12 Days Of Dino Dicember #12: Journey To The Beginning Of Time (1955)

It’s the final day of the 12 Days Of Dino Dicember, so let’s end it with a proper obscure gem, the Czech movie Journey To The Beginning Of Time. As in the original, not the re-cut, re-filmed version that reached US territories in 1966 under the same name.

Today thankfully you can watch it as it was released on a region-free Blu Ray by Second Run, which also includes the English version, but i’m not gonna bother with that for now. Sorry, but i simply can’t afford the time to watch that as well and compare the two.

This comes from Karel Zeman (no, not the soccer manager), nicknamed the “Czech Melies”, famous for his fantasy films combining live action and animation, and hugely influential, not surprising to fellow czech Jan Svankmajer (you can’t imagine how happy i am by just having the occasion of nominating him in any of these reviews, retrospectives, but beloved by many american directors, like Terry Gilliam and Tim Burton, and serving as inspiration to Jurassic Park itself.

That should be enough already to wet your cinema buff appetites, but even more fascinating is the way the movie it’s set up, with a documentary-like style to the narration and an educational bent that was quite new and usual for the time, as we follow a group of four teenage boys that set on in a rowboat adventure along a “river of time”, as they get to observe plenty of extinct species as they travel further and further back in time into a primeval world.

No beating around the bush this time, this is indeed a masterpiece through and through, not only due to spectacle and the masterful use of special effects for the creatures and the look of the various pre-historic eras, but because it also has a group of likeable young boys going into a magical adventure, with a real sense of wonder despite the documentary-style approach and scientific explanations, corroborated by the expedition leader carrying a logbook to both document and identify the various prehistoric creatures, going from wooly mammoths to trilobites.

To be EXTREMELY pedantic one of the side-effects of the excellent restoration is that in some cases you can actually see properly some of the strings moving certain dinosaur models, but even this doesn’t take away anyhting, that’s how incredible the effects are, not only in the craft of the various stopmotion models (incredibly detailed too), or the 2D animated animals, or when it’s an actor in a water dinosaur rubber suit.

Yes, the effects in themselvers are amazing for a 1955 movie, and that would already be enough, but the magic lies in the outstanding ability of editing and composition (which seems to be a Czech cinema specialty, given Svankmajer’s later works). As said before, this movie uses live action actors, rubber suit actor doing monsters/reptiles, a tiny bit of animal stock footage, stopmotion animated creatures AND 2D animated animals in many ways, and it’s nothing short of masterful how it all blends together seamlessly.

Sure, by today some of the optical tricks are a bit too obvious, like the background being painted, rear projections (or not “live-action” in any sense), but the scale and prospective are always perfect, so you’re always immersed into the illusion, even if you can tell that tiger sitting on a tree branch is an animated one… the trick is so damn well crafted you don’t care to question the hows and whys.

It’s all so captivating to watch, and i wanna stress even more how incredible are the effects for 1955, the best example i guess being the full sized stegosaurus model the boys get to examine up close, and the sets are very well constructed as well, and offer variety as we go from the lushios Tertiary to the swamps of the Carboniferous, stopping at the barren world of seas and stone of the Permian.

It’s no surprise it even won international film festivals and received a lot of theathrical screenings in various territories at the time, as the original Journey To The Beginning Of Time it’s an absolute must for anyone even vaguely interested in dinosaurs and/or adventure films.

A classic, but one that could also come across as a bit of an acquired taste.

I recommend it wholeheartedly in any case.

So, this concludes the 12 Days Of Dino Dicember, the blog – as announced – it’s gonna take a 1 week hiatus, at least for full length reviews.

EXPRESSO reviews will still active during this period, and for one i do plan to see The King’s Man (which releases today in theathers here) as soon as i can.

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