The Fantasy Film Worlds of George Pal

The Fantasy Film Worlds of George Pal (1985)
Image Entertainment
Extras: Reminiscences from Animators, Kinescopes, Interview with George Pal, Pal Family Home Movies, Production Photo and Art Gallery, Trailers

The films of George Pal nourished the hungry imaginations of many a child, both big and little. A bright-eyed man with an infectious smile, he knew when a scene should shout and when it should whisper. To millions of open-eyed dreamers the world over, he projected a reassuring optimism through his innovative visions while demanding vigilance against the unseen monsters lurking around the bend.

Arnold Leibovit’s 1985 documentary "The Fantasy Film Worlds of George Pal" is not so much a critical expose of Pal’s output as an unabashed fan letter, a "thank you" printed on celluloid rather than paper. The new Image Entertainment DVD supplements the documentary with a plentiful supply of extras including rare home movies, trailers, kinescopes and some truly staggering production sketches. With so much of filmmaking today constrained by the shackles of market research and "pre-sold awareness," this generous journey through Pal’s life and works gently reminds that a revolution can spark from a single dream.

Charting the milestones in Pal’s life, the documentary examines the range of his achievements and his influences on American cinema, which are still felt today. Highlighting his pioneering use of dimensional animation are snippets from the Pupppetoon shorts including "Mr. Strauss Takes A Walk," "Tulips Shall Grow," an indictment of the Nazi occupation of Holland, to "Tuby the Tuba," his most famous Puppetoon creation. Tuby’s yearning to sing his song of individuality not only struck home with audiences, but acts as a barometer for future Pal heroes fighting to co-exist in a seemingly hostile world.

As feature film producer, Pal mapped new terrain in American science fiction cinema. Whereas prior treatments of space travel concerned "us vs. them" struggles owing more to horror film conventions, Pal invoked true scientific extrapolation in his 1950 production "Destination Moon" and 1955’s "The Conquest of Space." Like Fritz Lang’s "Woman in the Moon," Pal’s interest lie in how we realize the journey, not confronting rubber-headed aliens once we arrive at the destination. Faced with the invader, as in "War of the Worlds," Pal staged scenes of mass destruction on a scale moviegoers at that time had never seen before. Perhaps due to the lingering scars of fleeing his native Europe on the heels of the goose-stepping juggernaut, the threat of annihilation looms large over many of his pictures. In fact, "War" is so bleak that Pal’s usual optimism escaped him here: it takes an act of God to save a powerless humanity from the vicious Martian hordes.

Taking over the directorial reins, Pal found in a trio of stories the perfect vehicles for his particular brand of entertainment: the whimsical "tom thumb" from 1958, 1960s "The Time Machine" (arguably his "best" film) and 1964’s "7 Faces of Dr. Lao," perhaps his most philosophical statement. This fanciful trilogy in many ways mirrors the Terry Gilliam fantasies of the 1980s. "tom thumb" materializes the dreamer in a physical world so large that only imagination can tame it. "The Time Machine’s" George is the romantic inventor, creating a device that fulfills his scientific dreams but consequently dims his optimistic view of human progress. Finally, in "Lao," the old idealist bestows wisdom on those faced with temptations that might strand them in a world of reason and compromise. Look at Gilliam’s "Time Bandits," "Brazil," and "Baron Munchausen" and you will find practically identical character arcs.

Among those sharing memories of the man behind the visions are filmmakers Robert Wise, Ray Harryhausen, Walter Lantz (of Woody Woodpecker fame), stars Russ Tamblyn, Charlton Heston, Tony Randall, authors Ray Bradbury, Robert Bloch and celestial artist Chesley Bonestell.
They cite Pal’s tireless enthusiasm but also recall his courteous demeanor. They laud Pal the gentleman, never raising his voice and ever respectful of his colleagues, as much as they esteem Pal the visionary. When Alan Young remarks "I hope we see [someone like] him again soon," it is a declaration that one wishes the universe heeds quickly.

Image has mastered the DVD with care, attempting to juggle the varying sources and give them a uniform look. The documentary incorporates a variety of formats including videotape, film and newsreels. Taped in video’s nascent days, the documentary sometimes struggles with color fidelity during the interviews. All the clips are full-frame with varying degrees of detail fidelity and color balance. Despite some instances of <$pixelation,pixelation>, owing more to the quality of the video than the compression, the image is on par for a video documentary shot 15 years ago.

Similarly, the <$DD,Dolby Digital> mono audio contains some blemishes and peaks but overall has good levels for hearing the testimonials and the soundtracks from the clips.

The supplemental materials encompass a diversity of materials including theatrical trailers for "Fantasy Film Worlds" to a promo reel made for Pal’s last film "Doc Savage: Man of Bronze." Kinescopes taken from TV news coverage on the set of "Destination Moon" and the world premiere of "Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm" show that our thirst for glamour and behind the scenes peeks are not a new phenomenon. Interviews with Disney animator Ward Kimball reveals Pal’s affinity for jazz music and two Puppetoon animators discuss the detail and intricacies of making those astonishing short films, standing behind a table displaying some of the puppets used. A photo and production art gallery is notable for the inclusion of Pal’s elaborate and opulent sketches for such films as "Time Machine" and "Grimm." An interview with Pal to promote his 1968 film "The Power" and home movies of Pal in Europe show Pal in a personable and inviting light.

I am not exaggerating when I say that Pal was a seminal influence on my taste in movies and my outlook on life. He saw the good, the bad and the wonderful in humanity and his films held not only a mirror to our secret selves but offer hope amidst the darkness. We are the richer for having him move among us.

Leibovit closes the documentary with an elegiac music excerpt from Russell Garcia’s score for "The Time Machine." I defy anyone to watch Leibovit’s heartfelt documentary to the end and not feel loss with the closing crescendo.