Friday, March 19, 2010

Swords & Stop-Motion


The tv promos for the upcoming Clash of the Titans remake has got me thinking about the fantasy films of animator Ray Harryhausen and the impact they had on both my love of fantasy and fantasy gaming. The only one of these films I saw in the theater at its original release was Clash of the Titans from 1981, but the others playing as a network TV movies of the week, or on a Saturday afternoon in the early days of cable, were treasured treats. Before the today's digital effects, the stuttering vibrancy of Harryhausen's creations gave the fantastic a weight and reality that cel animation and men in unconvincing suits couldn't hope to match.

Ray Harryhausen got his start on George Pal's Puppetoon shorts. Pal was later to be the animator responsible for effects in 1953's War of the Worlds and 7 Faces of Dr. Lao. Then Harryhausen worked as an assistant to Willis O'Brien, the animator for the original King Kong, on 1949's Mighty Joe Young. In 1953, Harry Harryhausen was the primary animator on his first feature, The Beast from 50,000 Fathoms.

It was in 1958 that Harryhausen made his first fantasy adventure film, and his first foray into the previously unchronicled adventures of Sinbad of 1001 Arabian Nights fame. The 7th Voyage of Sinbad has never held the attraction for me that the seventies Sinbad films do, but it does have a dragon, a two-headed roc, and the iconic goat-legged cyclops.

7th Voyage featured a fight with skeletons, a set-piece Harryhausen would reuse in 1963's Jason and the Argonauts. This one's got an appearance by the Second Doctor, Patrick Troughton, as Phineas, but of course the big stars are the creatures--which include the hydra, the bronze giant Talos, and the harpies. The iconic moment in this film is skeletons sprouting from sown dragon's teeth to fight Jason while Jack Gwillim, as Aeëtes, gleefully overacts.

1973 and 1977 brought us The Golden Voyage of Sinbad and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, respectively. The Golden Voyage had Danger: Diabolik's John Law in the lead, with the Fourth Doctor, Tom Baker, as an evil wizard, Koura. Depending on how old you were when you saw this, the stop-motion may have taken something of a backseat to the obvious charms of Caroline Munro as the slave-girl, Margiana. Still, it had a griffin, a centaur, and an animated statue of Kali. Eye of the Tiger (no relation to the Survivor song...probably) had Patrick (son of John) Wayne donning the blousy shirt as Sinbad, and doubled the feminine pulchritude with Jane Seymour as Princess Farah, and Taryn Power as Dione. Sinbad and crew go to Hyperborea with an alchemist (Patrick Troughton again) to find a cure for Farah's brother who's been changed into a baboon, by the witch Zenobia who's got a mechanical minotaur called the Minaton. We also get a giant walrus, insectoid ghouls, and a sabretooth tiger.

Harryhausen's heyday came to an end with 1981's Clash of the Titans. Like Jason, this was another foray into Greek mythology, with a few extra-mythic flourishes. Hey, records from that period are spotty at best. Maybe there was a clockwork owl, and a mishapen Calibos? I could do without the neon nimbus around the head of Zeus, though. The coolest thing in Clash has to be the kraken, followed closely by the phrase that heralds his appearances: "Release the kraken!"

By the eighties, stop-motion was beginning to seem quiant, and digital effects were on the horizon. Now we live in an era where whole worlds can be can be created with computer animation, not just individual creatures. I'm by no means a Luddite. I really enjoy digital animation and the vistas it's opened, but I do feel its ease and ubiquity has removed some of the specialness of Harryhausen's and other's stop-motion creations.

When I see a dragon these days, its going to be digital, the only question is its quality. But in the previous era, a dragon could be a bored looking iguana with a fin stuck on its back, or a product of craft and imagination--that was made all the more fantastic because it was unexpected.

4 comments:

Tim Shorts said...

I'm with you a 100% on this one. I have special sections in my DVD collection and Ray Harryhausen has his own. These films got me started in thinking of the fantastic. Great blog Trey.

Oh, And don't get me started on Caroline Munro. Absolutely stunning.

bliss_infinte said...

I was just recently on a Harryhausen run and I with The Golden Voyage being one of my all time favorites right now. Baker as that classic (pulpish) sorcerer and the great cast of some of Ray's best creatures catapult this one as one of his best.

Aye, Caroline Munro....!

Trey said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Trey said...

Glad everybody agrees on the obvious qualities of Caroline Munro...

@Tim - Thanks. I know the DVD collections you're talking about and they hold a special place in my collection as well.

@Bliss_infinte - I think Golden Voyage would be my fav too, though I think I like Patrick Wayne as Sinbad. Baker is a great villian.