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Sparkhill presents
Ray Harryhausen: The Early Years Collection (1936-2002)

"Red Riding Hood had never seen a wolf before, so she was not afraid. She thought he was the biggest and most beautiful brown dog she'd ever seen."
- Narrator James Matthews, in Little Red Riding Hood

Review By: Mark Zimmer  
Published: January 31, 2005

Stars: Ray Harryhausen
Other Stars: James Matthews, Del Moore, Hugh Douglas, Gary Owens
Director: Ray Harryhausen

Manufacturer: Ambient Digital Media
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (minor dinosaur violence)
Run Time: 01h:49m:57s
Release Date: February 01, 2005
UPC: 186904000008
Genre: animation

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A- B+BB+ A-

DVD Review

The stop-motion animation of Ray Harryhausen has many fans, from his work in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1950) to his swan song in Clash of the Titans (1981). But Harryhausen had learned his meticulous craft through experimentation after his fateful viewing of the original King Kong. This two-disc set collects Harryhausen's early work, test films and his fairy tale films, all of which are seldom if ever seen, in fully restored versions.

The fairy tales are the bulk of the program, beginning with the Mother Goose Stories (1946). Harryhausen had been working with George Pal on the Puppetoons series, but those films were very limiting for the creative young Ray since they were pre-animated, with a pre-carved statue for each frame. After half a dozen of those, he was ready to take on his own projects, using the armature techniques of Willis O'Brien, who served as a mentor and would give him his first feature film work in Mighty Joe Young (1949). These first very short films point the way to a liberating form of animation, using posable figures, with replacement heads. One of the great innovations that Harryhausen made in these early shorts is using a short dissolve betweens the various facial expressions to smooth them over and give them a mimicry of life.

As Harryhausen moved into slightly longer forms, especially Little Red Riding Hood (1949), he also began doing more experimentation with mattes and projection in 16mm. Other tales in this series are Rapunzel (1951), Hansel and Gretel (1951), and King Midas (1953). The unifying characteristic is that the characters are all well-developed, even in this brief one-reel format. Little Red Riding Hood is particularly good, especially as she confronts the wolf in grandmother's clothing (though, as was the case with Hansel and Gretel, Harryhausen took out most of the horror aspects of the original Grimm tales since he was marketing these films to schools).

In 1953, Harryhausen was about a third of the way into The Tortoise and the Hare when he was offered It Came from Beneath the Sea. He set aside the short, not expecting it ever to be completed, until it was seen by two young animators, Seamus Walsh and Marc Caballero, who expressed an interest in finishing it with Ray's input. Amazingly, Harryhausen still had the original figures (other than the tortoise's body, which had to be reconstructed) and allowed them to use these relics as well as his original camera that he had used nearly fifty years before. The result is a fine piece of artistry that seamlessly combines the old and the new; only a couple cartoony moments give away the hand of the youngsters. On the whole, it's a fine conclusion to the series.

But the disc pushes back the curtain even further, providing the stop-motion films that Harryhausen did for the military during World War II, How to Bridge a Gorge and Guadalcanal. The first is an instructional piece that is a veritable ballet of the bridge parts to allow a convoy to cross a bridge. The latter is a view of the Japanese airstrip being built on Guadalcanal and the American attack in 1942. After the war, Harryhausen made a speculation ad for Lucky Strike cigarettes, which is included here (with a ton of disclaimers about smoking and there being no connection or approval of the brand; we get the message already). A set of three ads for the Lakewood real estate development featuring Kenny Key give a glimpse of the more practical if prosaic applications of the technique.

The section that most Harryhausen fans will be most interested in, however, is the segment on tests and experiments. These include footage that has often been talked about in the Harryhausen literature, but impossible to see. Here we see Ray's first efforts at animation, with a cave bear back in 1936, and dinosaurs from 1936 and 1937. The color dinosaur fight from his abortive project Evolution is here as well in glorious color, as is some footage testing mattes and rear projection, allowing Ray to be harassed by a many-armed monstrosity and eaten by a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Glimpses of projects that never happened are also seen, such as footage from a proposed Adventures of Baron Munchausen and a test for the finale of War of the Worlds as a dying Martian emerges from its vessel. Footage from The Elementals, dating from the early 1950s, presents an amazing flying creature and in some respects anticipates the Ymir from 20 Million Miles to Earth. It's hard to understand why producers who saw this test footage didn't give this project the green light; even today it looks incredible.

This disc accumulates in one convenient place the early works of an animation genius and makes an excellent companion to Harryhausen's recently released (and copiously illustrated) autobiography, An Animated Life. This is an amazing collection that allows one to see the progress of that genius from its first blurry steps with a primitive camera that wouldn't reliably shoot a single frame, to the artist that is beloved by millions. Now that most of his features are available on DVD, the only thing still missing is the original Mighty Joe Young. How about it, Warner?

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: B+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The full-frame transfers generally look quite nice; all the films have been preserved and restored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Archives, and those restorations were used for this DVD so it's not reasonable to ask that they be better. The earliest material is not surprisingly in slightly rough shape, but for the most part they look very nice. The Kodachrome on Little Red Riding Hood in particular is quite gorgeous and vivid. Mother Goose Stories for some reason has more edge enhancement than the other films, though it's present to some degree throughout. This added digital sharpening is a little annoying.

Image Transfer Grade: B


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
Dolby Digital
(music only)no

Audio Transfer Review: Those films that originally had a soundtrack are presented in the original mono. As one would expect, there's a fair amount of noise and hiss, but the Academy Archive indicates that they intentionally did not remove these artifacts in order to keep the authenticity of the originals. They're certainly watchable and this description shouldn't allow one to be dissuaded from a purchase. The shorts and tests that did not have a soundtrack are given meaty 5.1 scores, and in the case of Evolution, effects tracks that have a vivid punch. Nothing to complain about here.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+


Disc Extras

Animated menu with music
Scene Access with 25 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in French, German, Japanese with remote access
Production Notes
2 Documentaries
10 Featurette(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Ray Harryhausen, Seamus Walsh, Mark Caballero on The Tortoise and the Hare
Packaging: generic plastic keepcase
Picture Disc
2 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extra Extras:
  1. 80th birthday tributes
  2. Still and art galleries
Extras Review: This set is packed with extras. The first disc, in addition to the short films, also includes a "making of" for The Tortoise and the Hare, discussing its unique circumstances of creation. A lot of the same territory is retread in the commentary to that film by the three animators, who spend a lot of time fawning on each other. There's also an alternate ending to How to Bridge a Gorge, which Harryhausen removed with the correct realization that he had really overdone the jingoism aspect. It's certainly nice to have from a completist standpoint.

But there's an entire second disc of goodies as well. Nine more featurettes and two documentaries (mostly footage of ephemera from the last two years) give a peek at the ceremony for Ray's star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, his creation of a statue honoring explorer David Livingstone, a number of interview segments on various topics and other appreciations. A particularly notable segment is a 2004 meeting at Clifton's Cafeteria among Harryhausen and his friends Ray Bradbury and Forrest J. Ackerman, who had introduced the two Rays as dinosaur fans back in 1937. Among other things, Harryhausen shows how the armatures of Mighty Joe Young and King Kong worked as well as discussing their sci-fi backgrounds and appreciation for H.G. Wells. There's also a short featurette on the Academy's restoration, showing how bad some of this film looked (some of it literally decomposed into hockey pucks or twisted up as it was unwound from the reel). A set of galleries includes over 100 stills of Harryhausen making the films on this set plus over 40 concept drawings for unproduced films, with about 3/4 of them for The Elementals, which looks like it would have been incredible. The final touch is a set of three 80th birthday greetings on the Jason and the Argonauts skeleton theme, two in CGI and one actually in more appropriate stop-motion, but all three are quite entertaining. The shorts have Play All buttons for each section, but there is no such feature on Disc 2, which really could have used one as well.

Extras Grade: A-


Final Comments

Any Harryhausen fan will be delighted by this disc, and it's also kid-safe so the fairy tales can be appreciated on their own terms as well. A good transfer (with some excessive edge enhancement in a few spots), and a ton of extras.


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