At the foot of the Charles Bridge in Prague rests a huge museum for early special effects whiz Karel Zeman. This would be like a permanent Ray Harryhausen exhibit in Times Square. The Czech people, it is fair to say, are proud of its animation.
Commencing this Friday, the Film Society of Lincoln Center will host the first complete American retrospective of one of stop-motion’s great innovators, Jirí Trnka. The collection of shorts and features will then travel to nine additional cities.
This is a remarkable opportunity for Mitteleuropean puppet lovers already turned on to Trnka’s better-known countrymen like Jirí Barta and Jan Švankmajer, but also for those who just saw Wes Anderson’s outstanding “Isle of Dogs” and just can’t get enough of that handcrafted wonderment.
Often compared to Walt Disney, many of Trnka’s works are visualizations of fairy tales. (If you had a Czech grandmother, a lot of these stories will be familiar.) “The Czech Year,” his first feature from 1947, put him on the international map. It is a series of vignettes, with an emphasis on nature and traditional ceremonies. “Old Czech Legends” (1953) is similar, but with a more religious and patriotic bent. It begins with an Exodus parable leading to Bohemia and ends with a vigorous battle sequence.
Both films ought to delight kids with an artistic bent, particularly if they are able to process that this was all done without the aid of computers.
A little less focused on awe-inspiring splendor and a bit more satirical is Trnka’s take on “The Good Soldier Svejk,” based on a popular WWI-era character from writer Jaroslav Hašek. (Think of a Czech Gomer Pyle with a little Wimpy from “Popeye” thrown in.) The 1954 film mixes puppetry and cutout animation, as well some anti-war sentiment.
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (1959) was Trnka’s final feature film, shot in CinemaScope, and narrated by Richard Burton. It’s remarkable how well Shakespeare lends itself to tiny clay and wooden sculptures.
The Film Society isn’t neglecting Trnka’s shorts, presenting one before each feature, as well as three shorts programs. Most striking is “The Hand,” a surrealist, slightly terrifying look at an artist forced to conform to a faceless power’s bidding.
What begins as a breezy look at a pottery-maker turns into a none-too-subtle allegory about living in Soviet-influenced Czechoslovakia.
‘The Puppet Master: The Complete Jirí Trnka’ plays Friday through Wed., April 25 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater, filmlinc.org