Gulliver's Travels (1939)
Max Fleischer had long wanted to make an animated feature -- he was already making extended animated shorts with Popeye and Betty Boop and saw great potential in a Popeye feature -- but Adolph Zukor, the head of Paramount Pictures, didn't see any future in feature-length cartoons. The remarkable success of Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937 changed his mind and he gave the green light to Fleischer to begin developing a feature for Paramount. He also gave him a deadline: Christmas 1939. A mere year and a half to develop, write, animate, and finish his first ever feature (Disney worked for over three years on Snow White).
Fleischer turned to Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, and the Lilliputian section in particular, for his story. "I knew it was my father's favorite book since he used to read it to me as a bedtime story when I was a child," remembers Richard Fleischer, Max's son, in his 2005 book Out of the Inkwell. He even briefly considered using Popeye as his Gulliver before rejecting the idea in pre-production.
Though he was finally getting his shot at an animated feature, the timing couldn't have been worse for Fleischer, who was moving his studio from New York to Miami while still keeping up with his contractual deadlines for their Betty Boop and Popeye shorts. By the time it was fully operational in 1938, Fleischer boasted the most advanced animation studio in the world. Gulliver's Travels (1939) didn't necessarily benefit from the upgrade, however, as much of the film was produced during the transition. While Dave Fleischer took charge of directing the feature, production shuttled between the two locations and new animators, mostly from the West Coast, were brought in for the new Miami studio, with extra hands drafted from the Miami Arts School during the transition.
One of the many innovations that Max Fleischer brought to animation was the rotoscope technique, which involved tracing over frames of live-action film. It sped up the animation process and was especially helpful in animating human figures. In Gulliver's Travels, it was specifically used for Gulliver, a "realistic" figure in a cartoonish world. Where Gulliver is a dignified, handsomely sculpted figure of calm and reason, the Lilliputians are exaggerated caricatures right out of the Fleischers' comedy shorts, scurrying, impulsive little people driven by petty concerns.
The film opens with the dramatic shipwreck that strands Gulliver on the island of Lilliput, a land populated by diminutive (at least by human standards) people. Fleischer goes for a realistic look here, with a rotoscoped model ship, a dark, stormy atmosphere, and a dramatic sense of depth. With the introduction of the Lilliputians, the style slips into a more comically exaggerated style, filled with slapstick and sight gags, while the story turns on a romance between the prince and princess of rival kingdoms that is threatened when the kings go to war. Sam Parker, a Florida radio broadcaster, provided both the voice and the physical reference for Gulliver. Jack Mercer, the voice of Popeye, was brought on for King Little, and Pinto Colvig voiced Gabby, a comic sidekick that Fleischer later spun off into his own series of cartoons.
Gulliver's Travels was the second cel-animated feature ever released. Budgeted at a modest $500,000, it ended up costing twice that (which was still significantly less than the Snow White price tag), but the film was still a financial and critical success. It opened at number one spot and was nominated for two Academy Awards, for Best Score (by Victor Young) and Best Original Song ("Forever Faithful," music by Ralph Rainger and lyrics by Leo Robin), losing both categories to The Wizard of Oz (1939). Animation historians believe that in its day, Gulliver's Travels was seen by more people than Snow White because it was constantly in release in theaters and later shown on television. However you measure it, Gulliver's Travels is an animation landmark and an alternative to the Disney style of animated feature filmmaking.
Producer: Max Fleischer
Director: Dave Fleischer
Screenplay: Dan Gordon, Cal Howard, Ted Pierce, I. Sparber, Edmond Seward (screenplay); Edmond Seward (story adaptation); Jonathan Swift (based on immortal tale)
Cinematography: Charles Schettler
Music: Victor Young
Cast: Jessica Dragonette (Princess Glory, singing voice), Lanny Ross (Prince David, singing voice), Pinto Colvig (Gabby, voice, uncredited), Jack Mercer (King Little, voice, uncredited), Sam Parker (Gulliver, voice, uncredited).
by Sean Axmaker
"Out of the Inkwell: Max Fleischer and the Animation Revolution," Richard Fleischer. University Press of Kentucky, 2005
"Fleischer in Florida, Part 1 - Gulliver's Travels," Steve Fritz. Newsarama.com, 2009.
"The Making of a Cartoon," Paramount Pictures newsreel.