Unnatural Prehistory Museum
Journey To The Beginning Of Time
aka Cesta do praveku
Directed by Karel Zeman
Second Run Blu Ray Zone A/B/C
Wow, this is a really great movie. I remember back in the early to mid 1970s, there was often a ‘mostly animated’ film of The Fabulous Baron Munchausen showing sporadically on channels such as BBC2 at strange times of night and day and, occasionally, I would delve into these and watch for ten minutes or so before running away to do something more active (such as playing with action figures). Well, now it seems it’s time for me to finally catch up with this master of Czechoslovakian animated films although, this first feature is more live action with special effects inserts and doesn’t really look like his later stuff at all.
No matter, though, because it’s a revelation to me and is also a quite charming and whimsical piece, while following and accurately documenting the thinking of the time on the various pre-historic periods of our planet... almost like an educational film for kids. So... a bit like an old Children’s Film Foundation movie but, in this case, actually quite watchable (a big difference to the CFF movies in my opinion), entertaining and educational to boot.
I used to love finding fossils and researching both those and various dinosaurs when I was a kid. If only I’d have had access to this movie back then. The film starts off with one of the four children who, as it happens, make up the entire human cast of the film. He gets out his log book of their recent adventures and starts telling the viewer about the fossilised trilobite one of them found by a cave. I love trilobites so this was definitely a way to get me hooked. One of the party wanted to see what they looked like and, as luck would have it, inspired by Jules Verne’s novel Journey To The Centre Of The Earth, they decided to go on an expedition (somehow taking small backpacks with heaps of clothes and provisions in their little row boat), through the cave they found and, as it happens, they follow the river which starts with the ice age and takes them on a journey back through the aeons to the dawn of time.
And thus we follow the adventures of Petr, Jenda, Tonik and Jirka, played respectively by child actors Josef Lukás, Zdenek Hustak, Petr Herrman and Vladimír Bejval on a wonderous journey where they encounter Pterodactyls, a Styracosaurus, a few Stegosaurus’ and various other creatures and species of both animal, bird and dinosaur. And it’s really advanced stuff with the special effects using layers of live action, puppets, stop motion models, matte paintings and various other things in a truly remarkable, ‘way ahead of it’s time’ fantasy film. It’s pretty ambitious for a 1955 movie, not to mention being a director’s first feature length film (he’d done various shorts before this) and, honestly, it’s absolutely gobsmacking how far ahead this guy was compared to his contemporaries and many others who came after him with this stuff. I mean, sure you can spot some of the matte lines, wires and layers colliding if you’re on the look out for them but it’s not always obvious and it’s decades ahead of what everyone else was doing at the time. I was blown away by this.
Also, a great aspect of this film is the wondrous attitude of the child actors as they experience each new thing. If you’re watching adult characters in a fantasy movie then they’re not, more often than not, taking in their environment or reacting to it in quite the same way. The characters tend to be treating it as part of the world they are in and dealing with the consequences of their situation rather than experiencing ‘the wonder’ and with good reason. It’s something which generally helps sell the fantasy of these films as almost a necessity of attitude, I would imagine. So it’s kind of refreshing and quite charming to see the kids take time to truly appreciate the wonders created by the special effects team here and quenching their thirst for knowledge with creations based on what the current scientific discoveries of the day were.
It’s also got a lot of heart and takes time to make some interesting points, such as when they are investigating an absent caveman’s home and seeing his depictions of animals on his cave’s wall. The kids realise how sensitive and like them their ancestors were, as opposed to the brutish semi-animals they were assuming them to be.
It’s also got a poetic way with words even when it’s at its darkest, with one of the kids comparing the dawn of time, long before life had awakened, as an ominous experience and commenting, “It was like nature had been cursed”. For a family film it gets a little dark, perhaps but it doesn’t go too over the top... although I was impressed with the thick, viscous dinosaur blood flowing in all its stop motion glory after two dinosaurs have the obligatory fight.
The score, by various composers, is pretty interesting too, sometimes adding a deliberate speed to the more sedate moments and sometimes overtly pricking the brain as it hovers just the right side of sinister curiosity before something happens... it’s an interesting set of cues for sure. And it helps the various, somewhat fabricated dramatic moments where one or other of the party of kids gets separated for their own encounter, while the others are busy searching for their friend. There’s a wonderful moment where, after going back for some notebooks to record data of the dead Stegosaurus, the boat is found crushed and splintered beyond repair as a dinosaur has walked over it in their absence. How are they going to get out of this one? Well, I’ll let you find that one out for yourselves but it’s a really great film, although it doesn’t offer any explanations as to how the kids journeyed back and forwards through their path to return to present day. Although, by this point, it doesn’t really matter, for sure.
All in all, I was really pleased with Journey To The Beginning Of Time and you can expect at least one or two more reviews of films by this director on here at some point, I think (this week in fact, keep checking this blog over the next few days). The Second Sight Blu Ray has some nice extras on the film such as breakdowns of how the visual effects were achieved, a demonstration of the restoration of the film with its beautiful, pastel colours and various supplementals provided by the Karel Zeman Museum in Prague which is, frankly, somewhere I’d love to go if I ever got the opportunity to go travelling some time. I’d definitely recommend this to most cinema lovers I know, especially those with a particular liking for the films of Willis O Brien and Ray Harryhaussen, for sure. Absolutely loved this and will certainly watch it again at some point. Can’t wait to watch another.