Although this may sound like your typical Doug McClure type romp, is it in fact something a little more original. Directed by the famous Czech animator Karel Zeman, the film is actually more of a documentary first and an adventure second. The plot surrounds a group of four young boys in a boat who journey down a river and into a mysterious cave. When they emerge from within the cave they find themselves back in time in a primeval landscape. As they slowly travel down the river they soon realise they are in fact travelling back through the Earth’s various time periods, back through time, to the beginning of time itself.
Interestingly, the movie I am reviewing here is in fact the American version from 1966. This US version has a different title, has obviously been dubbed and has new footage added. The footage was shot in 66, New York, and gives a different opening (and ending) for the four boys (obviously a different cast of boys). Here they go to the American Natural History Museum and, apparently, all fall asleep together (or imagine together?) and have the same dream, the dream being their boat trip through time. That being said, the film also seems to hint at the possibility of a Native American statue possibly hypnotising or casting a spell on them, it isn’t too clear.
Anyway the Czech film was originally called ‘Cesta do Pravêku’ and you do see the majority of that film with the US version, its just the beginning and end that are cut. I have titled my review with the US version/part English translation simply because that is probably how its best remembered. The 1966 US footage of the boys for the beginning and end of the film is generally fine. The two sequences blend in relatively well, although I’d like to see the original film footage too.
This film was quite unusual for the time due to its documentary angle. Aimed squarely at children the film is more of an educational feature rather than an all out adventure. Yes there are sequences of exploration and danger for the four boys, but essentially each time period, with its own unique inhabitants, is discussed or narrated by the boys to relay information to you, the viewer. Most of the time the boys are drifting along in their longboat, a safe distance from the various mammals and dinosaurs they witness. At times they do get into minor trouble, they do come ashore and they do explore further interacting with some creatures and plant life. There are no dinosaur battles, guns, human fatalities, blonde dames or atomic bombs in this feature.
Apart from the unique educational aspect of the film, it was Zeman’s fantastic stop-motion animation that was the real crowd-pleaser. Turns out that Zeman was a master of stop-motion, the European equivalent of Ray Harryhausen. His combination of stop-motion clay models and 2D hand drawn profile images was pretty ingenious and new at the time, I think. Where many Hollywood movies would use stop-motion models for their monsters or beasties, usually against other models or a matte painting, Zeman actually combined the two. So what you would see is a static hand drawn profile image of a dinosaur, but with a stop-motion head and neck (all against a small model set and rear projection live action shot of the actors). It sounds very basic and cheap but believe me it looks great and you’d never notice it, you’d swear you were looking at a full model. Zeman would also combine static paintings of creatures and their landscapes with just one lone fully animated model.
Not just content with that, Zeman and his crew also created numerous full sized puppets for some dinosaur sequences. Generally this would simply be a full sized head or body for some close up shots. There are two sequences of a dinosaur head and mammoth body breaking the water which are basic puppets. Zeman and co also created full sized prehistoric plant life, one prehistoric lizard thing that looked like a Muppet, and one full sized dead stegosaurus which looked really fantastic. The four boys inspect this dead dinosaur, the scale of the body along with the paint detail is really impressive. Not only that but it did get me thinking, did a certain Steven Spielberg see this film and copy this scene?
So it turns out that Zeman was a master of animation and visual trickery, but he also drew inspiration from others. For the most part Zeman got his visual inspiration from famous Czech paleoartist Zdenêk Burian. Burian was/is well known for his incredible artwork surrounding all manner of prehistoric life and ecosystems. Pretty much all of the 2D matte painting and dinosaur profile work was based off Burian’s imagery. Its clear to see if you compare Burian’s artwork with the films prehistoric landscapes, much of the films imagery looks like animated artwork.
Concerning the plot, well naturally I did find myself asking why on earth these boys didn’t ever turn back, I mean surely you’d maybe have a look around and then go back through the cave right, for safety reasons. But no, off they go, cruising down the river into the unknown and eventually camping out! Not too sure where they got the wood from for that campfire either, seeing as they were in an ice age. Now I think of it, how did they not freeze to death?? (they’re wearing shorts). OK, so its all completely ridiculous how these boys don’t actually end up getting eaten, bitten, stung or mauled to death by some prehistoric monster, poisonous insect or early plant life. I guess we should look past that, but hey after all, these are 50’s kids, a lot tougher than kids today, more world savvy too, probably.
I was genuinely taken aback by this film and its visuals. Granted the film quality wasn’t too good and if you saw this on bluray I would imagine all the tricks and faults would be easily exposed. But the sheer scope along with obvious care and attention to detail is astonishing. The four boys do a sterling job with their acting considering they are mostly acting against nothing and this is a 1955 film (acting not always too good). The story is as basic as it gets but again it doesn’t matter because firstly, its supposed to be educational, and secondly, its all so wonderfully charming and gorgeous to look at. Any stop-motion fan needs to see this its as simple as that. Some of the animals and creatures we see are admittedly a bit jerky, a bit rough around the edges (on close up), but most are superbly created and animated (a galloping herd of giraffes for one).
This film is unique in many ways, its an eye-opener and a very pleasant surprise. If you’re expecting rampaging dinosaurs fighting other giant insectoid-like monsters with screaming damsels, I hear you and I understand your cravings. But no, this is not the film you’re looking for. This is virtually like one of those films you would watch inside a museum or theme park. You are presented with mammals and dinosaurs actually normally in their proper environments, as observed by the four boys. It offers some simple thrills but its mainly for teaching or introducing the young to the fascinating world of palaeontology (with the information known in the mid 50’s).