Blu-Ray Review: Invention For Destruction

by Rachel Bellwoar

Invention for Destruction (1958) is a movie that dares to ask the question ‘What if we gave pirates submarines?’ and then answers it (with the obvious answer), ‘They’d use them as battering rams.’

Based on the Jules Verne book, Facing the Flag, and sometimes referred to by the title, The Fabulous World of Jules Verne, Invention for Destruction is a Czech animated movie by the great Karel Zeman who, I regret to admit, I had never heard of before Second Run’s release. If you’re a fan of Ray Harryhausen or Jim Henson, though, and haven’t discovered Zeman, it is absolutely critical you do so as soon as possible.
Blending live action with special effects, Invention for Destruction opens like The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (though Invention came first) with the journal of Simon Hart (Lubor Tokoš) acting as a gateway into a world of technological advances. Epitomized by new forms of transportation, Hart is on the deck of a ship where he and the other passengers are about to have a devil of a time deciding where to direct their eyes (and have the fortuitous luck of having dressed for the occasion like they’re about to join the spectators in My Fair Lady, another film that didn’t exist yet).
Zeman wanted Invention to look like the etchings in Verne’s books, so there are lines everywhere, including the costumes. This creates the impression of paper cut outs come to life. John Stevenson (director of Kung Fu Panda) talks about it in a special appreciation but there are scenes where you’ll see Zeman switch between the actors and paper cuts outs of them and it’s like you’re a child again, witnessing all of the practical effects (another bonus feature, “Zeman’s Special Effects Techniques,” helps you separate what’s real and what’s been lovingly hand designed).
When Professor Roch (Arnošt Navrátil) and Simon (his assistant) are kidnapped by pirates, they barely make a sound while the pirates get overly fancy tying them up. Zdeněk Liška composed the music and his score is often asked to carry the action or provide the sense of urgency that isn’t supplied onscreen. The characters will talk about needing to move fast, but rarely pick up the pace.
The pirates want to help fund the Professor’s project and, for being a genius, he’s utterly naïve, so while the conflict could’ve been him sacrificing his morals for money, it’s really that he’s oblivious enough to believe their claims. Simon is more discerning but gets separated from the Professor when they’re taken to the pirates’ secret, island lab.
For such a delightfully bonkers and imaginative story there’s also a serious discussion going on about gun control. Professor Roch’s “failed experiment,” in the pirates’ hands, is a weapon of mass destruction and it’s up to Simon to make the professor see sense. Spotting a woman across the water (who we earlier saw be unflappable, to the point of comedy, when her ship was sinking around her), Simon sends over a message and the set-up is very romantic, but Simon is all business (especially since, until this point, he’s been counting on a message in a canteen tied to a hot air balloon).
It wouldn’t be Jules Verne without scuba diving suits and, in one of my favorite scenes, Simon’s oxygen starts running low and he hallucinates fish turning into butterflies. The incident could be the end of Simon, yet his habit of surviving saves him again, while the film doesn’t settle for one type of submarine but places an anchor on the pirates’ sub and webbed duck feet on the other.
Invention for Destruction is available on Blu-Ray and DVD but only Blu-Ray gets you two additional short films by Zeman. Inspiration (1949), true to its title, is about an artist seeking inspiration, but uses glass figurines and stop motion animation to tell a tragic love story inside a drop of dew. For anyone whose grandmother’s Swarovski figurines made them smile growing up, the nostalgia watching this one is real. King Lavra (1950), a fairy tale told with puppets, is about a king with a barber shortage, since every time he gets a haircut the barber discovers he has donkey ears (like Pinocchio’s Pleasure Island) and cannot be allowed to live.
Zeman isn’t afraid of the harsh ending but he’s also not afraid to be unrealistic, and that’s what makes his films such a joy. The bonus features Second Run have supplied are wonderful (“Why Zeman Made The Film” goes over some of his casting choices and James Oliver’s booklet essay is a brilliant read). Think back to the first time you saw a film by Georges Méliès and that’s what it’s like to watch a Karel Zeman film. You need to treat yo’ self to that experience.
Invention for Destruction is available on all-region Blu-Ray and DVD from Second Run.

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