Second Run: Journey to the Beginning of Time (1955) - Reviewed

Most modern moviegoers won’t immediately recognize the name of Czechoslovakian animator and director Karel Zeman.  And yet his influences are felt by everyone from fellow Czech animator Jan Švankmajer to Terry Gilliam, Ray Harryhausen and Tim Burton.  Called by many a successor to the legendary Georges Méliès, his fantasy feature films are best known for seamlessly combining live action footage with animation and detailed background plates.  Which brings us to the director’s feature film debut as well as one of his most celebrated works, the educational prehistoric adventure film Journey to the Beginning of Time.

Partially a time-travel fantasy and a travelogue through the past, the film is a gentle natured foray through the ice age to the era of the dinosaurs, wooly mammoths and other long since extinct creatures.  Concerning four schoolboys on their very own field trip through prehistory on a rowboat in between setting up camp and taking notes on everything they see, Journey to the Beginning of Time moves at a leisurely pace and is far more concerned with enchanting the viewer rather than going for the usual thrills and chills associated with dinosaurs in film up to that point. 

Similar to the short children’s film Dinosaurs! with Fred Savage, Journey to the Beginning of Time is simultaneously a learning experience as well as an old-fashioned fantasy entertainment with elements of awe and wonderment.  Traversing gradually through the Mesozoic and Carboniferous eras, the boys amass a detailed overview of their findings along the way including but not limited to discovering living trilobites and observing a fight between a stegosaurus and a tyrannosaurus rex. 

Compared to the animated dinosaurs in The Lost World and King Kong, Zeman’s dinosaurs move much more smoothly and exist in a believable reality shot in a low-key soft-brown color scheme emphasizing a deliberately ordinary look in an extraordinary world of the past.  It is worth noting Zeman wasn’t just the director of the piece but he fully supervised all of the many numerous visual effects throughout.  Unlike other films combining animation and live action together at the time which often resulted in grainy, dirtier images than the rest of the film, Zeman figured out a way to pull off the task without drastically diminishing the look of the film. 

Precluding the childlike awe of dinosaur films like Jurassic Park while standing on its own as a technically sophisticated children’s educational entertainment, Journey to the Beginning of Time remains as indelible a contribution to Czech cinema as it is to the art of stop-motion animation and composite effects work in general.  As with most domestic acquisitions of foreign titles though, the film was released stateside in 1960 in two alternate versions: a feature film with a new opening prologue and finale including four New York lads who vaguely resembled the original Czech cast as well as a serialized-for-TV version broken apart into 5-minute increments. 

Seen now in its original unaltered form, it’s a refreshing viewing to see sophisticated animated dinosaurs in service of a picture designed to educate the viewer rather than merely thrill or entertain.  Moreover, it’s a great introduction into the work of one of the world’s most revered and technically proficient animators.

--Andrew Kotwicki