans like Terry Gilliam and Tim Burton, whose testimonials, in the face of plentiful enchanting film clips, are welcome but almost unnecessary. Fest auds should embrace this charming chapter of film history, especially given the clever integration of some college-age aspiring filmmakers; those in the sci-fi/fantasy crowd should be sufficiently moved to make room for Zeman in the geek Pantheon.
Hodan doesn’t skimp on backstory, explaining how the curious young Zeman obtained prints of Felix the Cat cartoons so he could, with magnifying glass and patience, teach himself the basics of animation. He found a job in Brno as a window dresser, started winning awards for his windows, and used that attention to get a job making promo films for a shoe company — a big step down, in economic terms, that allowed him to experiment in his intended field. The first short he made, a self-described amateur film, won the Grand Prix in its category at the inaugural Cannes Film Festival.
The doc slides quickly past the period in which Zeman’s employers had to make movies for the Nazis during WWII, then spends long, lovely sections on the puppet-based work he did after that, including Inspiration, in which the puppets were made of glass. Soon, he was plotting more expansive features that would use perspective tricks and painstaking in-camera effects to integrate stop-motion work with live-action footage.
Early on, we visit a present-day film school class whose prof has challenged students to watch Zeman’s films and suss out how he made them without digital effects. Their enthusiasm is inspiring as they then attempt to duplicate scenes from the movies, eventually recruiting some of Zeman’s old collaborators — and even his actors, old men who play the little-boy roles of their youths. Hodan cuts from their efforts to the highlights of Zeman’s feature career, some of which are as striking in their visual sensibility as in their boundary-pushing technique. His 1958 The Fabulous World of Jules Verne was a global phenomenon, inspiring an essay by Japanese author Kobo Abe and, at one point, reportedly playing simultaneously in a whopping 96 theaters in New York City alone.
Zeman’s aesthetic eventually was left behind by a filmgoing public enamored of more realistic special effects, but his influence on moviemakers persisted. Gilliam gets a good deal of screen time in the doc’s second half, his admiration quite evident, recalling the things he learned from these films. The most obvious connection between the two is that both made films about Baron Munchausen; charming clips from the first film project the same hyperbolic fun found in Gilliam’s.
Closing credits note that, since the inauguration of a Karel Zeman Museum in Prague, restoration efforts have begun on three of his films. For those who see this doc, those new prints can’t arrive soon enough.
Production company: Punk Film
Director: Tomás Hodan
Screenwriters: Ludmila Zeman, Tomás Hodan
Producer: Ondrej Beránek
Director of photography: David Cysar
Editor: Blanka Kulová
No rating, 101 minutes
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