A Marxist appropriation of Jonathan Swift, oddly enough
If you've been searching for a Soviet version of "Gulliver's Travels" featuring a cast of animated puppets, scored with rousing musical numbers saluting the heroic proletariat, look no further-- this is the film for you! NOVYY GULLIVER ("The New Gulliver") the first major work by director Alexsandr Ptushko, is also one of the first feature-length films to showcase puppet animation. Once we get past the live-action prologue lasting about 10 minutes or so the bulk of the film is set in an animated Lilliput, populated by 'pixilated' puppets and clay figures who often share the frame with the human actor playing Gulliver. This is not the first feature-length film to showcase this kind of animation-- Ladislaus Starewicz' TALE OF THE FOX (1930) predates it --but it's a milestone nonetheless, not only in scale but in audacity.
Unfortunately, the film is a disappointment. Starewicz' animation technique was more accomplished than Ptushko's in every way: the movement of his characters was smoother, his pacing was tighter, and he had a more robust sense of humor. To be fair, however, while Starewicz was working in France at this time, unencumbered by censorship, Ptushko labored under the severe disadvantage of having to function as an artist in Stalin's USSR. Consequently, his version of Swift had to be adapted for Soviet consumption, and the propaganda is duly ladled on with a heavy hand. Lilliput's king is a drooling moron who giggles and scratches himself, while his ministers are all decadent sadists and cowards; meanwhile, the underground labor movement is made up of earnest, muscular (and interchangeable) workers who eventually overthrow the corrupt royalists with Gulliver's help. Stirring anthems to labor are sung at key moments.
But the biggest problem here is the draggy pacing. Despite the fact that Ptushko often has an impressive amount of action going on in the frame, nothing much happens plot-wise for long stretches, and when action does occur it occurs slowly. Worse, the comedy is poorly handled; most of it involves the king's evil minions, but it's all very clunky and obvious. Opportunities for gags are botched, one after another. (Perhaps Ptushko found it difficult to be comical with the apparatchiks of Stalin's Ministry of Culture breathing down his neck.) The best, funniest, and also weirdest sequence in the film is the performance given for Gulliver's amusement by the king's dancers and singers, whose solemnity is far more laugh-provoking than the forced antics of the corrupt courtiers. Also impressive is the sequence in the underground factory, where a spider-like machine and the robotic movements of the workers are suggestive of Fritz Lang's METROPOLIS.
NOVYY GULLIVER is no masterpiece but it's a must for animation buffs, and for anyone who has a taste for, shall we say, Communist Kitsch. Viewers with an interest in the role of the artist in a totalitarian state will likely find this a fascinating document, albeit one with a tragic undertone.
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