B&W, 1958, 82 mins. 32 secs.
Directed by Karel Zeman
Starring Lubor Tokoš, Arnost Navrátil, Miroslav Holub
Second Run (Blu-ray & DVD) (UK R0 HD/PAL), Museum Karel Zeman (Blu-ray & DVD) (Czech R0 HD/PAL)
The third full-length feature film by the remarkable Czech animator Karel Zeman, Invention for Destruction (Vynález zkázy) is one of the finest film interpretations of the works of fantasy/sci-fi author Jules Verne. Also known as The Deadly Invention and (in its modified, English-dubbed form) The Fabulous World of Jules Verne), this fanciful depiction of the world imagined by Jules Verne uses the original illustrations for his novels as inspiration right down to the hatching patterns a la woodcuts in the designs of the clothes and backgrounds, with an entire arsenal of in-camera effects tricks in every scene to convey a sense of wonder even when two people are just standing around talking. As with Zeman's other films, it's a handcrafted marvel unlike any other work of art -- or movie entertainment.
Drawing imagery from many Verne films but primarily based on one of his lesser-known novels, 1896's Facing the Flag, the film picks up on the book's theme of a matter-controlling invention that could allow full control of the land and sea. Its inventor, Professor Roch (Navrátil), becomes the target of the nefarious Captain Artigas (Holub) and his international band of pirates, with the aim of using money and deception to gain access to the invention and create an impregnable ocean stronghold. Going incognito is the engineer Simon Hart (Tokoš), who goes to heroic lengths to stop a catastrophic shift in power.
That plotline is merely a framework on which Zeman gets to embellish a nonstop parade of surprises including aquatic animals, adventures in the sky and below the sea, and exquisite period detail. The film is told simply enough to appeal to all ages but also features a visual sophistication that will have even the most die-hard effects buffs scratching their heads at how many of its shots were accomplished. It's also a great snapshot of Verne's ethos, and Zeman would go on to revisit the writer in the excellent The Stolen Airship (an even looser pastiche) and the lesser seen but winning On the Comet.
In keeping with standard practice at the time for international genre films, this one was targeted to a kiddie audience in America where it was dubbed by Joseph E. Levine and issued under that Fabulous World title with a new intro by Hugh Downs. A restored Czech DVD edition with optional English subtitles was released in 2012 by the Museum Karel Zeman, and since then we've seen it on Blu-ray in three different editions. The first in 2016 was a Zeman triple feature alongside The Fabulous Baron Munchausen and Journey to the Beginning of Time, though cramming the three films onto one BD-50 with lossy Dolby Digital audio drew a bit of criticism. That disc's bonus material includes "The Birth of a Film Legend" (4m57s) about Zeman's early days, "Why Karel Zeman Made the Film" (3m37s), "The Cast" (2m17s), "His Best Special Effects" (two shorts running 1m and 51s respectively), "Karel Zeman, the Legend Continues" (3m21s), a promo for the museum (1m14s), the Clarinet Factory music slideshow "The Land of Moonlight" (4m42s), and the extended museum and music gallery "Enter the World of Film Effects and Fantasy" (8m8s). In mid-2016, both this film and The Fabulous Baron Munchausen were reissued as separate Blu-rays from the Museum Karel Zeman with heftier bit rates and DTS-HD MA Czech audio tracks, still with optional English subs.
In 2018, U.K. label Second Run logically chose this one to follow its own expanded special edition of Munchausen with standalone Blu-ray and DVD releases presented from the 4K restoration by the Karel Zeman Museum and the Czech National Film Archive. It's an immaculate stunner all the way with razor-sharp detail bringing out all the subtle little textures in the artistic surfaces of even the simplest areas like sky and open water, while the combination of live action, artistic backdrops, and animation still looks seamless throughout. The LPCM Czech mono track is also in fine shape, with optional English subtitles provided. A new transfer of the 82m29s American version (in its full theatrical form with the Downs opener and credits touting its achievements as "Mysti-mation") is also included, and the dubbing actually doesn't hurt the film very much given how much of it is voiced off screen or from actors in medium or long shot anyway. A new video appreciation by filmmaker John Stevenson (16m17s), director of Kung Fu Panda and Sherlock Gnomes, charts his obsessive quest to see good quality versions of Zeman's output through the video era and notes the impact of his work on modern animators today. In a real coup, the release also features two beautiful Zeman short films: 1949's Inspiration (Inspirace) (11m30s), about an artist having a eureka moment via an animated fantasy while looking at water through a rain-spattered window, and 1950's charming King Lavra (Král Lávra) (29m37s), a stop-motion, dialogue-free fairy tale based on Karel Havlíček Borovský's poem. Also included are the older short pieces "Why Zeman Made the Film" (3m33s), "Zeman's Special Effects Techniques" (3m20s), "Restoring the World of Fantasy" (2m47s), the confusingly similar "Restoring a World of Fantasy" (2m49s), a promo for the Karel Zeman Museum, and a new trailer. An insert booklet features new liner notes by James Oliver, who does a fine job of sketching out the film's adaptation of Verne, the extensive means taken to mimic that engraving look, and the significance of its place in Zeman's body of work.
Reviewed on November 25, 2018.