Journey To the Beginning of Time (Cesta Do Praveku)
Director – Karel Zeman, Screenplay – J.A. Novotny & Karel Zeman, Photography – Antonin Horak & Vaclav Pazdernik, Music – E.F. Burian & Frantisek Strangmuller, Special Effects – Arnost Kupcik, Jindrich Liska & Karel Zeman, Production Design – Ivo Mrdzek, Zdenek Rozkopal & Karel Zeman. Production Company – Ceskoslovensky Statni Film/Filmove Studio Gottwaldov
Vladimir Bejval (Jirka), Petr Herrman (Tonik), Josef Lukas (Petr), Zdenek Hustak (Jenda)
After four boys visit the natural history museum in Prague, young Jirka becomes fascinated with trilobites. The four of them decide to go on a journey to visit the past and sail through a cave into prehistory. Journeying by boat, raft and on foot, they pass back through various eras of the prehistoric past to the beginnings of life on Earth, taking notes on all the amazing lifeforms they see along the way.
Journey to the Beginning of Time was the second feature-film from Czech director Karel Zeman. Zeman had made around ten animated shorts throughout the 1940s and early 50s before making his directorial debut with the animated A Treasure of Bird Island (1953), which does not appear to have been seen in English-speaking territories. Journey to the Beginning of Time was his first venture into live-action. Zeman would not gain fame until three years later with the amazing The Fabulous World of Jules Verne (1958), which adapted a Jules Verne book in a remarkably clever blend of live-action and animation that replicated the look of the original lithographs that were used to illustrate Verne’s works. Zeman went onto a number of other films in a similar style with Baron Munchausen (1962), A Jester’s Tale/War of Fools (1964), The Stolen Airship (1969), On the Comet (1970), Tales of 1001 Nights/The Adventures of Sinbad the Sailor (1974) and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (1977).
Coming to Journey to the Beginning of Time after having seen some of Karel Zeman’s subsequent films, you expect that he will deliver something in the same vein. Instead, what he makes is a juvenile – moreover, one that has been intended with the dread purpose of educating youth. It is a live-action film with some occasional animation and stop-motion animation. Certainly, the animation is of a reasonable standard and with effects that would have been on a par with work being produced in Hollywood during this period in films such as The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) and, the effort this most resembles, the dinosaur sequences in Irwin Allen’s Animal World (1956). On the other hand, there is none of the visually dazzling blends of animation and live-action that mark all of Zeman’s other films. You keep expecting it to be but the animation has only been intended to blend into the live-action footage, not engage in the visually playful games that Zeman does elsewhere. Certainly, you can see some of the inspiration that Zeman took when it came to his Verne adaptations with there being a scene early on with the young heroes looking through some of the Verne lithographs that he later literally brought to life.
Journey to the Beginning of Time is a nicely made film. The effects are good for the era the film was made and do the intended job of producing a modest degree of wow. On the other hand, the film is dramatically inert. It has been intended not unakin to a natural history tour of a museum like the one the boys take at the start of the film. It is essentially a live-action trip back through the prehistoric eras where dioramas that have been arranged so that they can learn things, while the boys spend the time busily taking notes on what they see. All that seems missing from this is the tour guide going “Now we shall move onto the Cambrian Wing where …”. Crucially, there is very little drama to any of it – just the boys moving from era to era, viewing the sights and continuing on. The most dramatic the film ever gets are a couple of occasions when one of them is separated from the main party. It is hard to find anything more to the film beyond that of the juvenile naturalism tour brought to life.
The film received a dubbed international release in 1960. In 1966, the film received a re-release where new scenes were directed by Fred Ladd with American kids during the wraparound scenes that were made to blend in with the footage here.