On two DVDs and at 233 minutes, Ray Harryhausen: The Early Years Collection is an exhaustive (and occasionally exhausting) look at the early career of one of cinema’s most renowned and prolific stop-motion animators.
Fans of Harryhausen have been waiting a long time to get their hands on this material.
Who is Ray Harryhausen?
- Mother Goose Stories
- Harryhausen's Fairy Tales
- Early films from his back yard
- Early films from his days in the army
- The Making of The Tortoise and the Hare
- Video tributes
- Restoration projects
- Stills galleries
Although Willis O’Brien was the grandfather of stop-motion animation behind King Kong (and a half dozen other films), his most famous and most prolific protege was Ray Harryhausen, who carried O’Brien’s torch through another four decades.
The dinosaurs that carried off Raquel Welch, the skeletons that cross swords with a live-action hero, the snake-haired medusa with a rattlesnake tail, the giant cyclops who fights Jason — all these iconic moments can be attributed to Harryhausen. In fact, just about the only noteworthy stop-motion-animated film that did not feature Harryhausen’s work was King Kong, which inspired Ray as a teenager.
Many of Harryhausen’s movies are already available on DVD, and for the casual movie-watcher, are probably a better place to start. This DVD features some of the short films that Harryhausen made before he broke into feature films.
Of particular interest are the six fairy tales that Harryhausen produced for use in classrooms. These films were restored by The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, for preservation and for this DVD release. They are not pristine, but they look as good as possible, considering the age of the source.
Of particular particular interest is The Tortoise and the Hare, which Harryhausen abandoned in the early 1950s to pursue his work in features. When two fans of Harryhausen, Marc Caballero and Seamus Walsh, heard of the half-finished film, they wrote to “Ray” for permission to finish the film. Harryhausen looked at their work, admired their enthusiasm, and gave them permission.
The Big Race
In addition to permission, Harryhausen also gave them the puppets that he had preserved, and the same exact camera he had used fifty years earlier to start the film. Now, fifty years after it had begun, The Tortoise and the Hare is finally complete and available on DVD.
There are several special features related to the production of The Tortoise and the Hare, and they indicate that Harryhausen came out of retirement, so to speak, to animate one more scene of the film. And while everyone is coy about saying exactly which scene he worked on, it’s clear from the footage and the audio commentary where he went to work. It’s nice to know he’s still got it.
Of course, a lot has changed in the last fifty years. Anyone raised on Looney Tunes, The Simpsons and South Park might be forgiven for finding The Tortoise and the Hare a trifle naive, and maybe even a bit slow. In different places on the two DVDs, Harryhausen explains the squeaky-clean tone in different ways. At times he defends the deliberate naivete (he cleaned up most of the fairy tales by removing their violence and “lasciviousness”), sounding like an out-of-touch culture warrior, and at other times he merely chalks it up to a different audience (these films were tailored to schoolchildren) and a different era.
In addition to the fairy tales, there are also some early films that Harryhausen made in his back yard. There are tests and experiments for films that never came to be, such as a version of Baron Munchausen. There are also numerous sketches (Harryhausen has a surprisingly good hand) for concepts of movies he never produced.
So far, I haven’t even mentioned disc 2, which contains many documentaries and interviews. Most of these features existed as standalone pieces, assembled here on DVD for apparent convenience. There are television interviews, tributes, interviews, and speeches.
The best of these is An Appreciation, which features interviews with a score of movie directors and special effects wizards, among them Peter Jackson, Rick Baker, John Landis, Tim Burton, and Stan Winston, all speaking of Harryhausen’s influence on their careers.
Also watchably good are An Evening with Ray Harryhausen, which is an excerpt of an interview with Leonard Maltin on the occasion of his honorary Oscar, and The Academy Archive Restoration, which shows Harryhausen working with a very young looking film preservationist named Mark Toscano.
All that’s missing is Harryhausen’s interview with a local writer for the Colorado Daily during his visit to Boulder back in 1998 (see sidebar).
With so many different interviews and features from so many different sources, inevitably you hear the same anecdote twice. In that sense, Ray Harryhausen: The Early Years Collection is a bit of overkill.
But Harryhausen served as an Executive Producer for this DVD, and one gets the sense that he is compiling all the important highlights of his career while he’s still young enough to do so (he’ll be 85 this year). As a time capsule, a diary, a video memoir, this DVD makes sense. It’s a repository for a lifetime’s work, or at least “The Early Years.”
Picture and Sound
With so many disparate sources, it’s impossible to give a single evaluation. Some of the modern studio interviews are very well lit, photographed, and recorded. But some of the worst-looking and -sounding pieces are amateur videos shot “live” (I’m thinking of the Hollywood Walk of Fame documentaries).
Some of the restorations are visually disappointing. The color looks great, but some artifacts of age simply will not be tamed. Nevertheless, one of the special features explains that no better sources were available, and one does get the impression watching this DVD that it was created with utmost and loving care. If it fails to meet some perfect-world ideal, it’s not for apparent lack of effort.