Journey to the Beginning of Time [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray ALL - United Kingdom - Second Run
Review written by and copyright: Eric Cotenas (5th October 2019).
The Film

When young Jirka (Vladimír Bejval) discovers a fossilized trilobite near a cave on the lake, he wants to find a live one even though his older friend Petr (Josef Lukás) tells him they existed five hundred million years ago. Having read Jules Verne's "Journey to the Center of the Earth," they decide along with shutterbug friend Tonik (Petr Herrman) and fishing enthusiast Jenda (Zdenek Hustak) to take their boat into the cave and possibly back into time. They come out of the other side of the cave into an ice-covered landscape but Petr is not willing to concede it is the actual Ice Age; that is, until they encounter a live mammoth. On land, they discover evidence of early man in a cave with animal tusks and antlers around the remains of a campfire. Tonik is so eager to get the first photograph of a caveman that he wanders off from the group and is nearly swallowed up in a mud pit. Farther up the river, Petr believes they have passed into the Tertiary era, observing animals that even Petr has never read about. He has a close encounter with a Phorusrhacos, a flightless bird, drawings of which he believes inspired the myths from Quetzalcoatl to medieval dragons; and is another terrifying encounter with its flying ancestor the Pteranodon that denotes their passage into the Mesozoic era. They witness the savagery of a battle between a stegosaurus and another beast. When they land to get a closer look at the loser, they discover that their boat has been destroyed by another dinosaur, forcing them to use their wits to construct a raft: but are they trying to get home or all the way back to the beginning of time?

Director Karel Zeman's feature-film debut was the first of his fantastical works to combine live action and various forms of animation and in-camera visual effects after a series of influential short subjects. The stop motion dinosaurs are not much more impressive than the creations of Ray Harryhausen nor as imaginative as the glass mattes and miniature composites of Zeman's more surreal subsequent films like Invention for Destruction, The Fabulous Baron Munchausen, and The Jester's Tale that were monochrome but more epic in scope even as they highlighted the artifice of their environments, but the sense of wonder engendered by them is aided by Petr's narration and the naďve performances of the juvenile actors. Indeed, while the film is a series of effects vignettes, they are couched within the education and the moral. The trip is not an adventure but characterized by Petr as an expedition in which he notes when Jenda laments not bringing along his rifle that they are on a "scientific mission not a safari," and they castigate each other for endangering themselves and others with impulsive curiosity by saying that they are behaving like boys rather than expedition members. In the cave where they find trophies of animal tusks and antlers, they also discover wall drawings depicting the beasts; whereupon, Petr observes that they came to see early man as more than "a butcher of animals." Thankfully, when the film was dubbed in English and "Americanized" by sports documentarian William Clayton (a.k.a. Cassius Clay) as a television serial with a later theatrical release featuring a lengthy prologue featuring back of the head doubles of the four boys – Jirka became "Jo-Jo," "Petr" became "Doc," "Tonik" was "Tony," and "Jenda" was "Ben" – discovering the cave while boating in New York's Central Park, the distributors tried to retain the educational aspects of the film rather than fashioning new story around the effects footage like American International's repurposing of Czech and Russian science fiction epics. The English dubbing script was approved by the American Museum of Natural History where part of the prologue was shot. As a feature debut, Zeman's A Journey to the Beginning of Time is not just assured by visually dazzling without forgetting to engender a youthful sense of wonder.


For English-speaking viewers, A Journey to the Beginning of Time was easiest to see in its English-dubbed version which lost some original footage and gained some new footage lensed stateside. The original Czech version became available from the Czech Republic in English-subtitled form from the Karez Zeman Film Museum on DVD and a 1080i50 Blu-ray edition. Second Run's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.37:1 pillarboxed fullscreen Blu-ray is derived from a new 4K restoration of the film and the results are stunning. The colors are not dazzling but that is the result of the color scheme but textures of clothing and the real and artificial additions to the environment come through along with an enhanced sense of depth in suspenseful scenes following or leading the boys towards wonders and dangers.


The Czech LPCM 2.0 mono audio track has also been restored and the audio is almost hiss-free with the entirely post-synched film free with narration, dialogue, music, and effects clear and free of distortion. Optional English subtitles are thankfully different from earlier home video releases that modernize the dialogue with Jirka comparing the stegosaurus to a "Transformer."


The disc's principal extra is the English version of the film (82:54) reconstructed using the 4K master of the Czech version with standard definition video inserts for the footage exclusive to the American version including nearly nine minutes of credits and extended prologue described above and a three minute epilogue. The disc also includes an appreciation by filmmaker John Stevenson (22:59) in which the animator-turned-Kung Fu Panda director (who had previously appeared on the Second Run Blu-ray of Invention for Destruction) who recalls first seeing Zeman's work as a child in a documentary that revealed how convincing his illusions were – noting in particular the stegosaurus shot from this film – and first seeing the American version, comparing not only the effects but the approach of Zeman in contrast to Harryhausen and Willis H. O'Brien treating the animals as animals rather than as a threat, and the influence of aforementioned "paleo artist" Burian. The making of Journey to the Beginning of Time (9:08) is an excerpt from a longer documentary (see below) discussing the original concept, Zeman laying the groundwork himself and running back and forth between simultaneously-shooting live action and effects units. Actor Bejval also appears onscreen to provide recollections of the shoot. "Restoring the World of Fantasy" (2:10) is a look at the scanning process of the original negatives, digital removal of dirt and debris, frame repairs, removal of glue and water spots, cue marks (which have been left in other Czech restorations to simulate their original projetions, and the color correction. The disc also includes an image gallery (1:08), restoration trailer (1:46), U.S. theatrical trailer (1:26), and a Karel Zeman Museum Promo (1:22).


Housed with the disc is a twenty-page booklet by film historian Michael Brooke discussing the effects in the context of stop motion animation in Hollywood, Zeman's earlier shorts, the film's technical ambition, and the scientific consultation of Czech paleontologist Josef Augusta and his books illustrated by painter Zdenęk Burian whose works visually influenced Zeman's designs here.


As a feature debut, Karel Zeman's A Journey to the Beginning of Time is not just assured by visually dazzling without forgetting to engender a youthful sense of wonder.


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