Saturday, February 26, 2005

The Films of the Great Ray Harryhausen

The first movie I can remember watching was when I was about four years old. . Dad, Mom, my brother, and I went to our community's Hallowe'en party. When we got home, we turned on the TV and there it was--Jason and the Argonauts. I was fascinated, particularly by the Children of the Hydra's Teeth, the skeletons which Jason fights in the film's climax. I have often wondered how that movie had an impact on my tastes in films and books later in life. It is hard to say. Given television in the Sixties, when Star Trek, Batman, Bewitched and various other sci-fi, fantasy, or superhero shows were on the air, I suppose anything could have turned me into, well, a geek in later life...

Regardless, I know one thing to emerge out of seeing Jason and the Argonauts at such an early age--I have been a life long Ray Harryhausen fan. After seeing King Kong as a child, Ray Harryhausen started making his own amateur, stop motion films. Harryhausen broke into the film industry when Willis O'Brien (the special effects wizard behind King Kong), whom Harryhausen had met through O'Brien's niece, asked him to work on Mighty Joe Young. Harryhausen was then able to learn his craft directly from the master of that craft.

Harryhausen went onto work on other pictures: It Came From Beneath the Sea (about a giant octopus), Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, and 20 Million Miles to Earth. It was with The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, however, that Harryhausen really came into his own. In It Came From Beneath the Sea Harryhausen only animated a giant octopus. In 20 Million Miles to Earth he only had to deal with the giant Ymir. The 7th Voyage of Sinbad gave Harryhausen a chance to truly show his talent. Among the stop motion creations were the cyclops, the roc, and a skeleton. Harryhausen was also faced with the task of a special effect that was not stop motion--the princess who had been shrunk. It was Harryhausen's best work to date and still among the best work he ever did on film. What makes The 7th Voyage of Sinbad a classic is not its special effects, but the fact that it is simply a good movie. The film benefits from a strong script, sincere performances, and an excellent Bernard Hermann score.

Following The 7th Voyage of Sinbad there would be no more "giant monster" movies for Harryhausen. The films he did afterwards are what today would be called "high concept." The Three Worlds of Gulliver adapted part of Gulliver's Travels. It stands out as one of Harryhausen's movies in which the bulk of the effects were not stop motion. Instead, Harryhausen was faced with such things as making real actors appear to be tiny Lilliputians. He succeeded admirably. Harryhausen next did the effects for The Mysterious Island, based on the classic Jules Verne novel. Harryhausen was once more doing a good deal of stop motion, as creatures on the island tend to grow a bit larger than normal. The movie also benefits from a Bernard Hermann score, as well as Herbert Lom's perfromance as Captain Nemo.

With Harryhausen's next film he surpassed the success he had with The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. Jason and the Argonauts featured the most impressive effects Harryhausen would ever achieve, including the giant Talos, the Hydra, and Children of the Hydra's Teeth. The movie is perhaps not as strong as The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, its primary defecit being some of the actors' performances, but it is still a classic, with a particularly strong story.

Harryhausen's next film was First Men in the Moon, based on the H. G. Wells novel. He also did the animation for One Million Years B.C. It was with The Valley of Gwangi that Harryhausen truly returned to form. The movie was based on a concept developed by Willis O'Brien in the late Forties which would combine elements of the Western with dinosaurs. Unfortunately, the project was abandoned. Fortunately, Harryhausen saw O'Brien's concept through wonderfully. Among the film's highlights are a battle between a tyrannosaurus rex and an elephant.

With Harryhausen's next film, he returned to the subject of Sinbad. The Golden Voyage of Sinbad nearly matched The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and Jason and the Argonauts in quality. It benefited from a strong script and sincere performances. Unfortunately, its sequel, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger would not be nearly as good. It did feature some truly astounding effects, but its story was much weaker than Harryhausen's preveious films. The same can be said of Clash of the Titans. Clash of the Titans relates the Perseus myth and it includes some of Harryhausen's best effects. Among these are the winged horse Pegasus, Medusa, and the giant Kraken. Unfortunately, it suffers from a weak script and less than stellar performances. Sadly, it was also Ray Harryhausen's last film.

Ray Harryhausen is perhaps the greatest master of stop motion animation of all time. I think what must not be overlooked is that part of Harryhausen's greatness was in selecting the right projects. Harryhausen's movies were never mere displays of special effects. Instead, they generally had strong stories and in all of them the special effects were an integral part of the story. They were not movies in which FX occurred for FX's sake. These days much of what Harryhausen created can now be done by CGI. Quite frankly, however, I still find Harryhausen's stop motion animation more appealing much of the time. Too often CGI looks like CGI. Harryhausen often made his stop motion animation look real.

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