Karel Zeman’s Invention for Destruction (Vynález zkázy) was, for many years, his best-known film in the West, dubbed into English three years after its 1958 premiere as The Fabulous World of Jules Verne by an enterprising Hollywood producer. Both versions are included on Second Run’s release, and it’s striking that the English version retains most of the original’s charms. Zeman’s Baron Munchausen is a colourful romp, but the monochrome Invention for Destruction is a better work, its eye-popping visuals here serving a semblance of plot.
Zeman based his plot on Verne’s novel Facing the Flag, a prescient tale featuring a naive inventor whose weapon of mass destruction threatens to obliterate the planet: here, poor Professor Roch (Arnošt Navrátil) and his trusty engineer Simon Hart (Lubor Tokoš) are kidnapped by a cabal of pirates and taken by submarine to a secret volcano hideaway. Chief baddie Count d’Artigas (“the Pirate King of the Modern Age”) is a shifty megalomaniac who’d happily slot into a Bond screenplay, supported by a roster of comedic heavies.
All good, but, blimey, those special effects. Watch and weep. Zeman’s ability to fuse live action with different styles of animation is still unsurpassed, and in a single scene you’ll spot paper cut-outs, stop-motion models and traditional cartooning. You can occasionally spot the joins, and there’s the odd wobble, but none of this matters. We get an excellent bonus interview from Kung Fu Panda director John Stevenson, who stresses that the artificiality is the point; Zeman, like Hitchcock, wants us to know that we’re watching something which could never ever exist in the real world. His cast move like stop-motion puppets, through elaborate sets based on the 19th century prints used to illustrate Verne’s novels. What look like cross-hatched cardboard drawings of steam locomotives and ships move as if real, the actors seamlessly coexisting.
And, despite the apocalyptic subject matter, there’s a lot of goofy humour on display, from the rats scurrying to and fro in a ship’s bowels to a brief shot of what look like camels wearing roller skates. Stevenson rightly highlights an underwater scene featuring duelling pirates interrupted by a bicycle bell. And Zeman’s monstrous octopus is as spectacular as anything conjured up by Ray Harryhausen, predating by 60 years the animated sea creatures which enliven Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic.
Every scene contains something magical. As well as the Stevenson interview, Second Run include a smattering of animated shorts and featurettes. As with having a conjuring trick explained, a glimpse at exactly how Zeman achieved some of his visual effects in no way diminishes how fabulous they look. The restored print sparkles, with Zdeněk Liška’s quirky score adding to the film's pleasures.