The Puppet Films of Jiri Trnka

The Puppet Films of Jiri Trnka (1950)
Image Entertainment
Extras: Documentary

Of all the cinematic genres, film fantasy is the most problematic to pull off. The fantasy filmmaker ever strides a tightrope between fleshing out just enough visually to suspend disbelief and allowing the viewer’s imagination to fill in the "gaps, " facilitating the magical transference necessary between conjurer and observer. The history of the fantasy film is not only rich in scope, but also international in reach. Filmmakers like America’s George Pal (Hungarian-born), Britain’s Terry Gilliam (American-born), Italy’s Mario Bava, Russia’s Aleksandr Ptushko and Czechoslovakian filmmakers Karel Zeman and Jiri (pronounced "Yee-Jhee") Trnka comprise a few of the supreme practitioners of this difficult but rewarding form.

In "The Puppet Films of Jiri Trnka" Image Entertainment compiles five of Trnka’s short puppet films, along with the feature "The Emperor’s Nightingale" and an all-too-brief documentary, with rare behind-the-scenes footage of Trnka working his magic. For anyone with an interest in film fantasy or for devotees of the now-lost art of stop motion animation, this DVD is a must.

"The Emperor’s Nightingale" is a delightful, 70-minute visualization of the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale about the Emperor of China, a lonely boy who is eventually liberated from his caged life of rules and rituals by the beautiful song of a nightingale. Trnka wraps the fairy tale story around the live action tribulations of a boy also born of privilege, but similarly choked by too many "don’ts." Struck with fever, the real boy imagines that his toys awaken and act out the parallel story of the Emperor. As the tale unfolds (narrated by Boris Karloff, which already kicks it up a notch), both come to understand the value of freedom and individuality. Trnka’s gift here is in mixing the mundane with the poetic.

In animation, the challenge is to make your creations seem as if they are acting under their own volition, not as puppets dictated by a greater force. Be it an Emperor stretching out in front of a window or a Lord Chamberlain unconsciously pushing his glasses over the bridge of his nose, Trnka’s intricately designed puppets and exquisite animation draw us into a universe where a boy can be a king and prisoner at the same time and where a bird’s beautiful voice cheats Death itself.

The subsequent five short films range from a meditation on the pomposity of polite society to a cautionary tale about drinking and driving to a tragic parable about the human spirit’s ever-continuing battle to break the shackles of conformity. In "Story of the Bass Cello," we witness a cellist enjoying a simple swim in a country lake, only to find love…and a very compromising predicament. "The Song of the Prairie" simultaneously praises and skewers the American Western, down to the well-dressed singing cowboy, the stagecoach ride threatened by highway bandits and the villain absconding the heroine with the hero (who always has a moment to comb his hair) in hot pursuit. "The Merry Circus" eschews Trnka’s trademark puppet animation, breathing life into paper cutouts of dancing bears and juggling seals, foreshadowing (perhaps inspiring?) Terry Gilliam’s two-dimensional animations for the Monty Python troupe.

"A Drop Too Much" dourly dramatizes what happens when a man forgets that the message of responsible drinking when driving is not just a slogan. Finally, with "The Hand," Trnka’s last film makes perhaps his greatest statement about the human condition, as an artist fights a giant hand for the freedom to express himself by sculpting a pot, rather than a tribute in the form of another hand.

A 12-minute narrated documentary, "Jiri Trnka: Puppet Animation Master," rounds out the DVD program. Featuring rare backstage footage of Trnka sketching, assembling his creations and breathing life into his "actors," the documentary adroitly encompasses Trnka’s achievements, artistry and his place in the world of fantastic cinema. A moustachioed gentle giant, Trnka placed his puppet creations within milieus that both comforted and challenged.

Image Entertainment has done a superb job with rendering these precious images to DVD. The films have that indescribable fairy-tale richness of color. Hues are stark and saturated, heightening the vivid "unrealism" of the fantasy worlds depicted. The short programs exhibit varying degrees of image fidelity. In the case of "Emperor," "Bass Cello," "The Hand" and the documentary, the sources are absolutely pristine and awesomely beautiful in their clarity. Overall, the sources were in surprisingly good shape. Displaying good contrast and detail, the transfer allows for scrutiny of Trnka’s meticulous handiwork, whether it is the Lord Chamberlain’s craggy forehead in "Emperor" or the comb strokes of "Prairie’s" vain hero.

The audio, in <$DD,Dolby Digital> mono, is on par for the age of the material. Hisses and pops occur infrequently, reminding us that our expectations of perfect sound are a very recent notion indeed. In these cases, the only expectations I have are that the audio has a low noise floor, extended range for loud passages and good level for amplification. Based on the aforementioned criteria, the DVD does not disappoint.

Lastly, a plea to other DVD content providers: "Puppet Films" represents an important call in bringing some of the lesser-known movie magicians to DVD. The works of Gilliam are readily available and the efforts of Pal and Bava are finding increased representation in the format. Yet, the extraordinary vistas of Karel Zeman, encompassing "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen" as well as "The Fabulous World of Jules Verne," and Alexander Ptushko’s epic fairy-and folk-tale films, are appallingly absent. One hopes that with the release of "Puppet Films", the first step has been taken in bringing the fanciful dreams of such cinematic visionaries out of the darkness of obscurity.