This release makes me so sad. I’m not even sure where to start commenting on it. I had decided previously that all reviews on the site would fit a format, with portions devoted to story, video and disc features at the very least. That format just won’t work for what I have to say about Koch‘s release of Gulliver’s Travels.
It’s pointless to review the story here. It’s a classic book (or chapter of a book, as the case may be) adapted into a classic animated film. It would be like critiquing Wizard of Oz. There’s no point. It is what it is – a 1939 animated feature film produced by the Fleischer Brothers in answer to Disney‘s success with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. It’s far from perfect but the animation, rushed as it was, stands the test of time.
At issue here is the quality of the Blu-ray disc versus the claims made by the distribution company, Koch and the people from Cartoon Crazys who are responsible for the restoration. I think it’s fantastic that they’ve attacked Gulliver’s Travels with such enthusiasm, doing what they perceive to be the best they could with the materials at hand. Also, I’m incredibly thankful that they made a screener copy available to us, enabling me to write this review and inform you of the contents of the Blu-ray. What makes me sad is the result of their efforts and the fact that they don’t see what a travesty they’ve created, that what they’ve released is such a misrepresentation of the original film print and the artists’ intent.
Let me put it in bold, certain terms: Gulliver’s Travels has been stretched and cropped to fit your 16:9 widescreen display. This is unacceptable under any circumstances. Need proof? Here you go. I took a trip into Photoshop and merged a couple of screen-grabs – one from an old 4:3 public domain copy I downloaded and another from Koch’s 16:9 Blu-ray disc presentation.
In the first image you can clearly see that these two frames don’t line up (I tried to match them by keeping the facial area parallel, having lowered the opacity on the Blu-ray screen-grab to make it slightly see-through). The 16:9 version from Koch has clearly been stretched, despite their claims to the contrary. Note how the faces line up for the most part, but the further you move from them the further from congruent the images become. That stretching has also made the Blu-ray frame slightly more squat. Observe the water line in both images.
This second image sees me distorting the 16:9 of the Blu-ray frame to match the 4:3 of the older release. They line up almost perfectly, with slightly more information on the left side of the screen, less on the right and tons cropped off of the top and bottom of the Blu-ray frame.
Koch claims in their press info that the remaster process was performed,
“…frame-by-frame without stretching characters or losing any image beyond standard vertical safe areas – and the use of proprietary techniques actually enables more picture to be visible on the left and right sides of the frame than ever before”
I cry foul. This is either the press folks completely unaware of what was happening in the lab or an out-and-out untruth. There’s the evidence, staring us in the face in the images above.
“It wasn’t a 4:3 movie on the film print, it was 35 mm. and the 4:3 version seen on tv was panned and scanned and had image removed for the tv safe area’s.”
“The original was in 35mm and cut to fit tv screens in the 60’s but we restored all the lost images and safe area’s and it really looks terrific. We took over 12 months to do it and make sure it was right and as i said Tom discussed doing a wide screen version on film with Richard (Max Fleischer’s son) and he thought since the Fleischers were innovators in their own time Max would be delighted by our innovations and he trusted only us to do it right.”
Not only is it ridiculous to contend that the 35mm print was anything but 1.37:1, essentially a 4:3 aspect ratio, but it’s further insulting to maintain that the Fleischer‘s would have appreciated an alteration of their work that would include the cutting and distortion of the film frame. If I could, I would direct Rosenberg and his entire crew to read the transcript from the Home Theatre Forum’s discussion with the restoration team responsible for the current release of Fox‘s The Robe. Now, there’s restoration done right and with respect for the filmmakers’ original intent! If Cartoon Crazys and Koch truly care for this film and have a desire to bring a properly restored version to the home video market, they’ll have to cut a deal with Viacom who currently own the rights and have the original nitrate successive exposure negatives, backup positives, optical soundtrack negatives, and isolated Main Title elements in the vaults of the UCLA Film & Television Archives in Hollywood. Now that would be impressive indeed!
(Allow me to qualify the above criticisms of Koch’s Gulliver’s Travels by saying that I would have little to no problem with this release had the studio and the “restoration” team not made claims that didn’t hold true. The disc still wouldn’t have won a purchase recommendation from me but I wouldn’t have taken issue with their interpretation of a public domain film. It’s out there for anyone to do with as they please. This version is just as valid as any other. It’s the contentions made by Koch and Cartoon Crazys regarding the transfer and restoration of Gulliver’s Travels that make this Blu-ray a questionable release.)
Aside from aspect ratio/stretching issues, the image on the Blu-ray disc is a bit of a mixed bag. It appears equivalent to a poor standard definition transfer on screen: hazy with severe colour bleed and lack of detail, leaving the impression that most of the clean up was rendered with heavy-handed use of digital noise reduction tools, affecting the look of a dirty, old still taken into Photoshop and posterized, with some Gaussian blur added for good effect. On a positive note, the colours are quite vivid here, possibly even more accurate than ever before, creating what might be the brightest and most brilliant presentation of Gulliver’s Travels seen in years.
Without going too deeply into the rest of the issues plaguing the feature on the Blu-ray disc (film judder, jerky movement, poorly assembled and static menus, thin and unnecessary 5.1 surround mix) I’m forced to recommend giving Koch’s Gulliver’s Travels a pass. If you must own a copy of the film now, you would be better served tracking down the long out-of-print Hal Roach studios Image Entertainment DVD release.
PS: There are two bonus cartoons and a brief vintage documentary on the Blu-ray as well as the feature. Not that these additions alter my opinion in the least.