Wednesday, 26 December 2012

The Stolen Airship (1967)

An excerpt from The Stolen Airship.

Each of Karel Zeman's Verne-inspired films begins with an artistic montage outlining its general theme. In The Fabulous World of Jules Verne, we see the "age of progress" through the eyes of the protagonist, whereas in Baron Munchausen it is humanity's ascent into the sky, and into space, and finally to the moon where we catch up with the imagination. In The Stolen Airship it is the long history of adults wagging their fingers at children.

A little Neanderthal relieves himself on the family fire, Roman flower-bearers upset an urn on a horse's head, Mediaeval lovers steal a kiss, and a pet monkey interferes with a Victorian street performer... Adults just can't cut kids a break. We are then introduced to our heroes: a group of five children standing in the docket in court, forced to explain their adventure in a perloined dirigible. What an adventure! Zeman fuses together Verne's Robinsonade Two Years' Vacation about a group of schoolchildren lost on a South Pacific island with his Mysterious Island, by virtue of the schoolchildren making off with an airship and landing on Captain Nemo's secret base. The Nautilus and Nemo himself does make an appearance, in which he reminisces about his exploits with a boy who loves reading about them, and there is even a reference to In Search of the Castaways by way of a letter in a bottle conveyed via shark.

Boy's own adventure is deftly spliced with burlesques of the adult world. Scandals erupt over the children who have made off with the airship and the town magistrate is prepared to practically hang the delinquent parents, until learning that his own son is amongst the brigands. The airship's owner is a bit of an entrepreneur, having told everyone that his ship utilizes a new form of inflammable gas. Stocks are selling out and caper-comedy spies have been employed by foreign governments to uncover the secret of the gas. None of this does the boys any good when lightening strikes their airship and it bursts into flame. All of the scandals are fuelled by the local newspaper and its shifty reporter who has taken as great an interest in the airship owner's fetching Gibson Girl assistant as he has in the case itself. It's probably in the children's own best interests to get as far away from these people as they can.

In Zeman's typical fashion, he goes above and beyond the source material to fashion a world in which every sort of Vernian invention, Robidian airship and Mélièsian contraption preambulate. Not content to supply us with merely fantastic content, he is true to form by lovingly recreating the style of an engraved illustration come to life, employing every style of animation known to cinema by 1967. As in Fabulous World of Jules Verne, live actors and paper cut-outs interact with stop-motion models, double-exposures and hand-drawn animation, filtered through a gauze giving the linear engraved effect, all in the same frame at the same time.

In the cycle of Zeman's films, The Stolen Airship brings together his tributes to imagination and Jules Verne like The Fabulous World of Jules Verne with his "boys own adventure" stories like Journey to the Beginning of Time. It might appear to reinforce the maligned view that Verne was primarily a juvenile writer, but it is impossible to escape the fact that Verne really did appeal so much to children. The art is not to try and steal Verne back from the hands of the young, but to attain a sense of child-like wonder through this purloined zeppelin.


tantalus1970 said...

These are great films, and it's a shame that they are not available on HD DVD (actually, it's a crime, but I digress). I wish I'd seen them as a child. Then again, maybe not; they would have dominated my childhood too much!

But were they really made that late? I always thought his live action films were made in the 50s and early 60s. His later films were more pure animation.

This is my 5th attempt at posting this. I hate the internet!

Cory Gross said...

I'm not sure that I could have fully appreciated Zeman as a child, so I don't completely regret not hearing about him sooner than I did. I haven't seen a lot of his non-Verne films, but if it's true that he went on to more pure animation later, I guess these were amongst his last live action ones.