Saturday, 7 December 2013

A Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1977)

Director: Richard Slapczynski
Writer: John Palmer
Producer: Walter J Hucker
Cast: Ron Haddrick, Alastair Duncan, Bevan Wilson
Country: Australia
Year of release: 1977
Reviewed from: UK DVD (Pegasus)

This is the third animated version of Jules Verne’s subterranean classic that I’ve watched in the past two months. Like the 1996 Canadian version and the 2001 Franco-Belgian version, this runs about three quarters of an hour and consequently has to rather skim through the story.

In actual fact, this version takes a long time to actually get underground. Set in Hamburg in what seems to be the late 19th century (though no specific date is given), we are introduced to Professor Lindenbrock and his nephew Alex (described in the sleeve blurb as his “friend”) as the Prof conducts a dangerous experiment. In his coach-house he has constructed a large metal globe, marked out with the continents, into which he pours a quantity of molten metal. The idea is that, if the globe breaks, it will prove that theories about the centre of the Earth being extremely hot must be false and so there is a chance that life exists down there.

Hm, yes. Not sure about that, to be honest.

The globe explodes slightly more violently than expected but Lindenbrock manages to save an old book by Icelandic explorer Arne Saknussem which has has been studying. While the Prof goes to a meeting of the Scientific Society to explain his theory, which is roundly poohpoohed by snide Professor Kippner and his slimy compatriot Professor Benz, Alex is set the job of scouring Saknussem’s manuscript for clues. He eventually finds two pages stuck together with a loose leaf between the two which reveals in invisible ink, when held near a candle, the name of a place in Iceland where Saknussem was on the last day of June.

The two explorers bid farewell to Lindenbrock’s long-suffering housekeeper Martha (who gets a bigger role here than in other versions, or indeed in the book) and to Alex’s fiancee, and they set sail for Iceland. Kippner and Benz follow them in secret for some reason.

Landing in Iceland, Lindenbrock finds that no-one dares climb the extinct volcano which is his goal, believing it to be haunted because of a legend of an expedition centuries earlier which climbed the mountain and vanished. Fortunately, a strong young fellow named Hans agrees to guide the German. On the last day of June, a particular shadow point to a particular hole, down which the three men clamber. then a rock fall seals the hole, Kippner and Benz assume that the expedition is lost and return to Hamburg, where they break the bad news to the ladies.

But of course Lindenbrock, Alex and Hans are safe in an underground system of caves. However, with only about 20 minutes of this 46-minute cartoon left, they had better get a hurry on if they’re going to reach the centre of the Earth.

They soon start to run out of water, but discover an underground stream behind a rock wall and then follow the trickle of H2O into the depths. At one point they reach a chasm and spot skeletons on the other side, evidently the remains of the legendary expedition which disappeared. Fortunately Lindenbrock has a rocket-propelled grappling hook - which we earlier saw him testing up the stairs in his home - and this enables the party to get across.

They find a vast underground sea, which they resist naming, and Arne Saknussem’s raft, still intact, on which they set sail. From the raft they see all manner of dinosaurs on land, at sea and flying through the air, but they crash over a waterfall and the raft is wrecked. (This is a rather odd sequence as about a minute of footage of the trio watching dinosaurs and hurtling towards the waterfall precedes the opening title, acting as a teaser/prologue. Some, but not all, of the prologue footage is missing from this sequence in the film proper, making the action seem slightly truncated. How odd.)

Anyway, they find a pterodactyl nest and Alex helps himself to one of the large eggs. Then, avoiding the mother pterodactyl, they find themselves threatened by a number of giant arthropods (which have eight legs but look more like ants or beetles than spiders). Fortunately a wall breaks, the sea floods in and the explorers are carried aloft on a jet of water which ejects them through the Italian volcano Stromboli. Back in Hamburg, Kippner dismisses their adventure as nonsense and says the ‘egg’ is a fake, whereupon the thing hatches and a baby pterodactyl emerges, clamping its beak on the scientist’s nose, to general amusement.

So a very truncated version of the story which takes a long time to get going but is nevertheless reasonably faithful, albeit with some unnecessary additions. The simple but fluid animation, occasionally artistic use of silhouettes and sketchy design style instantly marks this out as coming from Air Programmes International (API) who also produced the 1969 animated version of A Christmas Carol. Walter J Hucker produced both films and Ron Haddrick once again supplies the lead voice.

Ex-pat Pole Richard Slapczynski is a prolific director of animated classics. His CV includes versions of: The Adventures of Sinbad, Oliver Twist, Alice in Wonderland, The Emperor’s New Clothes, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, The First Christmas, Pocahontas, Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hercules, Hansel and Gretel, Anastasia, Camelot, Prince of the Nile: The Story of Moses, The Three Little Pigs and Ali Baba. In 2001 he directed a series of ‘Animated Classics’ for Burbank Animation Studios including Silent Night: The Story of the First Christmas, Joseph and the Coat of Many Colours, Easter in Bunnyland, The Canterville Ghost, Anna and the King and something called D4: The Trojan Dog. Slapczynski made one other Verne-ian adaptation, Off On a Comet, in 1979. (Burbank Animation Studios list a version of Journey to the Centre of the Earth on their website but that is a different cartoon, with animal characters, not Slapczynski’s API one.)

Writer John Palmer wrote some of Slapczynski’s cartoons as well as the very successful Australian series of semi-animated features (drawn characters on live-action backgrounds) about a little girl named Dot, beginning with Dot and the Kangaroo in 1977. He also scripted the 1992 Blinky Bill movie and episodes of API’s 1966 TV series King Arthur and the Square Knights of the Round Table.

In addition to the ubiquitous Ron Haddrick, the cast includes Barbara Frawley (the voice of Dot in at least some of the above-mentioned movies), Alastair Duncan (also in the API versions of A Christmas Carol, Mysterious Island and Around the World in 80 Days, he is now the voice of Alfred the butler in The Batman and its feature-length spin-off The Batman vs Dracula), Bevan Wilson (Peter Bedford in Home and Away) and Lynette Curran (who starred with Kylie in The Delinquents).

This 2002 DVD from Pegasus, who have a lot of 45-minute animated classics in their catalogue, has an abominably amateurish picture on the front which bears no relation whatsoever to the designs in the actual film (and a sort of slimy mud-man-monster on the back which has no connection with anything).

MJS rating: B-
review originally posted 1st October 2005

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