Color, 1955, 85 mins. 52 secs. / 83 mins. 9 secs.
Directed by Karel Zeman
Starring Vladimír Bejval, Petr Herrman, Zdenek Hustak, Josef Lukás
Second Run (Blu-ray & DVD) (UK R0 HD/PAL), Museum Karel Zeman (Blu-ray & DVD) (Czech R0 HD/PAL)
Inspired by a variety of fantasy artists and novelists (most notably Jules Verne), Czech animator Karel Zeman had his first international breakthrough feature with Cesta do pravěku, known to English-speaking viewers (mainly through a drastically reworked and Americanized version) as Journey to the Beginning of Time. A family-friendly adventure ideal for worldwide audiences, it paved the way for an innovative, remarkable career including the two films that immediately followed it, 1958's Invention for Destruction and 1961's The Fabulous Baron Munchausen. Both of those films have been given the deluxe Blu-ray and DVD treatment in the U.K. from the always top-tier Second Run, and now this film joins their company as well.
Taking its structure from educational nature films but pulled off with a canny mixture of cel and stop-motion animation techniques, this is the tale of four young boys who go out for an afternoon of rowing down a huge river in the countryside. After passing through a cave they end up going backwards through prehistoric times, witnessing the natural behavior of mammoths, strange insects, and eventually a menagerie of dinosaurs including the Brontosaurus and Stegosaurus.
That's pretty much it for the plot, but that's an advantage in this case as the film becomes a pure childhood exploration fantasy with the can't-miss concept of kids meeting dinosaurs. Zeman keeps things respectful and aesthetically stunning without any cutesy tangents, leaving plenty of room for the beguiling collection of animals to work their cinematic magic all on their own. As mentioned above, the film was given a significant overhaul for U.S. audiences in 1966 with the location shifted to New York City and new sequences shot at the Museum of Natural History featuring four child stand-in actors whose faces are never clearly seen. New narration was also added along with cosmic stock footage, and the original Russian names were of course tweaked (Jirke becomes "Jo-Jo," Tonik is "Tony," Jenda is "Ben," and Petr is "Doc" for some reason). Luckily the film doesn't rely on dialogue or characterization to a major extent so the changes don't feel as extreme as the treatment given to many other Eastern Bloc films around the time.
The American version of this film has never been terribly difficult to find (albeit never in very good quality), but the first Blu-ray release of Zeman's original Czech-language cut was first given a worthwhile presentation in 2016 as a Czech triple feature (with English subtitles) also containing Munchausen and Invention crammed onto the same disc. Obviously the compression situation here wasn't ideal (not to mention the lossy Dolby Digital audio), but at least the refurbished 4K restoration was still a stunner and a welcome upgrade after fuzzy dupes of the original cut for years. Before that a standalone DVD was also issued with a handful of extras, but more on that in a moment.
Fortunately the film is given plenty of breathing room by itself on the Second Run Blu-ray edition from 2019, also available separately as a DVD. The delicate color scheme of the film has been thoughtfully maintained here, with an interesting earthy look that resembles old photographs rather than the vibrant Technicolor look you might normally expect. It's a real beauty, and the LPCM Czech track is also is pristine condition (with optional English subtitles). The American English-dubbed version is also presented here in a composite using the 4K restoration for the bulk of the film but with the wraparound footage pulled from a much dupier VHS source; it's still the best option we've had by far though to this point and worth watching for historical value. A new video appreciation by Kung-Fu Panda and Sherlock Gnomes director John Stevenson (22m59s) will also increase your appreciation for this film as he explains some of the simple but unique techniques of the film, particularly those tricky shots that show dinosaurs and the rafting boys moving around in the same shot. Ported over from the DVD is "The Making of Journey to the Beginning of Time" (9m8s) covering the sometimes shockingly threadbare nature of the production, complete with a visit to the pastoral locations where the film was actually shot and a CGI recreation of how some of the wizardry was achieved. "Restoring the World of Fantasy" (2m10s), also from the DVD, is a before and after look at the work done on the film to get it back into pristine shape, and the disc wraps up with an image gallery (68 shots including lobby cards, museum promo pieces, posters, and other material), a restoration trailer, the lo-res U.S. trailer, and a promo for the Karel Zeman Museum. Also included is a booklet featuring new liner notes by the always knowledgeable Michael Brooke, who puts the film in context within Czech cinema at the time, the nascent period of Zeman's career, and the state of Eastern European genre filmmaking at the time. Don't miss this one!
Reviewed on October 23, 2019