There are many ways which narrative can thrive within storytelling. This sometimes can pose difficulty for certain American audiences who have been brought up on the Hollywood kind—plot first and character later. Thus, anything that falls outside this realm is labeled ‘boring’ or ‘slow-moving’. (Just think back to when Terrence Malick released The Tree of Life. The movie theatre I attended had to include a sign explaining to audiences that this was the work of an ‘auteur’, as a means of preventing walkouts.) Forget Tarkovsky or Antonioni. These are, in fact, filmmakers that one needs to work up to in order to appreciate. It also requires an open mind, but that is another essay.
Karel Zemen’s Journey to the Beginning of Time is a Czech film that explores the wonderment of childhood through observation. Four young boys decide that they want to witness the world back in its prehistoric days, and so they take their logbook and their canoe wherein they quickly find themselves among floating chunks of ice amid the Ice Age. They spot a slew of creatures and even find a trilobite. Immediately, I was reminded of my own childhood wherein I set out one day to find ‘fossils.’ (I didn’t find shit.) But how fun would be if I had? The film uses almost cartoon-like imagery and puppetry, which adds to the childlike excitement and mystery. This is a children’s film and a highly intelligent one, at that.
So what of the narrative, then? Much occurs via observation—we are along for the ride. In fact, I can think of no other idiom to better describe this film. The boys adhere to their logbook, they bicker, they bond. Creatures appear and disappear and we are able to uncover both the era in which they enter as well as the species, thanks to their logbook. (Bison, mammoths, brontosaurus and flamingos are among some.) A paleontologist was hired for guidance and so the detailed accuracy is important, as the audience will come to trust the film’s expertise. Dream-like and fictional, the surrounds successfully appear as artifice and this works. We become part of their imagined world. […]