When I was a kid a strange black & white movie turned up on a local television channel: The Fabulous World of Jules Verne (1958). I’d never seen anything like it before. I came to learn that there was a reason: it was unique. It sprang from the imagination of Czech filmmaker Karel Zeman, who combined live-action, animation, fancifully designed sets, forced perspective and other techniques to achieve his amazing visuals. The film was dubbed into English and received wide U.S. release in theaters before going to television, as did his subsequent feature, The Fabulous Baron Munchausen (1961).
Tim Burton, Terry Gilliam, Jan Švankmajer, Wes Anderson, and even Ray Harryhausen have been influenced by Zeman’s work, which has often been compared to the pioneering “trick films” of George Méliès. Film historian George Sadoul wrote, “He is justly considered Méliès’s successor. He undoubtedly brings the old master to mind, not only because he is an artisan impassioned by art, creating his ‘innocent inventions’ with infinite patience rather than with large budgets, but also because of his ingenuous and always ingenious fantasies. Less intellectual than [fellow Czech animator Jiri] Trnka, but nonetheless his equal, he has great zest and a marvelous sense of baroque oddities and poetic gags.”
On our way home from the Karlovy Vary Film Festival this summer, my family stopped in Prague and I made a late-afternoon visit to a modest but endearing museum devoted to Karel Zeman. It allows one to trace his career in a highly visual manner with interactive exhibits, puppets, storyboards, life-sized cut-outs, costumes, and set pieces. You can learn more at their website, http://www.
I couldn’t stop taking pictures, only some of which manage to capture the three-dimensional appeal of the exhibits. In a separate room that I almost missed there is a video apparatus that enables a guest to become part of a Zeman scene through the use of green-screen technology. Standing to the side of this device is an enormous Praxinoscope, which must be six feet in diameter; you can try to imagine its size by noting the stack of film cans at its side.
Like Czech stop-motion master Jiri Trnka, Karel Zeman deserves to be better known and recognized. I applaud the people who have devoted themselves to keeping his memory (and movies) alive through this museum.