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Gulliver’s Travels


I’m not such a huge fan of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves – I’d attest that it’s a little dull, despite the slender running time – but even given my reservations, it’s easy to see why its reputation has stood the test of time while this attempt by Paramount to cash in on its animated success has been largely forgotten. Gulliver’s Travels is essentially an extended opportunity for Max Fleischer – an acquired taste – to doodle, and so ports over few of the ingredients that make Jonathan Swift’s satire such an engaging and intriguing work.

This was (per Wiki) the fourth film of Gulliver’s Travels, and it’s pretty much de rigueur that its adaptations should be very loose, if not to say abjectly incomplete. That is, put Lilliput on screen, and if you’re lucky Brobdingnag, but the rest tends to be right out the window. It’s a continuing irony that a work with so much content – not least scatological – should be habitually resigned to “kids’ fare”. That said, I recall the 1996 Ted Danson miniseries being quite good, so maybe I should revisit it. I shan’t be hastening to the most recent, Jack Black Gulliver, however. I’d rather watch Fleischer’s again!

Walt Disney, who knew a thing or two about manipulating impressionable young minds, was reportedly dismissive of Fleischer’s efforts… which didn’t stop him delaying Pinocchio’s release to keep out of Gulliver’s Travels’ way. It’s easy to see why he was so derisive, though. In some respects, there’s admirable experimentation on display, such that Gulliver is achieved through rotoscoping and thus approximates a “real” person, while the Lilliputians and Bleufuscuians are your standard Fleischer-styled creations. Unfortunately, neither are especially impressive. The rotoscoping tends to bland out Gulliver’s features, making him appear rudimentary at times. The effect only occasionally yields dividends (when he’s sitting at a table by candlelight, all jolly and amused by the Lilliputian entertainment). 

Then there are the rest of the “cast”. I’ve never been hugely keen on Fleischer’s fluid, elastic style, all rubbery characterisations and gormless lunacy. In particular, Gabby, voiced by Pinto Colvig (the original voice for Goofy) is likely to get on your tits; it’s fortunate for him Gulliver’s so easily amused. The plot features the feud between Lilliput and Blefuscu, but it centres on a couple of star-crossed lovers, whose prospective nuptials are torn asunder when their fathers, Kings Little and Bombo, disagree over the song (Faithful or Forever) to be played on their big day. Prince David and Princess Glory are thoroughly insipid, both in design and substance, so it’s a toss-up between which is less appealing, them or their whackier fellow countryfolk. 

It’s also notable how thoroughly side-lined Gulliver is, since he’s having a snooze on the beach and doesn’t wake up until halfway through the picture. He and the Lilliputians are soon getting along famously, with them making him some clothes and giving him a haircut, but it isn’t until the Bleufuscu fleet arrives during the last quarter of an hour that Gulliver’s Travels achieves any sustained interest; he drags them ashore but nearly comes a cropper from his “thunder machine” (pistol) being primed on the cliffs by Bleufuscu spies (Prince David shows some surprising mettle and foils the scheme). Needless to say, when there’s a fire that needs dousing, Gulliver does not pee all over it, even though one would imagine prodigious micturition would be right up Fleischer’s street.

This version came to my attention as a result of watching a podcast on Trump/ Tesla/ time travel (which I cannot now find the link to, such is the abundance of takes on this area: apologies). Some highly tenuous connections to the Jack Black film are made therein, but it is interesting that post-impressionist painter Louis (Lajos) Jámbor, credited in the scenic department – the only feature he appears to have been involved with – was clearly so prolific during the 1930s that his work can be connected to Trump, Tesla and Edison, via a certain Kevin Bacon of artistic accomplishments. Jámbor contributed to both the Hotel New Yorker (26 murals), where Tesla would take up residence from 1934, and the Edison Hotel. Prior to both of these (circa 1925), he painted the patio murals and frescoes for Mar-a-lago, which Donald now owns, of course.

All of which is curiosity, really, unless someone can highlight something additional and fundamental about the man (his predilection for religious work doesn’t appear to have carried into the mentioned projects). However, Gulliver’s Travels itself, and Swift, do warrant mention in the whole hidden/ stolen history field. The novel’s official date of publication is 1726 (it details events taking place between 1699 and 1715; the movie begins on 5 November 1699). Which is only a few years after the flood event – I won’t call it mudflood – is believed to happen. Was Swift a real person or a composite? Was Daniel Dafoe, for that matter, who also wrote a highly popular novel a few years earlier (Robinson Crusoe was published in 1719)? One that, like Gulliver’s Travels, begins with its protagonist being shipwrecked. Could such watery conflagrations be pointing to something in the real world that elicited actual mortal terror? 

It’s been said Swift’s novel was a rebuttal of Dafoe’s, in which the individual precedes society; Swift takes a very bleak view of the inevitably debilitating effects of humanity unto itself. Which is, surely, an attitude they want you to have. Swift would later produce the 1729 essay A Modest Proposal, which suggested dealing with the problem of the poor children of Ireland by eating them. Take out the satire part, and you have something the Elite could wholeheartedly get behind. 

It has been suggested the degenerate humanoid Yahoos of the fourth part of Gulliver’s Travels (A Voyage to the Land of the Houyhnhnms) are also intended to represent the Irish lot, and the horse Houyhnhnms, the British. In context of the story, though Gulliver, who finds himself identifying with the elite equines and seeing humanity of which he is a part as mere Yahoos, might be also paralleled with non-human influences that exert a lure, a promise of being above the common man and not bidden by their rules. 

As to the strange lands, could this be intentionally obfuscating a redrawn map of the globe, one altered by inundation (and receding waters), depopulation and forced migration? Part III finds Gulliver discussing history with the ghosts of historical people, so drawing a line in the sand, of ancient vs modern. These historical types are all, presumably, made up (Caesar, Brutus, Homer, Aristotle, Rene Descarte, Pierre Gassendi), or at least refashioned and/ or named. Notably, this takes place on the isle of Glubbdubdrib, an island of sorcerers and magicians (so casting doubt on their authenticity? Notably too, Gulliver is given cause to opine “I was chiefly disgusted with modern history”). Of course, his visit to flying island Laputa singles out science – or science for its own sake; they also swear by astrology – for rebuke while suggesting the application of alternative technology (the island’s properties are achieved via magnetic levitation). His real-life target was reputedly the Royal Society.

Also salient, in this regard, is that the novel refers twice to Tartary (“the great Continent…”), so perhaps long-term plans for its erasure from the record weren’t yet set. Or perhaps it was being designated as a piece of misdirection even then (like communism, is it a red herring?) None of this improves Fleischer’s Gulliver’s Travels by association, alas. He initially brought the idea to Paramount in 1934, so in another universe probably had the drop on Walt. We’d all be taking our kids to Betty Boop World, Florida. As it was, Paramount did the deadly to Fleischer, penalising him for going over budget, despite making a healthy profit from a picture that had to go for broke to meet a release date. After the failure of its follow up, Mr. Bug Goes to Town, Fleischer was effectively canned by the studio. Never mind. Son Richard would go on to make probably the biggest success of his career (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea) with Fleischer’s animation-competitor Disney.

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