fri 06/12/2019

DVD/Blu-ray: Journey to the Beginning of Time | reviews, news & interviews

DVD/Blu-ray: Journey to the Beginning of Time

DVD/Blu-ray: Journey to the Beginning of Time

Enchanting dino-flick from a pioneering Czech director

Mammoth alert: Zeman's young cast doing their homework

Karel Zeman’s Invention for Destruction and The Fabulous Baron Munchausen are dizzying romps, whereas his earlier Journey to the Beginning of Time, made in 1955, is disarmingly straightforward – a simple tale of four boys searching for prehistoric life in order to complete a homework assignment. With a minimum of fuss, they board a no-frills wooden boat and row through a cave and down a river, heading further and further back in time. There are a few petty squabbles and a couple of minor examples of what the BBFC used to term “mild peril”. Otherwise, this is joyous, exhilarating fun. Narrator Petr (Josef Lukáš) shows us his battered notebook in the prologue, the neatly-drawn timeline showing us where we’re heading. We begin in a well-realised Ice Age and finish in a bleak, chilly Silurian landscape (actually an East German island). 

At times this is like watching a particularly involving schools’ television documentary – which was surely the point. Zeman’s scientific advisor was the renowned palaeontologist Josef Augusta, many of whose books were illustrated, brilliantly and accurately, by Zdeněk Burian. Zeman’s prehistoric creatures, realised in a variety of ways, are always convincing. Several early scenes will have you squealing with delight, notably the front and rear shots of a mammoth waving its trunk, and a pair of battling woolly rhinos. Look closely at the screen and you’ll struggle to comprehend exactly how Zeman manages to combine multiple effects in the same frame: the mammoth sequence mixes split-screen techniques with stop-motion animation, and flawlessly so. Look out for the flock of flamingos, and the distant galloping horses.

DVD/Blu-ray: Journey to the Beginning of TimeIt’s 45 minutes before we hit the Mesozoic Era, and the dinosaurs are worth the wait. The brontosaurus presents no threat, though there’s a surprisingly gory battle between a ceratosaurus and a stegosaurus, the boys able to inspect the latter’s corpse at close range. Hotfooting it to a very swampy Carboniferous era, we get exotic plants, giant insects and an unsettling, leery amphibian. On a Silurian beach, our gang find a living trilobite, which they can compare with the fossilised one seen at the beginning of the film. The visual effects are spectacular, though amongst them Zeman draws strikingly natural performances from his young, inexperienced cast.

Second Run’s bonus features include the rejigged, redubbed version of the film made for American audiences in 1966 by producer William Cayton (who later became Mike Tyson’s manager). Cayton added a framing sequence set in New York’s American Museum of Natural History and got round the problem of not having the original Czech cast by shooting his four extras from behind. The results aren’t terrible, and I’d certainly show this edit to children too young to cope with subtitles. Kung Fu Panda director John Stevenson’s appreciation is affectionate and informative. Documentation, image and sound are excellent.

@GrahamRickson

Zeman combines multiple effects in the same frame

rating

Editor Rating: 
5
Average: 5 (1 vote)

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