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With: Pinto Colvig, Jack Mercer, Sam Parker, Jessica Dragonette, Lanny Ross (voices)
Written by: Dan Gordon, Cal Howard, Tedd Pierce, Edmond Seward, Izzy Sparber, based on a novel by Jonathan Swift
Directed by: Dave Fleischer
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 77
Date: 12/18/1939

Gulliver's Travels (1939)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Swift Moves

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

In many ways Max and Dave Fleischer trumped Walt Disney in the field of animation. Their early "Out of the Inkwell" cartoons (with Koko the Clown) were far ahead of anything Disney was doing at the time. And the Fleischers' Betty Boop cartoons were more daring and surreal than the early Mickey Mouse cartoons of the 1930s. By the time Disney got around to shooting cartoons in color with new levels of depth and realism in The Old Mill (1937), the Fleischers had beat him to it by a year with their exemplary Popeye the Sailor Meets Sinbad the Sailor (1936).

But then came the feature films. Disney did it first, with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), and an empire was born that continues to this day. The Fleischers came two years later, with Gulliver's Travels. And while their effort is very impressive, gorgeous, funny, inventive and hugely entertaining, it doesn't quite stack up, frame for frame, to Disney's first features. The Fleischers' characters aren't quite as seamless and the difference between the traced humans and the purely created characters is fairly vast. The Fleischers only made one other feature film, Mr. Bug Goes to Town (a.k.a. Bugville) (1941) before they retired the form forever.

Based loosely on Jonathan Swift's novel, the story has Gulliver washing upon an island and encountering the tiny people of Lilliput. Though the story begins with a page from Gulliver's journal, the character eventually takes a back seat to the feud between two kings, King Little and King Bombo, whose children (a singing prince and princess) wish to marry. The town crier Gabby always seems to turn up, trying to be the center of attention. The sequence in which the townspeople discover Gulliver, tie him up and transport him back to the castle is quite involved and makes extraordinary use of space and scale. Additionally, Victor Young's score and a song ("Faithful Forever") were nominated for Oscars.

Like much of the Fleischers' work, this feature film has been stuck in the public domain for years, available on cheap DVDs and for free download. Koch Lorber has released a "digitally restored and remastered" DVD for 2009, and it's probably the best-looking transfer in existence, though for some reason the picture is letterboxed. (Anything produced in 1939 should be 1:1.33 or 1:1.37.) Moreover, the menus are pretty shabby, with small, fancy printing that's difficult to read, and there are no subtitle options. Bonuses include two related "Gabby" cartoons and a neat little featurette about the making of a Fleischer cartoon. I'm going to keep this one until a better version comes along.

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