Movie a Day Blog is teaching a course in the History of International Animation, which is always great fun because of the innumerable forms animation can take across the globe.
Most animations fall into recognizable patterns: hand-drawn or 2-dimensional, computer-rendered 2D and 3D animation, etc. Then there are the true oddities that refuse to easy categorization: an outstanding example is THE FORBIDDEN WORLD OF JULES VERNE (1958, DVD).
Made entirely in black and white in Czechoslovakia by experienced animators who were among the most innovative in Eastern Europe, FORBIDDEN WORLD mashes together a number of Jules Verne stories and inventions, all, as the credits read, “freely adapted” by co-writer and director Karel Zeman, a veteran Czech animator who made cartoons and features for 35 years.
If Monty Python animator Terry Gilliam owes anyone an artistic debt, it’s Zeman, who eerily predicts some of the exact designs that Gilliam employed in his Python collages and stop-motion shorts. I am not at all implying that Gilliam ripped off Zeman, more that he was clearly a major artistic influence on the director who has kept animation aspects in all his films, from BRAZIL (1985) to THE IMAGINARIUM OF DR. PARNASSUS (2009).
The plot is pure Jules Verne: An evil millionaire named Artigas plans to use a super-explosive device to conquer the world from his headquarters inside an enormous volcano. A stand-in for the filmmaker and Verne named Simon Hart gets lured into trying to stop Artigas and gets treated pretty roughly for a 1958 children’s film that seems also directed at adult fantasy and science fiction fans. Using live action, cutouts, puppets, drawn animation and what seem to be giant two-dimensional cardboard set design elements, Zeman and his designers create an other-worldly feeling for the sets of Verne’s airships and dirigibles, and especially the two submarines, one of which proves a vicious underwater fighter.
Zeman and his animators have a very specific horizontal line aesthetic that seems almost ribbed in its cross-hatching, and gives real texture to objects as diverse as the water and the characters’ clothing. The plot is thoroughly entertaining and moves along nicely, but it’s the innovative mix of different artistic media that makes FORBIDDEN WORLD so entrancing.
This seems to be the apogee of a very particular animation style that I was unfamiliar with, and is highly developed in what it attempts and accomplishes in FORBIDDEN WORLD. Zeman may be a footnote now in Western animation history, but FORIBDDEN WORLD deserves to be rediscovered, especially as Gilliam continues to make new films such as ZERO THEOREM (2014) that still evoke traces of his old animation style. And without Zeman, there might not be a Gilliam.