Saturday, 7 December 2013

Journey to the Center of the Earth (2001)

Director: Zoltan Szilagyi Varga
Writer: Brian Finch
Producers: Patrick Maine, Philippe Alessandri
Cast: Geoffrey Bayldon, Rupert Degas, Leslie Clack
Country: France/Belgium
Year of release: 2001
Reviewed from: UK DVD


Created as part of a TV series called Jules Verne’s Amazing Journeys, this very faithful adaptation kicks off with a generic title sequence which features not only the expected Nautilus and balloon but also Robur’s flying machine - something I never thought I would see in animated format.

Unlike the 1996 Canadian animated version of the tale, which took many liberties with the story, this is Verne’s novel pretty much as he wrote it (except in English, of course). The downside of this arrangement is that it is not as much fun as that other version, though it is undeniably more exciting.

The story starts with Professor Lidenbrock’s nephew, Axel, proposing to the Professor’s ward, Grauben. Like Victor and Elizabeth Frankenstein, this is a proto-sexual relationship between two siblings who are unrelated by blood. Axel visits his uncle to ask permission for the union but finds him pouring over a scrap of ancient Icelandic parchment which, when translated, reveals the way to the centre of the Earth.

The two men travel to Iceland where they hire muscular, taciturn guide Hans who leads them to the top of an extinct volcano, from where they descend into a series of caves. The expected (by those familiar with Verne’s work) adventures follow: their water runs out but Hans is able to tap into an underground stream; they descend to the shore of a vast, underground sea; while Hans builds a raft, Axel and the Prof explore a forest of giant mushrooms where they encounter a living mastodon.

But it’s not just a mastodon, it is being ridden by a ten-foot tall, loincloth-clad hominid! They escape on the raft and witness a battle between an ichthyosaur and a plesiosaur then, returned to where they began their sea voyage, they find another cave but their descent is blocked. They set a gunpowder charge but the hominid returns. Axel escapes the giant and scrambles onto the raft with the other two but the force of the explosion creates a crack under the sea. The remarkably resilient raft takes them down, down, down but then up, up, up on a column of boiling water and out of the volcano Stromboli in Italy. We conclude with the marriage of Axel and Grauben.

So this is a good and faithful adaptation of the novel. It is French after all - and one thing the Frogs are never going to do is bugger about with the work of their greatest novelists. It would be like colourising a Jacques Tati movie.

The design work is less cartoony than the earlier animated version with the prehistoric animals presented accurately and some excellent background work. Of particular note is the animation of shadows on the cave walls as the three men pass along, each holding a lantern. I can’t believe that some computer assistance wasn't used there but it’s still an absolutely terrific bit of animation.

The series was executive produced by Marie-France Han, Dr Sylvia Rothblum (who now works for Warner Brothers) and Pierre Levie (who also produced Harry Kumel’s extraordinary fantasy film Malpertuis!). The extraordinarily complex production credit reads as follows:

A
La Fabrique/Tele Images Creation/France 3/EM.TV & Merchandise AG
co-production with
Tele Images International/Sofidoc/RTBF Televisia Belge

Brian Finch receives sole writing credit so presumably this wasn’t just a translation of a French script. The production may be entirely Franco-Belgian but this seems to have been aimed squarely at the English-speaking market. Finch started out as a writer on Corrie and has also penned such televisual gems as The Bill, All Creatures Great and Small, Hetty Wainthrop Investigates, Heartbeat, Bergerac and The Gentle Touch. His other SF credentials are episodes of the original 1970s version of The Tomorrow People and, interestingly, the 1999 live-action series The Secret Adventures of Jules Verne which starred Michael Praed as Phileas Fogg.

Catweazle himself, Geoffrey Bayldon, provides the voice of Professor Lidenbrock; the rest of the cast consists of Leslie Clack (Christie Malry’s Own Double Entry), Rupert Degas (narrator of the His Dark Materials audiobooks, who also played various roles in the later Hitchhiker’s Guide radio shows), John Mickey and Rachel Preece (who played Princess Diana in a 2002 biopic). Apart from the Prof, Axel and Hans, the only two other speaking characters are Grauben and the housekeeper Martha - although the giant apeman has some vocal moments too.

Hungarian director Zoltan Szilagyi Varga recently received acclaim for his short animated film Koan. He and designer Richard Mithouard both worked on A Monkey’s Tale. That film’s director, Jean-Francois Laguionie, is credited here as ‘artistic director’ while Robin Lyons (producer of The Princess and the Goblin and Under Milk Wood - and a former Super Ted scripter!) is ‘recording director’ and ‘story editor.’

For compressing the whole novel effectively into 45 minutes and retaining the spirit of Verne alongside his story and characters, this animated version of Journey... certainly beats the other although both are worth watching. This budget-price disc was released by Abbey Home Entertainment; a DVD which combines this film with its companion piece, Around the World in 80 Days, is available as Jules Verne's Amazing Journeys.

MJS rating: B+
review originally posted 8th August 2005

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