This is the fourth time Second Run have put out a film by the Czech director and animator Karel Zeman, and just like the others – A Jester’s Tale, The Fabulous Baron Munchausen and Invention for Destruction – this one makes me wish I’d seen it as a child. It’s a particularly keen wish in the case of Journey to the Beginning of Time, which skews younger than the other three films mentioned. The satirical, anti-war element of Zeman’s work is missing here, as is the comedic violence and peril. Indeed, Journey to the Beginning of Time is perhaps the only film about humans meeting dinosaurs where the latter never seriously threaten the former. Occasionally a prehistoric animal will move a little too close to the child sailors who are the movie’s heroes; in response, they will sail downriver, and the creature will go back to its business.
Another curiosity of Zeman’s film is the refusal to explain how the children Jirka, Jenda, Toník and Petr end up travelling in time. In place of Arthur Conan Doyle’s arduous expedition or Michael Crichton’s cod-scientific eyewash, there is a dream-like transition where the children set off sailing down a river and, when they hit a stretch that’s frozen, they realise they’re in the last Ice Age. Zeman sets this up with a typically playful, metafictional introduction. Thrilled by the descriptions of prehistoric life in Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth, narrator Petr decides that since so many of Verne’s other predictions have come true, they may as well hop on board a boat and set off into the past.
Zeman would go on to adapt Verne so many times you might wonder if he was trying to prove Petr correct by single-handedly bringing all of the French author’s words to life. His biggest inspiration for Journey to the Beginning of Time, though, was the Czech paleo-artist Zdeněk Burian. It is not uncommon for Zeman’s films to have a visual source as well as a narrative one – the use of Gustave Doré’s illustrations in The Fabulous Baron Munchausen is an obvious example – but in his later films he makes the gap between animation and real actors playfully apparent. Watching Miloš Kopecký’s flesh-and-blood Munchausen caper in and out of giant etchings is a remarkable sight, largely because you are aware the sets he’s interacting with are not real.
In Journey to the Beginning of Time, by contrast, Zeman is going for realism, and he proves just as skilful on this playing field. In one of Second Run’s new extras, Kung Fu Panda director and Muppet Show veteran John Stevenson pulls apart the astonishing arsenal of animator’s tricks Zeman uses to bring his creatures to life. Suffice to say, with model work, stop-motion, costumes, props and matte paintings all working together, the eye never has the chance to become jaded with one of Zeman’s techniques. Occasionally he uses real animals for apex predators that evolution has signed off on – a snake, say, or a big cat – and it’s remarkable how inexpressive they look next to the Stegosaurs, Deinotheriums and Pteranodons from his wonderful workshop.
The uncharacteristic realism of Journey to the Beginning of Time stretches to its detailed sound design, full of chirping tropical birds, and its impressive, unaffected child performances. They’re all strong but Vladimír Bejval is excellent as Jirka, the youngest of the sailors. Faced with a fight between woolly rhinoceri, he’ll watch avidly as though he were at a particularly gripping boxing match. Faced with the destruction of his boat, he’s reduced to floods of tears. In Bejval’s performance, the courageous and the child-like coexist perfectly.
As they do in the film itself. Like its child heroes, Zeman’s film is content to simply sit back and watch hundreds of millions of years of evolution pass by, giving out facts but never reaching for any extraneous peril or plotting. This educational focus unexpectedly ends up getting to the heart of why kids love dinosaurs even more efficiently than a Jurassic Park or a Valley of Gwangi; the story of the Earth, with its roll-call of different eras and teeming cast of weird creatures, is enough of a saga for children to enjoy. There is even an audience participation element to Zeman’s film as the children flick through their guidebook to look up all the animals they see: paleontologically-minded children will enjoy yelling “Styracosaurus!” at the screen before the lead characters can. I know I did, and I’m 36.
Journey to the Beginning of Time, like a lot of Zeman’s films, has circulated in various countries in various cuts of various quality. It’s not looked this good since its original release, and a two-minute showreel in the extras demonstrates how much has been cleaned up. There’s also a similar featurette about how Zeman achieved the effects, and Michael Brooke’s playful, informative booklet brings in everything from D.W. Griffith to Peppa Pig in order to place Zeman’s film in its wider cultural context. The final extra is the English-dubbed cut distributed in America in 1960, which has a strangely creepy title sequence and amusingly Anglicises most of the cast and crew’s names. Cinematographer Antonín Horak becomes “Anthony Huston”, and by the time they get to actor Zdeněk Husták they throw in the towel completely and turn him into “Charles Goldsmith”.
There is something quaint about Journey to the Beginning of Time. It sits surprisingly comfortably alongside a live-action Disney film of similar vintage like Byron Haskin’s Treasure Island – impressive, considering Zeman was working with a distinctly sub-Hollywood budget. But there is also something very modern about it, with its enthusiastic belief that science is enough to enchant on its own. It also has a certain profundity, particularly in a scene where the boys are overawed by cave paintings straight out of Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams. World cinema fans with young children will enjoy it as much as their kids do; the rest of us will be more than happy to buy it for ourselves.