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The Fabulous World of Karel Zeman

If you took special effects film pioneer Georges Méliès and combined him with stop motion animation genius Ray Harryhausen and surreal fantasist Terry Gilliam, you’d have a filmmaker very close to Karel Zeman. Harryhausen was a contemporary, and so the two men played off of one another’s work. Gilliam names Zeman as one of the biggest influences on the former Monty Pythoner’s exquisitely-designed fantasy films. Born in 1910, Zeman never intended to work in movies but seemed destined to nevertheless. He went into advertising, working in Paris during the 1920 and ’30s. While employed at an advertising studio in Marseilles, the young Zeman had his first experience with filmmaking and animation. He was tasked with creating an animated commercial for a soap product. He traveled extensively before returning to what was Austria-Hungary when he was born but was now the first independent Czech nation, Czechoslovakia, Zeman continued to work in advertising. During the lead-up to World War II, he sought residence in Casablanca but did not get out of the country in time. The newly-formed Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia — a polite way of saying “Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia” — blocked his travel.

After the war, while teaching at a window dressing school, Zeman met Czech animator and filmmaker Elmar Klos, who would become famous for the Academy Award winning film, Obchod na korze (The Shop on Main Street, 1965). Zeman showed Klos some of the animation work he’d done in advertising, and Klos was so impressed that he offered Zeman a job at Zlin’s Animation Studio. Zeman accepted the position, first as an assistant to Hermina Tyrlova (“the mother of Czech animation”) and soon after as the director of the stop-motion animation group. His first big hit was the series Mr. Prokouk. Throughout the late 1940s, into the ’50s, Zeman made a number of innovative animated short films. In 1955, buoyed by his success, Zeman made his first feature length film: Cesta do Praveku — in English, Journey to the Beginning of Time.

Beginning at the Beginning of Time

Cesta do Praveku tells the story of four lads enthralled by dinosaurs. Deciding that it would be jolly good to explore prehistoric times, the boys take a rowboat into a mysterious cave that leads to a strange land where they bear witness to a progression of prehistoric beasts and events informed by as much scientific accuracy as could be mustered in 1955. For the scientific portion of the adventure, Zeman relied on illustrations by Czech artist Zdenek Burian, based on research by paleontologist Josef Augusta.

It’s a simple set-up inspired by Jules Verne and fueled by the desire to make a children’s film that was both educational and a rollicking adventure. It was a huge undertaking, one of the first films to feature such extensive use of stop-motion animation and Zeman’s first film to combine live-action actors and sets with miniatures, 2D animation, and matte paintings. In every aspect, Zeman and his crew succeed. The special effects are a delight, and even though the plot is basically “four boys look at things,” the energy never flags. It helps that the four young leads are perfectly acceptable. These are the sort of lads who would strap packs to their backs on a whim and be just fine hiking through the Ural mountains on their own, probably noting a lot of interesting things about the flora and fauna.

The land through which the four lads drift is segmented by epoch, with their initial encounter with the most recent of earthly creatures — prehistoric humans, then wooly mammoths and other giant mammals. As the kids drift further, they travel further back in time, encountering the usual assortment of dinosaurs. Finally, the boys arrive near the beginning of life on earth, encountering living examples of the trilobite fossils they knew from their own time. Zeman was inspired as much by Jules Verne (who did like to indulge in long educational paragraphs) as he was Augusta and Burian, as well as earlier stop-motion dinosaur adventures, such as the 1925 silent film The Lost World, based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1912 story. Zeman’s wonderful sequence involving a sunset fight between a stegosaurus and a ceratosaurus seems a direct homage to famous allosaurus – edmontosaurus – triceratops battle royale in The Lost World. And Zeman’s own images would later inspire other filmmakers. 

Around the same time Zeman made Cesta do Praveku, the career of American stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen was taking off. After attracting attention with his work in the 1949 film, Mighty Joe Young, Harryhausen began a rise that would result in any film for which he handled the visual effects being referred to as “a Ray Harryhausen film,” regardless of who directed or starred in it. In 1955, he was animating a giant octopus for It Came from Beneath the Sea. Zeman’s film would prove to be an inspiration for Harryhausen (minus the attempt at scientific accuracy, but plus Raquel Welch in a fur bikini) when he worked on two dinosaur movies: 1966’s One Million Years, B.C. and 1969’s Valley of Gwangi. It also seems likely that Steven Spielberg was influenced by Karel Zeman’s work when he made Jurassic Park, specifically the scene in which the characters gather around a dying triceratops, which is similar to a scene from Cesta do Praveku, in which the four boys gather around a slain stegosaurus.

After collecting a pile of international awards, Cesta do Praveku was purchased for U.S. distribution. Producers shot new footage with lookalikes for the four boys, visiting the dinosaur exhibits at New York’s Museum of Natural History then rowing a boat across the lake in Central Park and into a cave — at which time Zeman’s film takes over for the remaining run time. Released in 1966 as Journey to the Beginning of Time, it was later serialized in six-minute chunks on American television and aired during children’s programming blocks. In any language, and in any format, it’s a great deal of fun, but for Karel Zeman, it was just a warm-up.

A Vision of Verne

In 1958, Zeman made the first of what works, more or less, as a four-film series that relies on the inspiration of Jules Verne, the illustrations in Victorian and Edwardian adventure books, and the amazing cinematic style of French special film effects pioneer Georges Méliès. As a set, they represent the summit of Zeman’s vision as an animator and a filmmaker. He crammed every technique he loved or needed into their brief and breezy run times. The plots — sometimes scant, sometimes involved — underneath the eye-popping artistic madness were a reflection of the times in which they were made, from the deep sigh of relief that came in the wake of Stalin’s death and loosening of laws (albeit only until the neo-Stalinists took the reigns) to exasperation at the folly of war and politics that settled in during Vietnam and the era of discontent that characterized the late 1960s, early 1970s.

The first of these films wears Zeman’s adoration for Jules Verne on its sleeve — and in its title. Vynalez Zkazy, or The Fabulous World of Jules Verne, is based on Verne’s Facing the Flag. Verne’s book is the tale of a French inventor named Thomas Roch, who devises plans for a weapon so powerful that whichever nation controls it would potentially control the entire planet. The countries of the world are initially uninterested in what is basically an unproven theory, and as a result of his commercial failure, Roch goes mad. The United States sequesters the mad scientist and his doomsday device plans in an asylum. Less dismissive of Roch is Count d’Artigas, by day an eccentric but respectable man who tools around on an old schooner. By night, however, or by day but when no one is looking, he and his crew are vicious pirates who use a secret submersible to sink ships, which they then plunder using a variety of underwater apparati.

d’Artigas is able to win over and spirit away the bitter Roch, though in doing so he also ends up with Roch’s assistant from the sanitarium, Simon Hart, an engineer and expert in explosives, masquerading as Roch’s asylum assistant in hopes of learning the secret behind the madman’s weapon. d’Artigas takes Roch and Hart to his secret island lair in the Caribbean, where he plies Roch with enough platitudes, money, and promises that Roch agrees to construct the weapon for d’Artigas. Hart, meanwhile is kept alive on the off chance that he might be able to fill in some of the gaps the wily Roch leaves in what he gives d’Artigas and his pirate band. Specifically, as insurance, Roch keeps the secret of detonating his weapon to himself. Careless in their handling of Hart, the engineer is able to sneak a message off the base and to the authorities, which is found by the British navy.

The Brits mount a rescue operation, and though Hart manages to get himself and the unwilling Roch aboard the British submarine, d’Artigas’ pirates discover them and launch an attack in which the Brits are defeated and Roch and Hart recovered, though Hart at least manages to convince his captors that it was a kidnap — not rescue — attempt. Roch completes his weapon just as a hastily assembled multinational naval force arrives to combat d’Artigas’ band of killers and thieves. Though Roch has no issue using his weapon to obliterate Englishmen, when a French ship appears on the horizon, he is overcome with the still burning embers of patriotism and has a change of heart. He causes the weapon to self-destruct, destroying it, the island lair, d’Artigas and his pirates, and himself in the explosion. Only Hart lives to tell the tale.

Zeman’s cinematic adaptation would keep much of Verne’s story intact, though he would soften the character of Professor Roch (played by Arnost Navrátil), turning him from a bitter turncoat into a gullible scientist who is fooled by d’Artigas’ (Miloslav Holub) masquerade as a philanthropist. The invention in this case is not initially intended to be a weapon; it’s just something amazing Roch has discovered, and it is d’Artigas and his own cunning engineer, Serke (Vaclav Kyzlink), who recognize its potential as a weapon of mass destruction. Additionally, Hart (Lubor Tokos) has no duplicitous nature; he is simply Roch’s able assistant, an accomplished engineer in his own right hoping to learn more from the master inventor. Most of these changes are minor. The only major alteration to the story by Zeman is the addition of a female character, Jana (Jana Zatloukalová), rescued from the wreckage of one of d’Artigas’ targets so Simon Hart has someone with whom to fall in love.

Plot and actors both take a back seat to Karel Zeman’s special effects and visuals. The actors were, in fact, told to intentionally deadpan it, though the guy playing the pirate captain of d’Artigas’ band didn’t get the memo — which is fine; no one wants to watch a restrained pirate captain performance. Inspired by the art of Edouard Riou and Jules Ferat, whose work accompanied many of the Verne stories, Zeman went to painstaking lengths to create a motion picture that looks like an ornate Victorian illustration. The result is astounding and riotous despite being filmed entirely in black and white. Black and white does many things well, but “riotous” isn’t usually one of them. Zeman’s actors move through what does indeed look like a storybook illustration come to life, interacting with both 2D animation and stop-motion models, as well as cinematic interpretation of old motion illustrations — the kind of thing where an illustration would be attached to a tab the reader could pull to move the object through a scene.

Of particular note are the movie’s underwater sequences, which combine simple camera trickery with stop-motion animation to create dynamic sequences such as the ramming of a ship by d’Artigas’ submarine and the subsequent plunder by stop-motion deep sea divers and, later, a battle between divers and a giant octopus. Some of the scenes are direct recreations of Riou’s illustrations — though more from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea than Facing the Flag. But that’s only fair, given how many elements Facing the Flag shares with 20,000 Leagues (Captain Nemo is basically Professor Roch with more humanist — if still violent — intentions). So much goes on in every frame of the movie that it can be dizzying at times, and it can be almost impossible to focus on any particular thing, so lost can they become in Zeman’s dense compositions. That all of this was accomplished practically and by hand, in an era decades before computer assistance, is a grand testament to his vision, dedication, and talent. Despite the ease with which incredible worlds can be rendered these days, none of them really come close to matching the grandeur Zeman accomplished with old cameras, models, puppets, and the simple act of dragging a drawing across another drawing.

Although based on a story written in 1896, Vynalez Zkazy was released at a time when Verne’s story was depressingly relevant. The 1950s were the decade that saw the start of the atomic arms race between the United States and Soviet Union. Suddenly, Roch’s explosive super-weapon was very much a reality, and while then-Czechoslovakia was always a bit of a black sheep within the Soviet sphere of influence (they seemed to have more freedom, at least by comparison, and a greater tendency toward casual rebellion), it didn’t change the fact that it, like pretty much every country, would be swept up in any nuclear conflict that erupted between the world’s two prickly super powers. While Vynalez Zkazy is undeniably a spirited, good-natured adventure tale, there’s no denying the undercurrent of Cold War brinkmanship and nuclear proliferation that informs it.

It is wrapped, however, in a truly eye-popping style in the service of which are all other aspects of the film. When it was dubbed and rechristened The Fabulous World of Jules Verne for American audiences, no one quite knew what to do with it. It was judged too weird for American kids, and perhaps too light and playful for arthouse cinema fans. So it died a quick death in the west, largely forgotten except by the few who caught it on late night or weekend afternoon television in the 1970s, when broadcasters would put on pretty much anything and everything they could buy cheap in order to fill up air time. Seeing it in its original format, via a good transfer, showcases just how astounding and enjoyable an accomplishment it is. Any fan of animation, stop motion or otherwise, adventure, Verne, or simple old-fashioned inventive cinema should give it a look.

Riding a Cannonball

The next of the four films comprising this loosely assembled quartet did not use Jules Verne as its inspiration, though stylistically it is an expansion of the ideas and techniques Karel Zeman used in Vynalez Zkazy. Baron Prasil, released in 1962 is more identifiable by its alternate title, The Fabulous World of Baron Munchausen. Among fans of sensational adventure yarns, Munchhausen is perhaps unparalleled by any save Captain Nemo himself. Based extremely loosely on real-life nobleman Hieronymus Carl Friedrich Baron von Munchhausen, the stories of his fantastic exploits became the stuff of folklore when he appeared in the 1780s as the central character in several adventure tales that were part of a book called Vademecum fur lustige Leute. As the stories were translated from one language to another, the grandeur and preposterous nature of Munchhausen’s exploits grew, as is usually the case with the heroes of folklore, and before too long he was visiting the moon and riding across battlefields astride hurtling cannonballs.

Always a fan of the fantastic and absurd, Georges Méliès was the first man to commit the adventures of the Baron to the screen, in 1911’s Les Aventures de baron de Munchhausen. The adventurous German noble found his way to screen several more times, including The New Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1915) by British director Floyd Martin Thornton, and then most famously (or infamously, given the involvement of Joseph Goebbels) in the German film Munchausen from 1943 (you can read an excellent review of that version on Die Danger Die Die Kill). In 1962, Zeman brought his unique cinematic vision to the material and created what is, in my opinion, his masterpiece. Although using a similar mishmash of techniques, Baron Prasil is different from Vynalez Zkazy. Where Vynalez Zkazy‘s primary inspiration was the black and white etchings of Edouard Riou, for Baron Prasil, Karel Zeman turned to the hand-tinted phantasmagoria of Georges Méliès.

Méliès’ own Munchhausen movie was not an adaptation of the best-known stories, but rather was a strange comedy in which the baron, perhaps suffering from drunkenness and indigestion, has a dream in which he is endlessly menaced by lizard men, spider ladies, living statues, googly eyed dragons, capering devils, and other such apparitions. Like most of Méliès’ films, it packs more surreal weirdness into its scant eleven minutes that most feature length works of surrealism. The style Méliès — a stage magician before he become a motion picture pioneer — created for his short films is an obvious influence not just on Karel Zeman, but on the whole of the German expressionist movement of the silent era, where warped and stylized theatrical backdrops took the place of more realistic sets and locations.

Méliès was also well-known for working in color, despite the fact that he was making films in the late 1800s and early 1900s, well before the advent of color film. He achieved this by hiring an assembly line of women to hand-tint each frame. He would then offer exhibitors the option of screening the cheaper black and white version of the film or the slightly pricier but much more striking color version. Tinting prints in this way was common in the early days of cinema, as was projecting the film through colored filters. With an eye on the past, and using a combination of Méliès-style tricks and artistic inspiration from old Victorian postcards, Zeman’s Baron Prasil is a whirlwind of styles and approaches perfectly suited for the fantastic story it relays to us. For more modern viewers, or for those who might not be entirely familiar with the influences, the closest comparison is the animation work done for the Monty Python comedy troupe by Terry Gilliam (who would himself make his own version of the Munchausen story in 1988), but combined with the stop-motion of Ray Harryhausen and the rotoscope style animation combined with live actors that would be used by Ralph Bakshi in the 1970s.

Beginning with a bird and progressing higher and higher and through the history of aviation (provided that history includes handlebar moustached Edwardian gentleman on winged penny-farthings — which it should), we soon find ourselves in the company of cosmonaut Tonik (Rudolf Jelínek) who, whilst strolling along the lunar surface, is surprised to find a space capsule, a victrola, and later, three gentlemen — including Cyrano de Bergerac (Karel Höger) — enjoying afternoon tea. Confused beyond the capacity for rational thought, Tonik joins the men and soon also meets the boisterous Baron Munchausen (Milos Kopecký). The men on the moon all assume Tonik is a lunar native, and the Baron decides to take the spaceman to see Earth. Tonik, having nothing better to do, goes along.

And so begins a series of episodic and insane adventures that start in the court of a sultan, where Munchausen and Tonik encounter and save the imprisoned Princess Bianca (Jana Brejchová). After a thrilling and eerily staged battle with the sultan’s forces, the trio find themselves on the run, with Munchausen jealous of Bianca’s affection for Tonik, who the baron considers to be far less interesting than himself. During the journey, Tonik is separated from Munchausen and Bianca, and the baron takes the opportunity to turn on the charm, even after they are swallowed by a giant fish.

Although the baron is charming indeed, the moment they are reunited with Tonik (who is trying to apply his 20th century aerospace know-how to make-believe 19th century technology), Bianca is back in his arms. Munchausen ends up in the claws of a giant stop-motion vulture, and then he rides around on a giant seahorse (the Munchausenian take on driving around in your Camaro at night, listening to Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” while you think on heavy stuff). Finally he arrives in the court of a suspicious military governor who has imprisoned Tonik and thinks the young man is a saboteur. Munchausen sees this as the perfect opportunity to eliminate his competition for Bianca’s love. But in the end, Munchausen is still honorable and heroic, so he assists the young lovers in a daring escape, all while Cyrano waxes poetic on the beauty of romance and adventure.

Much of the delight in Baron Prasil comes from its visual excess and artistic complexity. As he did with Vynalez Zkazy, Karel Zeman instructed the actors to play it low-key, juxtaposing the matter-of-fact narration with the outrageous exploits on screen and the psychedelic way in which they are staged. Using tinting, forced perspective, and every trick in his animator’s bag, it becomes impossible to tell when illustration ends and real sets and real actors begin. Zeman mounts an incredible spectacle of a film, and the over-the-top adventures of Baron Munchausen are perfectly suited for being told in this utterly loony fashion.

Flying Blind on an Airship

It’s difficult to follow up a movie like Baron Prasil, and it was several years before Zeman returned to what had become the stylistically and thematically unified Zemanverse (or that’s how I think of it) — reminiscent of the science fiction universe woven by Japanese animator Leiji Masumoto (Space Battleship Yamato, Captain Harlock, Galaxy Express 999, and more) where there was no real chronological continuity, but there was certainly a continuity of animation style, design, themes, and characters. Zeman’s films are similarly linked as occurring in the same universe without ever actually connecting to one another. The Fabulous World of Jules Verne began with a montage summary of the Age of Progress, while Baron Prasil began with a similar animated montage of the Age of Aviation. In 1967’s Ukradená vzducholod (The Stolen Airship) we get another montage, this one the history of overbearing parents chastising curious — and mischievous — children.

In 1964, the more liberal and reform-minded (relative to Stalin, anyway) Soviet premier Khrushchev, who had assumed power and immediately set about trying to undo the paranoia and damage done by Stalin, was replaced by Leonid Brezhnev. Brezhnev identified more with Stalin and set about reversing the small in-roads toward a less totalitarian regime that were pioneered by his predecessor. Thus was born, more or less, the neo-Stalinist movement. Czechoslovakia had been, since the end of World War II, at best half-heartedly part of the sphere of Soviet influence, but nevertheless she was still part of the Eastern Bloc. The drift back toward Stalinism the Soviet Union meant the same for the Czech people. So it’s no surprise that Zeman — like all artists, regarded with suspicion — would make a movie in which the introduction is basically a rejection of overbearing government, and whose entire run time is an escape from Communist oppression, albeit one couched in the language of light-hearted adventure.

After witnessing the “parents just don’t understand” oppression of the ages — including a caveman who angrily punishes his child for peeing on the fire — we meet five young boys on trial for general impishness. They live in a world of Edwardian marvels, from trolleys to airships to floating platforms carrying around can-can dancers. What boy wouldn’t get up to hijinks in such an age of wonder? When they are cheated by a huckster who is trying to sell the world his inflammable airship fuel (thus solving the pesky tendency of such ships to explode), the boys slyly unmoor the “for display purposes only” airship and take it for a joyride. Unfortunately, none of the lads knows how to pilot an airship, so they are soon hopelessly adrift and branded by government officials as thieves, pirates, and scalawags — at least until the government official doing the branding realizes his own son is among the adventurous troublemakers.

Where the story of The Fabulous World of Jules Verne was in the service of the visuals, and similarly the story of Baron Prasil was largely episodic and served as a skeleton on which Zeman could mount his incredible artistic vision, The Stolen Airship puts the plot more in the foreground, and it’s probably not coincidental that this movie skews much more toward live-action and actors than the outlandish illustrations and animation of Baron Prasil. Aside from the story about the boys in the airship, there are additional plots regarding a reporter investigating the inventor of the inflammable fuel — it turns out the fuel explodes just fine, as the boys eventually discover — as well as a bumbling secret agent attempting to steal the formula. Meanwhile, partway through the film, the boys crash the airship and find themselves stranded on what they discover to be Jules Verne’s Mysterious Island, complete with a cameo by Captain Nemo and the Nautilus. They go on to get involved with a beautiful woman and a ship full of cutthroat pirates, because you cannot have a proper adventure without such things.

The Stolen Airship has one foot in the art nouveau fantasy of Karel Zeman’s previous two films and the other foot in the “boy’s own adventure” style story he told in Cesta do Praveku (and let’s assume “boy’s own adventure” is an outdated but useful term for a style of adventure story that girls would enjoy reading or taking part in just as much as boys). While it doesn’t match the visual ambition of Zeman’s previous work, it is his most ambitious screenplay, and that is a wise change of course. It grounds the film in the same style and world as the other films, but it does not feel like repetition. The caper aspect and the skewering of shifty capitalists, overbearing governments, and manipulative journalists all mix up with the core story of five boys having a wild adventure and makes for a film that celebrates such adventures without ever sinking into rose-tinted nostalgia (although there is some literal rose-tinting). The Stolen Airship paints the richest picture of a turn-of-the-century world full of incredible contraptions and physics-defying balloons, airships, sky rowboats, hang gliders, and other marvels that only exist, sadly, in 19th century illustrations of what the 20th century might be like.

And Away We Go…

For whatever reason, The Stolen Airship did not receive distribution in the United States. The others might have been re-edited and dubbed, but they still made it to American television sets. It must have just been a function of weird timing, because his next and final “live action” feature, Na Komete (Off On a Comet), did found its way into the United States, albeit with less fanfare than the other films. Released in 1970, Na Komete is Zeman’s most overtly political film, holding up for ridicule military and governmental bureaucracies and war machines in a sort of Duck Soup style satire, but once again wrapping the satire in a mind-bending final visit to the stop motion, cut outs, illustration, and zaniness of the Zemanverse. Despite being his most biting political film, it is also his funniest. But then, Duck Soup was the Marx Brothers most overtly political film but also their funniest, so the precedent was certainly there.

It begins with satirical narration (again done in the deadpan style that was characteristic of Zeman’s films) by a French officer about how thankful the natives of colonized lands must be to the conquerors who brought them such wonderful progress (although one can see obvious parallels to bloody end of French colonization in Algeria, chronicled cinematically just a few years earlier in 1966’s The Battle of Algiers, it’s easy to also regard this as yet another stab at continued communist “occupation” of Czechoslovakia). This all occurs while an oblivious British officer balloons over North Africa and carelessly sets an entire city on fire, which he never even notices. We soon meet a French soldier in charge of surveying the coast of an unidentified North African colony. Both he and his assistant, bored and perhaps crazy from the heat, are daydreaming as they work — the assistant about food, and the dashing young officer Servadac (Emil Horváth) about a beautiful woman (Magda Vásáryová), whose image he has seen on a postcard. Lost in his reverie, Servadac falls off a cliff and almost drowns.

He is, however, rescued by none other than Angelika, the very woman about whom he was daydreaming and who has just escaped from a nearby band of pirates (Zeman loves pirates the way Méliès loved capering devils) that waylaid her, her brother, and some of his friends out sailing. Those same pirates are supplying weapons to a local sheik who plans to use them to overthrow the French garrison and declare himself king. The pirates, in turn, are led by a Spanish diplomat who hopes the locals and the French will destroy one another, allowing Spain to step in and claim control of the country. In a convoluted series of events that includes a bomb, an earthquake, a storm, and a mysterious second sun, the entire country and surrounding sea is ripped away from Earth and sent hurtling through the cosmos, Space: 1999 style.

Despite the extraordinary circumstances now surrounding them, all sides continue their petty squabbling. Things start to get really weird when the newly-broken chunk of Earth unleashes a gang of daintily high-stepping dinosaurs, which go rampaging through the camp and nearby town with all the sneering disregard for civility one expects from your more unruly biker movie gangs. Cannons are useless against the stampeding beasts (any of the scientific accuracy for which Karel Zeman strove for in his very first feature film is totally absent here), but Servadac accidentally chases them off by making a racket with pots and pans. Pleased with the young soldier’s success, the garrison commander orders all cannons and guns disposed of and replaced by pots and pans tied to sticks.

As French behavior becomes more absurd, so too does its rule become more tyrannical. Determining the whole situation to be rather unusual, the garrison commander declares martial law, arresting all foreigners without charge or warrants. The inhabitants of the comet lapse into petting scheming and casual decadence. When Mars appears on the horizon, Servadac determines that there is no escaping its gravitational pull, and that their little chunk of earth will plow into the planet and kill everyone. This suddenly apocalyptic fate causes everyone to abandon their petty quests for power. Prisoners escape or are released, dancing girls rally, money is abandoned, and soon everyone realizes how easy it is to get along — at least for a little while.

As with The Stolen Airship, Na Komete puts its plot in the foreground, with Zeman’s signature animation style used in its service instead of the other way around. And once again, it is the actors who are front and center more than the animation — though one can hardly dismiss a dinosaur riot, sea monsters, and a walking fish that turns into a boar. And since Terry Gilliam cites Karel Zeman as a major influence, it’s also worth mentioning that this is the most “Monty Python” of Zeman’s scripts. The scene in which, having discarded their guns (which were picked up by the Arabs), the French army vigorously shakes their pots and pans at the approaching rebels could have been right out of a Monty Python sketch. 

Although the name Karel Zeman may not carry the international recognition of his contemporary, Ray Harryhausen, or even of the men he inspired, like Terry Gilliam or Tim Burton, his place in film history is never the less secure, and the mad, dizzying universe he created is always there, waiting for adventurous filmgoers in stolen airships and hand-cranked submarines to discover. Zeman continued making films and shorts in the 1970s, but Na Komete was his final visit to the Zemanverse. The rest of his work was more straight-forward animation, including a series of Sinbad the Sailor cartoons and the animated feature Čarodějův učeň (Krabat — The Sorcerer’s Apprentice). He all but retired in the 1980s, passing away in April of 1989. Just a few months later, his stolen airship came home. In what became known as the Velvet Revolution, massive demonstrations filled Prague’s Wenceslas Square. In a matter of days, and with almost no violence, the communists were removed from power. Karel Zeman’s stolen airship had finally come home.

About Keith Allison

Keith Allison is a writer and pop culture historian living in New York. His interest in film and adventure started at an early age, when he was left to his own devices in the wee small hours and discovered the Universal monsters, Godzilla, and "Matinee at the Bijou." He has written for Alcohol Professor, The Cultural Gutter, Teleport City and the book Sex and Zen and a Bullet in the Head. He is also the author of Cocktails & Capers: Cult Film, Cocktails, Crime, and Cool.

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