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Home Video Reviews

Are younger moviegoers familiar with the name George Pal? If they are, it's probably due to Steven Spielberg's 2005 remake of The War of the Worlds which may have inspired some of them to check out the original 1953 version produced by Pal and directed by Bryon Haskin. But for kids who grew up in the fifties and sixties and attended many a Saturday matinee, the name George Pal had the same clout as Walt Disney and conjured up a cinema of the fantastic. From the innovative Puppetoon shorts to the visionary sci-fi adventure Destination Moon (1950) - a precursor to Kubrick's 2001 (1968) - to the man-eating ants of The Naked Jungle (1954) to the musical fairy tale tom thumb (1958) to the futuristic world of The Time Machine (1960), Pal created a body of work that had a broader appeal beyond the niche audience for science fiction and fantasy films; his influence on Spielberg, Peter Jackson, Tim Burton and other contemporary filmmakers cannot be underestimated or ignored. So it's a pleasure to see his artistry showcased in the 3-disc DVD set, George Pal: Flights of Fantasy. Released by Image Entertainment in November and overlooked in the year-end deluge of new DVD product, this is like receiving a belated Christmas gift.

George Pal: Flights of Fantasy consists of The Fantasy Film Worlds of George Pal, a 1985 documentary written, produced and directed by Arnold Leibovit, The Puppetoon Movie, a 1987 documentary also written and produced by Leibovit and George Pal's first feature film as producer and special effects coordinator, The Great Rupert (1950). Both of the documentaries are the expanded DVD editions and include some indispensable extras which will delight any true George Pal fan.

Of the three discs, The Puppetoon Movie is probably the best place to start to see how Pal's technique and vision grew from a creator of animated shorts to a fantasy film producer. Although Pal originally set out to be an architect, the Hungarian native began working in film in Budapest and eventually moved to Berlin to design sets for UFA Studios prior to World War II. With the rise of the Nazis, Pal relocated to Holland where he began creating his famous Puppetoons; among them was "Tulips Shall Grow" which depicted the rise of fascism through an invading army of automatons. Luckily Pal fled to Hollywood before Germany invaded Holland and began working for Paramount where he scored his first Oscar® in 1943 for "the development of novel methods and techniques in the production of short subjects known as Puppetoons (plaque)." The Puppetoon Movie is a great introduction to Pal's brand of animation and functions more as a compilation film than a straightforward documentary. The bright colors, stylized sets, unexpected camera angles and use of music make the Puppetoons irresistible to children but adults will also enjoy the often bizarre and hilarious imagery, some of it playfully suggestive. In the 1941 "Hoola Boola" we glimpse the nude backside of the sexy heroine as she swims underwear a la Jane in Tarzan and His Mate (1934) and in "Together in the Weather," a case of unrequited love between two weather dolls culminates in a blissful sexual union. Typical of the period in which they were made, some of the Puppetoon shorts, particularly the ones featuring Jasper, contain racial stereotypes but despite this, Pal's approach is a celebration of black culture, one which he felt was possibly the richest in the world. And some of his most famous Puppetoons feature the music of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and the Luvenia Nash Singers as well as Peggy Lee and Charlie Barnet and His Orchestra. The only real complaint about The Puppetoon Movie is a rather lame framing device featuring animated pals Gumby and Poky as hosts and the fact that the Puppetoons on display are edited versions for the sake of length. The good news is that the extras include 12 unedited Puppetoon shorts including Pal's first, "Ship of the Ether" (1934), created entirely with glass miniatures, plus an interview with Puppetoon animator Bob Baker, production stills and silent color footage of Pal outside of his studio in Eindhoven, Holland.

A more detailed overview of Pal's entire career is provided in The Fantasy Film Worlds of George Pal which makes one realize the enormous range of Pal's talents - he could sketch, draw his own storyboards, design the sets, create the special effects, set the lighting, direct actors, write dialogue and raise money for his films. Though completely conventional in its presentation of talking heads and film clips, delivered in a predictable linear style, this documentary is worth a look just for the interview bits by industry peers who pay homage to Pal; among them are Gene Roddenberry of Star Trek fame, authors Ray Bradbury and Robert Bloch, director Joe Dante, animators Jim Danforth and Walter Lantz, actors Charlton Heston, Rod Taylor, Tony Curtis and many more. There is also the occasional odd moment such as one where Pal, in a promotional interview with TV host Ed Sullivan, does a slight of hand and reduces Sullivan to "tom thumb" size. One aspect of Pal's work that clearly emerges in this doc is his balance between a sense of wonder and an acceptance of the dark side of life which doesn't shirk the big issues - war, death, morality. Nowhere is this more clear than in his adaptation of H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds which goes from a sun-drenched, idyllic small-town setting to a grim doomsday vision of the world with humans reduced to desperate scavengers. And there are apocalyptic moments in When Worlds Collide (1951), The Time Machine, 7 Faces of Dr. Lao (1964) and other Pal movies. Since The Fantasy Film Worlds of George Pal was produced with the approval of Pal's widow, it tends to linger on Pal's successes and gloss over or omit his failures so you only get a brief segment on Atlantis, the Lost Continent (1961) and no mention at all of The Power (1968) or Doc Savage - The Man of Bronze (1975), which was said to be the biggest disappointment of Pal's career. Hampered by a low-budget and arriving at a time when superheroes from comics and pulp fiction were not yet the big screen vogue, Doc Savage barely opened theatrically and was a box office bomb. However, you can see the Doc Savage promotional featurettes in the DVD's extra features which also include interviews with Pal's animator collaborators, rare kinescopes on the set of Destination Moon and at the premiere of The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm, an interview with George himself and silent home movie footage of a fishing trip in Mexico and more. All in all, it's a great introduction to Pal and the only drawback is that the print quality of many of the clips on display leaves much to be desired.

The third disc in the set, The Great Rupert, marks Pal's entry into feature filmmaking and while it has moments of charm and invention, it hasn't aged well. By current standards, this black and white feature has the feel of a dialogue-heavy radio play and the stagy look of it doesn't help. The story of vaudeville performers down on their luck during the Depression and the squirrel who rescues them from poverty remains a sentimental favorite for those who saw it as children. And whenever Jimmy Conlin, the hilarious character actor who is best known for his many appearances in the comedies of Preston Sturges, and Rupert, the animated squirrel, are on screen, it's a total delight. Unfortunately, the majority of screen time is hogged by Jimmy Durante - whose brand of humor and singing are clearly a matter of taste - and a dreary romantic subplot featuring Terry Moore and Tom Drake. Still, the sight of little Rupert in his Scottish cap and kilt dancing a jig is hard to forget.

For more information about George Pal: Flights of Fantasy, visit Image Entertainment. To order George Pal: Flights of Fantasy, go to TCM Shopping.

by Jeff Stafford