Review: Ray Harryhausen – Special Effects Titan / Cert: PG / Director: Gilles Penso / Screenplay: Gilles Penso / Starring: Ray Harryhausen, James Cameron, Peter Jackson/ Release Date: Out Now
When asked where he drew inspiration for the characteristics and demeanour of Mighty Joe Young, stop motion legend Ray Harryhausen smiles, nods, and says; “I thought I’d get in the mood by eating celery and carrots for my tea break so that I felt like a gorilla”. And Ray carried that childlike sense of wonderment with him throughout a career spanning over 3 decades - Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan is a comprehensive chronicle of that career. Writer/Director Gilles Penso takes us on a journey from Ray’s first movie, 1953’s The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, all the way to his final feature, 1981’s Clash of the Titans, after which the innovations in CGI began to overshadow and overtake stop-motion.
But start with a bang it does. The documentary opens with tribute from today’s most celebrated science fiction auteurs; Peter Jackson, Terry Gilliam, Guillermo Del Toro, James Cameron, and one Tim Burton. Their unbridled enthusiasm paints Ray as a true pioneer and father to the special effects industry, whose influence has only grown over the decades. And later, when modern masterpieces such as Jurassic Park, Avatar and Pan’s Labyrynth are examined, it is easy to see the overwhelming degree to which Ray has inspired the current landscape of cinematic fantasy.
Perhaps fittingly, the scale of Harryhausen’s operation becomes evident very early on. The many prototypes and concept art stills shown throughout the documentary, prove that the amazing creatures we all saw on the silver screen were but the tip of Harryhausen’s craft. Each movie monster’s inception, creation and implementation is lovingly deconstructed, with particular attention given to Mighty Joe Young, the Sinbad creatures, and the endlessly impressive giant octopus from It Came from Beneath the Sea.
Plus, there cannot be enough said about Jason and the Argonauts, which was essentially a 90-minute showcase for his stop-motion magic. Those skeleton warriors, man, whoa.
The disc offers a plethora of special features – we get to delve deeper into the designs and the construction of the models themselves in the ‘Treasure Trove’ segment, and though at times it comes across as rather grandiose, hearing Penso and his producer Alexandre Poncet discuss the merits of each model will give the viewer moments of pure wonderment. The sound mixing however, was unfortunately handled by King Kong himself.
In addition, there are a number of lengthy Q&A sessions with Ray himself, a collection of trailers he worked on (made even more fascinating after watching the main feature), and a Super 8 reel of behind-the-scenes footage from The 7th Voyage of Sinbad that is just remarkable. A rare treat for anyone even remotely interested in cinema.
A small gripe we had with the Blu-ray disc was the sometimes stark differences in picture quality between the documentary footage and the surprisingly well scaled-up clips from the classic monster movies that inspired Ray and his subsequent work. Some of the interview segments, especially those including Ray’s long time friend Ray Bradbury, have a coarse, almost scratchy quality to them, whilst others seem to differentiate in their frame rates. The juxtaposition of these and the visually alluring movie clips may be a little jarring for the more hardcore of you out there.
All in all, what is presented here is not so much documentary but more a loving tribute by fans of his work for other fans of his work. The one or two personal anecdotes offered by friends and family in the documentary are too often tied to his professional achievements, leaving the audience with an incomplete sense of who the man behind the monster is. But, whilst this Blu-ray might not make waves outside of the hardcore sci-fi community, it is a worthy tribute to perhaps the most influential pioneer in the history of movie magic.
Extras: Audio commentaries / Interview outtakes / 8 deleted scenes / On the set of The 7th Voyage of Sinbad / Trailers / Message to Ray