If anyone can truly be said to have captured the spirit of Georges Méliès, it is Czech filmmaker Karel Zeman. It is one thing to use the methods pioneered by Méliès, which in a sense makes all subsequent filmmakers his children. When Méliès purchased his first camera, the art was so new that in developing his screen fantasies, he created many of the techniques that would become standard practice in the medium for a century. It is quite another to be heir to the spirit of wide-eyed wonder and fantasy that infuses Méliès' films themselves.
Most filmmakers don't even make the attempt, which is their right, since not all creative visions need be the same. A few try, but none have come so close as Karel Zeman. Heralded as one of the fathers of Czech animation, his films are celluloid adventures in wonder and whimsy carefully crafted from nearly every form of special effect known by the 1950's and 60's.
Most indicative of his work is his fantastic magnum opus, The Fabulous World of Jules Verne. While a specific adaptation of Verne's Facing the Flag, this 1958 film pulls in influences from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, The Mysterious Island and the Robur stories, at the barest minimum. Overall, it's more the sort of film that could conceivably take place in a world in which all of Verne's Voyages Extraordinaires were true.
The story is ultimately a fig leaf of rationalization for the real purpose of Fabulous World. In it, a man waxes philosophical on the magnificent achievements of humanity as it has conquered the land, sea and air, ushering in a new age of science that has abolished outmoded ways of life and thought. He is on his way to visit his friend Professor Roch, who has discovered a new energy source that could be just as easily used for destruction as for creation. Unfortunately, after a midnight raid, the Professor and his assistant are abducted into the submarine of the villainous Count Artigas, "last and most diabolical of the buccaneers". To the chagrin of Simon, the assistant, the Professor is unwittingly helping the scallywags to develop a doomsday weapon on their volcanic island base.
The contention of the plot is familiar to anyone who has seen any Atomic Age Science Fiction film of the 60's. What sets Fabulous World apart is its unbelievable conception and execution. It is not only a film set in the kind of world envisioned by Verne, but also the world as visualized by the illustrations to Verne's novels. Karel accomplished a most fabulous feat in combining live action, stop motion, painted sets and traditional animation under the guise of a Victorian engraving come to life. It is as though the lush illustrations of a Edouard Riou sprang to life, projected and given motion right from the pages of the texts in a moving magic lantern display.
A review for Locus Online eloquently describes the complicated and astonishing process:
This is a live-action black and white movie — but it uses every camera trick and every form of animation known in 1958... Methods include stop-motion, paper cutout, drawing and painting animation, drawn foregrounds and backdrops, dissolves, miniatures and models, double exposure (probably in-camera and superimposition), still images, traveling and stationary mattes — they're all here. There were at least eight people watching; someone yelled out at one point "There are at least seven different things going on in this scene!" (I counted eight.) And all this before the invention of blue screens!
There are lines drawn on sets, and even on people, to keep the original steel-engraving feel. The scenes of ships of the water have been treated with some sort of light, striped screen (probably cloth, probably double-exposed) that makes the moving waves of real water take on the appearance of the engraved lines in a 19th century drawing of the sea. There's a scene of a train coming down a track — the train is drawn; the wheels and the tracks are animated; the (real) engineer stands on an open platform in the engine's cab and (real) people lean out of the (drawn) passenger car. (It's so simple and powerful it takes your breath away.) Actors walk through back-projected sets; at the same time they're walking behind animated full-sized paper cutouts of spinning flywheels and meshing gears, all this in front of a painted set in the middle-background. For maybe five seconds of screen time. There's a scene of an animated shark attacking a real diver in a model set with painted water.
As the reviewers exclaim, the film is truly a masterpiece... A European piece of art comparing favourably to the best of the genre's Hollywood films.
In a travesty of history, few today know of Zeman and his legacy outside the circles of film history. His echos do reach down through filmmakers of the imagination like Terry Gilliam and Tim Burton, but it is a real shame that his works have not received their due in the West. For the fan of Voyages Extraordinaires, there are none more fabulous than those of Karel Zeman.