The Character Animation in The New Gulliver

(Disclosure: this article is based on a forum post I did last year on the Hardcore Gaming 101 forum thread “What movie did you watch recently?”:

I normally don’t discuss technical categories of animation in detail, such as effects animation, background animation, or character animation. I don’t feel I have the understanding or the vocabulary to properly analyse what they’re trying to do and how they accomplish that, and I often don’t even notice them beyond an overall impression of “wow, that’s a lot of detail” or “wow, so much work was put into making that sense of movement convincing”. It’s a subject I’d assume could be explored better by anybody else.

Though there are exceptions, usually if I can find a connection between the animation work and an idea presented in the cartoon it was made for, and I think that’s the case for the 1935 movie The New Gulliver. The debut feature film of Russian director and animator Aleksandr Ptushko, it’s a retelling of Gulliver’s Travels that combines a live-action actor playing Gulliver with stop-motion puppets for the Lilliputians. Although it takes a while to get going with a long introduction sequence that sets everything up, it’s quite a solid movie chock full of impressive animation.

My experience with 1930s feature films that utilize live-action and animation together is very limited, but I was struck by how well it’s pulled off here. There’s a great deal of work done to ensure the two are combined convincingly, through elements such as the use of moving cameras to convey a tangibility to the size difference between Gulliver and the Lilliputians, or how the puppets are moved about in real time for scenes that focus on Gulliver or alongside elements like running water.

A highlight of the film in general is its character animation, particularly that of the ruling aristocracy who wind up becoming the villains. Every one of them is given a unique design, showcasing a variety of deeply expressive body shapes and goofy caricatured faces. These lend themselves well to skittishly energetic body language, exaggerated poses and detailed facial animation that emphasizes the dialogue in charmingly ridiculous ways (something which is accentuated by their high-pitched voices and the chipper music accompanying them). They steal the show whenever they’re around, and  the scenes where they are the sole focus – such as the introduction of the king and the debate in the council chambers regarding Gulliver’s arrival – are a hoot.

This is in great contrast to the workers who do all the hard work in the mines below. They don’t have individual designs or much in the way of expressive animation, instead sharing the same look of a muscular body type; almost bronzed in the way they’re rendered; with no identifying facial features.  While their scenes aren’t as visually stimulating in the same way as the aristocracy, I feel that’s deliberate considering the concept at the heart of the movie.

The New Gulliver isn’t so much a retelling of Gulliver’s Travels, as it is a boy dreaming about the events of his favourite book. The long introduction I alluded to earlier on shows the boy as part of a scout group, establishing the communist ideals that everyone in the group proudly extols. It’s entirely in live-action and helps to separate reality from the animated dreams that the boy finds himself in for the rest of the film.

His beliefs unconsciously seep through into the story, where he plays the role of Gulliver. While initially taken in by the aristocracy, he’s revolted at their cruel oppression of the working classes and soon sides with the workers in a revolution that overthrows the unfair rulership. While this can evoke the feeling of “of course this was a Russian film from the 1930s”, I think this also explains why the royals and the workers are depicted so differently.

As the ruling class, every single person in the aristocracy is allowed to express their individuality, and to be as frivolous and abrasive as they damn well please. So they all have unique designs and highly expressive postures, faces and voices. Meanwhile, the workers aren’t treated as individuals, but as a collective “menial worker” who performs tasks and doesn’t meaningfully exist in any other capacity. Sharing the same appearance with no distinguishing features to tell anyone apart, they’ve had their visual identities worn away.

But that image of “the worker” also has a metaphorical quality, as the proud ideal of the noble common worker who must rise up and take what’s theirs, which is accentuated by the workers revolting against the aristocracy. They’re fighting back against oppression, not just the usual sort but a stylistic oppression born from the contrast between how they’re animated and designed versus their oppressors. It’s a fascinating way of depicting that kind of conflict so visually, and a demonstration of something animation as a medium can do so uniquely.

FrDougal9000 writes for as Apollo Chungus. When he isn’t writing about video games, he is cultivating his love of animation that’s only increased over the last few years as he’s explored the wide, weird and wonderful world of the medium.

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