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Ray Harryhausen: The Early Years Collection
1946-2002 (2005) - Sparkhill Entertainment

review by Adam Jahnke of The Digital Bits

Ray Harryhausen: The Early Years Collection

Program Rating: B+

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A/B+/A

Specs and Features

Disc One - Program
233 mins, NR, full frame (1.33:1), keep case packaging, single-sided, dual-layered (no layer switch), Stories & Tales (9 films introduced by Ray Harryhausen), Early Films (6 films introduced by Harryhausen), Tests & Experiments (10 segments introduced by Harryhausen), The Making of The Tortoise and the Hare featurette, audio commentary on The Tortoise and the Hare (with Harryhausen, Mark Caballero and Seamus Walsh), alternate ending: How to Bridge a Gorge, animated program-themed menu screens with sound, languages: English (DD 5.1), subtitles: French, German and Japanese, Closed Captioned

Disc One - Supplemental Materials
NR, full frame (1.33:1), single-sided, dual-layered (no layer switch), 9 featurettes (The Hollywood Walk of Fame, Harryhausen's Livingstone Statue, The Clifton's Cafeteria Reunion, In the Credits, An Evening with Ray Harryhausen, Harryhausen's Bronzes, The Ted Newsom Interview, The Academy Archive Restoration and Filmmuseum Berlin), 5 tributes (Stumbling Skeletons, Coffee Break, Harryhausen: The Time Traveler, An Appreciation and Harryhausen Tribute: David Allen), 6 galleries, Easter egg, animated program-themed menu screens with sound, languages: English (DD 5.1), subtitles: French, German and Japanese, Closed Captioned

One of the wonderful things about DVD is that it has given a home to a large number of short films that otherwise would not have been seen. Outside of film schools, short subjects don't really have an audience. But many of the most important filmmakers of all time got their start making short films. Thanks to DVD, we've had the opportunity to see some of these. David Lynch self-distributes a disc devoted to his short films, while Criterion has released a two-disc anthology devoted to Stan Brakhage. Now one of the most influential filmmakers of all time, Ray Harryhausen, gets his due with Sparkhill Entertainment's lovingly packaged Early Years Collection.

The first disc of this collection presents a well-organized selection of films. The main attraction is Stories & Tales, the rarely seen stop-motion adaptations of nursery rhymes and fairy tales Harryhausen independently produced for elementary schools. The earliest of these, the Mother Goose Stories, are essentially silent pantomimes designed to help children learn to make associations between the written word and their meanings. Obviously these are very simple stories but they're told with charm and good humor. I'm not entirely certain I'd ever heard the complete Old Mother Hubbard rhyme before and was a bit surprised at how odd it was.

The Fairy Tales are considerably more ambitious, utilizing a narrator to help convey the more intricate stories, more elaborate sets and different techniques. Even the first of these, Little Red Riding Hood, shows Harryhausen experimenting behind the scenes as Red meets the Wolf for the first time next to a lake of real water. More importantly, we can see Harryhausen maturing as a storyteller. He brings real personality to the characters and clearly understands the rhythms and pacing of telling a good tale.

The last of the Fairy Tales, The Tortoise and the Hare, is noteworthy not just because it was completed fifty years after Harryhausen began work on it. It also marks a departure from the previous five tales. Instead of using human characters, Harryhausen switches over to animals. In spite of this switch, or perhaps because of it, the characters are imbued with even more personality. It's a sweet, old-fashioned fable and animators Mark Caballero and Seamus Walsh should be proud of their work here. It's as if Harryhausen passed them the baton yesterday rather than half a century later. Besides, you have to love the poetic justice in an adaptation of The Tortoise and the Hare taking fifty years to complete.

The second section, Early Films, is of interest primarily to Harryhausen's most devoted fans. The primary draw here is seeing Harryhausen's technique evolve, as there isn't much story or character involved in films like How to Bridge a Gorge. Even so, the technique itself is impressive. Keeping in mind that these were still done by Harryhausen alone in an attempt to learn his craft and demonstrate what he's capable of, you can't help but be impressed by the elaborate sets in the bridge picture and in Guadalcanal. The commercials are interesting glimpses at a possible alternate universe Ray Harryhausen, one in which he entered advertising instead of feature films. There's an unused commercial Harryhausen produced on spec for Lucky Strike cigarettes, as well as three ads featuring Kenny Key for Lakewood Homes in Los Angeles (two bedroom homes from $48.99 a month!).

The third section on disc one is one of the most fascinating. Tests & Experiments provides tantalizing glimpses at a number of abandoned projects from Harryhausen's early years. Fans have heard stories of and perhaps seen stills from such projects as Evolution (the reel Harryhausen used to get work early on) and The Elementals but it's very exciting to see the figures move. There are also storyboards and tests from such never-realized but fascinating-to-dream-about projects as Baron Munchausen, David and Goliath, The War of the Worlds, and Poe's House of Usher. All of these are introduced by Harryhausen himself, explaining what he'd had planned, how far along he got, and why they were abandoned.

Special features on the first disc include a thirteen-minute documentary on the making of The Tortoise and the Hare, an affectionate audio commentary on that film by Harryhausen, Caballero and Walsh, and a fascinating alternate ending to How to Bridge a Gorge. All of these are very interesting but it's the second disc that holds the real treasure trove of special features. This disc is chock-full of galleries, featurettes, interviews and tributes, all of which are outstanding.

The featurettes vary in length from about three to twenty-two minutes. They cover the restoration of the films by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences; Harryhausen's bronzes and sculptures, including one devoted to the remarkable statue of explorer David Livingstone that Harryhausen designed in Scotland; interviews conducted by the likes of Leonard Maltin and biographer Ted Newsom; and Harryhausen receiving his much-deserved star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The jewel of these is a reunion at Clifton's Cafeteria in downtown Los Angeles between Harryhausen, Ray Bradbury and Forrest J. Ackerman. The camaraderie, affection and shared history between these three giants is palpable and it's a real treat to see them reminisce.

There are more high-quality features to be found under Tributes. First, there are three amusing animated salutes made for a video birthday card. Best of all is the 20-minute Appreciation. I'm usually a little wary of appreciations on DVD. They're usually just an excuse for filmmakers to indulge their inner film critic and analyze a movie or director they particularly admire without ever really revealing why it's particularly important to them personally. That is not the case here. This tribute boasts appearances from virtually every modern-day visual effects artist you can think of, as well as such filmmakers as Joe Dante, John Landis, James Cameron and Peter Jackson. Not only is it clear why Ray Harryhausen was such an influence on these people, their enthusiasm for his work is evident in their comments. This is no dry, academic appreciation. When these guys talk about Harryhausen's movies, they're kids again. Finally, the second disc contains a moving tribute to Harryhausen by the late animator David Allen.

The restoration performed on these films is fairly remarkable. Again, you have to remember the source. These shorts are decades old, were shot on 16mm on the lowest of budgets and stored for going on fifty years in the Harryhausen family garage. So don't expect Gone with the Wind level picture quality here. Even so, the image is amazingly crisp, stable and above all, colorful. All of the Fairy Tales are bursting with color, particularly Little Red Riding Hood and Hansel and Gretel. Even more amazing, The Tortoise and the Hare presents a consistent picture throughout. It's difficult to say exactly where the original footage stops and the new material begins. I think I could make a pretty good guess but it wouldn't surprise me if I was wrong. Besides, things like that really don't matter in the long run. The only important thing is that you're enjoying a high-quality picture.

As for the audio work, it too is impressive. Films with no existing soundtracks, such as How to Bridge a Gorge and Evolution, have had new scores composed especially for this release. Everything is presented in 5.1 which, to be honest, is a bit of overkill. It doesn't really come into play for the Fairy Tales but you definitely notice it with the new music. It doesn't hurt anything but it wasn't all that necessary. A good solid mono soundtrack would have served just as well (and would have been more faithful to the times in which the films were made).

For long-time fans, Ray Harryhausen: The Early Years Collection is an eye-opening, affectionate tribute to a great filmmaker. If you can afford it, I highly recommend picking up Harryhausen's colossal memoir, Ray Harryhausen: An Animated Life to compliment this disc. At $50, it isn't cheap but you'll thumb through its beautifully designed pages time and time again. But The Early Years Collection more than stands on its own merits. It's a testament to one man's perseverance, drive, and love of his craft.

Adam Jahnke
[email protected]

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