It’s fair to say that you’re going to see just as much, if not more, adulation for Ray Harryhausen in this review than in Gilles Penso’s documentary Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan. My first love as a monster kid was the 1933 version of King Kong followed closely by Toho’s Godzilla films, so stop motion animation was already one of the greatest things in the world for me (though my love for men in rubber monster suits ran a tight second). Seeing Harryhausen’s Sinbad films was like eating your favorite food, and every time you did it was liking eating it for the first time all over again. The thing which links Harryhausen with Eiji Tsuburaya, who pioneered the effects for the Godzilla franchise (which was directly inspired by The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms), beyond the tactile, expert care and craftsmanship put into the work is the sense of wonder that these films embody and instill in the viewer. You cannot look at these pictures and not feel awe to some degree or another. These are paced stories with fantasy elements that are brilliant in their technical virtuosity and their ability to spark the imaginations of young and old alike rather than just deliver spectacle (though they do this as well).
Harryhausen’s films are simple without being simplistic, hewing to the pulp traditions from which they sprang: something happens, people are pulled into these events, people discover extraordinary things/obstacles they must conquer/overcome, people conquer/overcome them. It’s as meat and potatoes as you can get, but this is the groundwork which supports the elements that Harryhausen adds. The clash between the mundane and the exotic is what fuels these films and makes them compelling, something I believe guys like Stephen King took to heart (it’s been postulated that his stories are so popular because his protagonists are the type of people who buy their underwear in a ten-pack at the local K-Mart, something with which I agree).
Pensco’s film mixes a chronological overview of Harryhausen’s work with comments and opinions from a host of luminaries of fantastic cinema (Terry Gilliam, Peter Jackson, Phil Tippett, Dennis Muren, James Cameron, Joe Dante, to name just a few). It is formulaic in structure, feeling a bit more like a featurette on a disc than a strong doc in its own right. For example, as we move from film to film, we get the year of its release, a shot of the original poster art, footage of the original theatrical trailer, and then some discussion on it interspersed with shots from the movie along with what I feel is the real cream of this film: copious amounts of archival footage and photos, showcasing behind the scenes activities, concept and storyboard art, and animation tests. And yet, the formula works for what this film is. This isn’t documentary in the tradition of Frederick Wiseman or Errol Morris. We’re not following a day in the life of a Harryhausen production or investigating the depths of the man’s soul (man, what would those films have looked like in regards to this subject?). Instead, here we’re given the opportunity to share in the adoration of a film pioneer and vicariously bond with the professionals he inspired. We’re never told about the hardships of Harryhausen’s life, the conflicts he ran into in the course of his career. We simply drift along on a scenic tour through his achievements. Consequently, this, and docs like this, appeal to both novices and acolytes alike. It’s as much overview as it is fanboy gushing. Something for everyone, so to speak.
There are also hints at deeper conversations going on throughout the film. Harryhausen is credited with being the person who influenced how we, as a society, think dinosaurs moved. This points to a truth (or a perceived truth) inherent in all of Harryhausen’s performances (and they are performances; each of his characters, and any animator’s, are a performance from the animator as they, to paraphrase the words of Henry Selick, take the journey with their characters from first frame to last). I found it interesting that the filmmakers never talked about Harryhausen’s signature shoulder roll in this regard, which just about every single character of his capable of doing so did, but that’s a small quibble. Likewise, the issue of auteurship comes up. I believe it’s Joe Dante who raises the fact that something like The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad is never discussed as a Nathan Juran film. Cinephiles, of course, recognize that Harryhausen didn’t technically direct these films. Nonetheless, they are his, in part because his was the driving vision behind them and in part because the technical demands of his craft insisted upon a level of control if the live action and the animation were to meld together onscreen. As John Landis avers, he is the technician as auteur.
Naturally, this all leads to the inevitable CG versus Stop Motion conversation, and Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan peppers this across its runtime. As you can imagine, the vast majority of people, even those who work extensively with CG, are very clear in their preference of Stop Motion over CG. Personally, I agree with guys like Tippett and Muren who know that there is an unnatural fluidity imposed by the nature of CG. Gilliam and Steve Johnson perfectly sum up CG’s lack of charm. Gilliam calls it cold, while Johnson elaborates that CG puts the audience at a distance from the effects/film, because you know precisely how it was done, whereas Stop Motion is like a magician who you know has tricked you but you can’t figure out the means with which it was accomplished. Relating back to the discussion of auteurship, Muren states that there are no longer many films of singular vision due to the massive budgets and the size of the animation departments. In other words, individuality has been more and more bred out of special effects films, and homogeneity has taken over. Ironically, and in one of the film’s more humorous (to me, anyway) moments, James Cameron hypothesizes that, if Harryhausen were still working, he would absolutely be using CG and not puppets, as it’s the newest, most streamlined tool in the special effects arsenal. This is followed by Harryhausen stating that he would still use puppets, as he finds it unappealing to sit and push buttons in order to get an image onscreen. For me, this sums up the difference between an artist of Harryhausen’s skill and a technocrat like Cameron (don’t misread this: I have a great amount of respect for Cameron and his work, but he has always been more about technological advances than anything else, in my opinion). It’s ruminations like these that stayed with me beyond the joy of reveling in the filmography and accomplishments of one of cinema’s greatest creators.
Arrow Films’ bluray is typically lush and loaded with extras, including unused interviews with Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg, Peter Lord, and Rick Baker, outtakes from the interviews used in the film, Q&As with the man himself, a commentary track with the filmmakers, and more. Whether you love Harryhausen’s work or have never seen a single one (I honestly don’t know how that’s conceivable if you consider yourself a lover of cinema, but whatever), you owe it to yourself to get on this film.
MVT: The archival material makes this something special.
Make or Break: Admittedly, the opening title cards/intro felt a little amateurish, but I don’t think they’re anything that will put off viewers enough to skip out on this paean to a cinematic genius.