After the release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), the world of animation and cinema changed drastically. Walt Disney and his team of animators were able to prove to Hollywood that animation didn’t have to be restricted to short stories of six or seven minutes and that it could explore several different genres and moods different from comedy, exploiting its dramatic possibilities. For these reasons, it’s rightfully considered one of the most important films ever made. However, something that isn’t often mentioned is the vast number of imitators that showed up over the years. Several different American features have tried to imitate Snow White and, in general, the “Disney style”, in an (often futile) attempt to recreate the success that Snow White had in its original run between 1937 and 1938.
In this sense, Gulliver’s Travels (1939) could be considered a very important animated film in cinema history: it is the first “Snow White imitator”. If that doesn’t sound like a very high honor, it’s because it isn’t. The story behind Gulliver’s Travels is pretty well-known by now. The Fleischers played around with the ida of making an animated feature film even before Snow White was released, but their studio (Paramount) has never allowed them to make one. After the success of Snow White, they were finally able to get the money they needed, but at the cost of creative freedom: Paramount explicitly requested to make their feature as similar as possible to Snow White.
The result is, unfortunately, a mediocre film, unable to stand on its own legs. The comparison between this feature and the previous Fleischer shorts certainly doesn’t help. There are several reasons someone could point out to as to why this film didn’t work out too well. Someone could blame the very short production time and the much lower budget compared to Snow White. The Fleischer Studios have started production on Gulliver’s Travels in 1938 and ended in 1939, around two years of production, half of what it took to produce Snow White (four years), and of course a much lower budget as well (Snow White had a budget of almost one million dollars by the end of its production).
But of course all of these factors can only be partially blamed: after all, there have been plenty of good films produced within strict time and money constraints – in some cases, even masterpieces. Even being an imitation of an already existing film doesn’t preclude something from being considered at least a good film.
Perhaps the biggest factor to consider is the experience that most of the animators of Gulliver’s Travels had up to this point. Many of the head animators have been working at the Fleischer Studios for almost all of their lives, and have rarely worked at other rival studios. There are some exceptions, the most notable one probably being Grim Natwick which just came back from working at Disney on Snow White, but overall, most of the animators have been faithful to the Fleischers for most of their lives and careers. Since Gulliver’s Travles is of course such an important and expensive project, it would make sense for the Fleischers to put at the helm of their first feature mostly animators that have been working for them for such a long time.
Ironically, though, it was this choice that prevented Gulliver’s Travels from turning into, if not too interesting, at least a better movie. Most of the Fleischers animators who have worked on Gulliver’s Travels never had the proper experience to handle the “Disney/West Coast” style of animation, which was becoming increasingly different from the “Fleischer/East Coast” style of animation. The style of Snow White was trying to achieve a realism that could compete with the live-action features that were coming out from Hollywood at that time, not necessarely by trying to replicate their look, but their feelings, making their characters as expressive and distinct as a live-action actor on the screen. This is commonly believed to be the key to the success of Snow White. The Fleischer style couldn’t be more different: unrealistic, focused on comedy and gags and often not too interested in their characters’ personalities, with the most notable exception being their Popeye the Sailor shorts. Their goal was to entertain and provide a visual spectacle above everything else.
Gulliver’s Travels tries to imitate the “Disney style” without fully getting it: the result is a series of well-animated (most of the Fleischer animators had plenty of experience, after all), but empty and indistinguishable characters. Most of them have very similar designs (which are also very similar to the Seven Dwarfs, unsurprisingly) and they look and move very much alike. The most notable of them, Gabby, doesn’t work outside of his own film, like his short-lived series of short cartoons, Gabby, has already proven. Even the main character, Gulliver, is nothing to brag about, since he’s animated almost completely through the use of rotoscope, in an attempt at “realistic” animation to contrast the look and feel of the Lilliputians, the same way Snow White and the Prince were very different from the cartoony Seven Dwarfs in their own movie. The same thing goes for the Prince and Princess in Gulliver’s Travels.
The result is a formulaic movie with a formulaic story that doesn’t have too much going on for it. Even Snow White was pretty formulaic and had some of these flaws, but it was able to make up for them thanks to its great technical advancements and contributions to the art of animation, which put together were able to creare a feature that was greater than the sum of its parts. There are definitely some good things about Gulliver’s Travels, such as its great art direction (backgrounds, colors, layouts, lightning) and some great sequences, like the one where the Lilliputians have to take Gulliver to the village. But overall, Gulliver’s Travels is definitely a missed opportunity: being the second major Hollywood animated feature, it could have been a great way to provide a great alternative to the Disney style of animation and filmmaking, but unfortunately it was never meant to be. This is one of the many reasons why, among many others of course, Disney would been able to keep its monopoly over animated features for a long time – at least the next thirty years after Snow White. Who knows what the future of animation might have been had the Fleischers been able to do a feature following their earlier style, like in Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor (1936) or Popeye the Sailor Meets Ali Baba’s Forty Thieves (1937). We may never know.
Despite all of this, Gulliver’s Travels was still a moderately successful movie at the box office, certainly enough for Paramount to order a second animated feature right away. This was a turning point for the Fleischers: starting from 1939, they’d gradually lose all that was left of the style they have been developing over the 1920s and 1930s, chasing Disney and other, more successful studios. They’d still turn out some interesting works before the Fleischer Studios’ shutdown in 1942. But at this point, the decline was inevitable.