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Ray Harryhausen:  The Early Years Collection
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Box Front Director: Ray Harryhausen
Original Release Year: 1946 - 2002
Running Time: The films (with host segments) on disc 1 run a total of 107 minutes.  There is a substantial amount of supplementary material on disc 2.

DVD 2-Disc Set Released By: Sparkhill
Video: Fullscreen
Audio: English 5.1 mono
Extras: Disc 1:  Featurette and audio commentary on The Tortoise & The Hare, alternate ending for How To Bridge A Gorge.  Disc 2:  Featurettes, tributes, and image galleries.  The printed insert includes liner notes, a listing of the discs’ contents, and DVD credits.
Subtitles: French, German, Japanese
Closed Captions: English
Region: 0
Format: NTSC
Chapters: 43 (films and host segments on disc 1)
Packaging: Keepcase
MSRP: $29.95
UPC #: 186904000008
Catalog #: N/A
Status: Available


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Reviewed by:
Zillamon51
The Film: This is a comprehensive collection of the early works of legendary stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen.  Ray is best known for providing the special effects for such classic science fiction and fantasy films as The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, The 7th Voyage Of Sinbad, Jason And The Argonauts, and The Valley Of Gwangi.  While his resume includes some of the best-loved genre films of all time, he began his career with stop-motion animated versions of well-known stories and tales.  The first group of films included here are Ray’s Mother Goose Stories and Fairy Tales.

Mother Goose Stories includes “Little Miss Muffet,” “Old Mother Hubbard,” “The Queen Of Hearts,” and “Humpty Dumpty.”  Running 2 –3 minutes each, the stories are presented in pantomime, and set to music.  Interspersed with the characters’ actions are title cards that present the familiar nursery rhyme texts.  The stories are “book-ended” by a wraparound segment featuring Mother Goose herself.

Fairy Tales includes
Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel & Gretel, Rapunzel, King Midas, and The Tortoise & The Hare.  These productions were more ambitious than the Mother Goose Stories.  They run 8 – 12 minutes each, and have voice-over narration.  The viewer can select to watch any of the stories or tales individually, or choose to play them all in sequence.  Played together, they are interspersed with brief but informative host segments in which Ray talks about the films.  He gives some behind-the-scenes info, and explains how he adapted some of the stories to make them more suitable for presentation to schoolchildren.  Ray refers to these films as his “teething stage,” but that’s selling them a little short.  The fanciful miniature sets are very well-crafted.  There is a great level of detail, as birds fly through the frame and butterflies gently wave their wings.  (Such “little things” may have been considered extraneous by a lesser artist, considering the work involved in stop-motion, but they effectively bring these worlds to life.)  The animated characters are quite expressive.  The classy demeanor of the Queen of Hearts and the Mephisto-like stranger in King Midas comes through perfectly, as does the innocence of Red Riding Hood and Rapunzel, and the dogged determination of the Tortoise in the face of the Hare’s cockiness.

The next section of programs on the disc is Early Films.  Like the Stories & Tales, they can be played in sequence with host segments, or watched individually.  The first two films are
How To Bridge A Gorge (4 min.) and Guadalcanal (10 min.).  Ray made them in preparation for military service during World War II.  They are primarily technical exercises intended to demonstrate how stop-motion animation could be used in military training films.  They show the construction and field deployment of equipment, but without any human characters.  Bridges and storage depots magically “come together,” assembling themselves on screen.  Apparently, Ray’s idea was to demonstrate technical processes with an unobstructed point of view.  With the lack of human interaction, the vehicles and other machinery effectively become de facto characters themselves, and so these films still demonstrate the “Harryhausen touch.”

The other early films are a 2-minute commercial demo (an unsolicited cigarette ad Ray made as a demonstration piece); and a trio of ads for Lakewood, a California housing development.  The Lakewood ads run a little over 1 minute each, and feature an animated mascot called Kenny Key.

The final group of programs is Tests & Experiments.  This is a collection of 10 segments (running from under a minute to 3 minutes each), focusing on an individual early project, or experiments Ray did to find out what he could accomplish on film.  The segments are:  “Cave Bear & Dinosaurs” (featuring Ray’s earliest animated efforts), “Color, Split Screen & Rear Projection” (tests integrating live-action with animation), “Evolution” (includes several scenes of dinosaurs fighting), “Adventures Of Baron Munchausen,” “House Of Usher,” “Little Googie” (a clown character), “The Frog Prince,” “David And Goliath” (these last four consisting of concept drawings, but no film footage), “War Of The Worlds” (showing Ray’s animated Martian and his drawings of their war machines), and “The Elementals” (drawings and test footage featuring cool flying creatures).  These are fascinating looks at how Ray attempted to develop projects that would make use of his special effects techniques.  Presented in chronological order, they show the progression from his less-polished early tests to footage that effectively predicts what Ray would be able to accomplish in feature films.  Once again, they can be viewed individually or played in succession, and Ray introduces each one.

All in all, this is an excellent collection of Ray Harryhausen’s early work.  The films are entertaining in their own right, but they also serve to illustrate the development and work processes of one of the greatest motion picture artisans. 
Grade:  A

Video: Most of the films presented on disc 1 have been restored and preserved by the Academy Film Archive.  The Mother Goose Stories look good for their age.  There are speckles and other blemishes, and some grain, but the colors are bright and the details of the images are reasonably well preserved, despite the overall softness of the picture.  The Fairy Tales and Early Films are a step better.  There is less print damage.  The colors are vibrant, and the image is sharper and more detailed.  Little Red Riding Hood is the best-looking of the vintage Fairy Tales.  It is noticeably less grainy than the three stories that follow, and the sharpness of the picture and the richness of the colors serve the forest setting quite well.  Guadalcanal has a lot of vertical lines.  The “Commercial Demo” looks soft.  The Tests & Experiments also vary according to age.  “Cave Bear & Dinosaurs” suffers the most, from an abundance of print damage.  This is not surprising, considering the age and “homemade” nature of the film.  “War Of The Worlds” and “The Elementals” look the best.

Overall, everything on disc 1 looks good, considering the programs are 16mm films that are over fifty years old.  The footage on disc 2 is more recent.  The quality varies from clip to clip, since some are in-studio interviews, and some are outdoor events.  Suffice to say, everything on both discs of this collection is as well-presented as could be expected. 
Grade:  B

Audio: Everything is in English, presented in 5.1 mono.  All of Ray’s films on disc 1 sound good.  The soundtracks have also been restored by the Academy Film Archive.  There is some discussion of the restoration in the printed liner notes.  The goal was not to produce overly-clean, artificial sound, but rather to preserve how the films sounded as they were made.  So there are some minor audio imperfections, but overall everything sounds clear and easily understandable.  Some cool new music has been added to several of Ray’s early and experimental films.  The sound quality on disc 2 varies, again because of the variety of sources.  Some is crisp, clean broadcast-quality.  In particular, the Hollywood Walk of Fame segment suffers the most.  It’s a recording of an outdoor live event on a busy street, so it’s understandable.  It’s not really bad, just very low, so you’ll have to turn the volume way up to hear everything.  Grade:  B+

Extras / Menus: Disc 1 includes a couple of extra features relating specifically to the included films.  There is a 13-minute making-of featurette on The Tortoise & The Hare.  Ray’s final Fairy Tale film has an interesting history.  Ray started it in 1952.  He built the sets and models, and animated several minutes of footage before abandoning the project in favor of feature film work.  It likely would have remained unfinished if not for the efforts of Mark Caballero and Seamus Walsh, two animators and Harryhausen fans who inquired about completing the film.  (Their work can be seen on the hilarious Cartoon Network show Robot Chicken.)  The featurette tells the story of how the parties got together and finished The Tortoise & The Hare in 2002, fifty years after Ray started work on it.

There is also the option to watch
The Tortoise & The Hare with audio commentary by Harryhausen, Caballero, and Walsh.  One thing the parties don’t discuss is what footage is Ray’s original work from 1952, and which scene Ray animated himself in 2002.  Chalk it up to the magician’s code; it certainly isn’t apparent in the finished film, which is uniform in its style and quality.  The final extra is a brief alternate ending for How To Bridge A Gorge.  Ray introduces it and explains why it was cut.

The bulk of the extra features are on disc 2.  They are divided up into three categories:  Featurettes, tributes, and galleries.  There are 9 featurettes, on a variety of subjects.  “Ray Harryhausen:  The Hollywood Walk Of Fame” (13 min.) is a film of Ray receiving
his star.  “Harryhausen’s Livingstone Statue” (4 min.) is about Ray designing a statue in tribute to Dr. David Livingstone.  (Ray’s wife is the famous explorer’s great-granddaughter.)  “The Clifton’s Cafeteria Reunion” (22 min.) is a roundtable discussion with Harryhausen, author Ray Bradbury, and Famous Monsters Of Filmland editor Forrest J. Ackerman, in a restaurant where they used to meet with other sci-fi fans in their younger days.  “In The Credits” (9 min.) is an interview with Ray conducted by the producer of this DVD set, Arnold Kunert.  “An Evening With Ray Harryhausen” (9 min.) is a discussion with Ray, hosted by film critic Leonard Maltin, for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.  “Harryhausen’s Bronzes” (3 min.) showcases bronze figures Ray has made of his various creations, such as the Rhedosaur, Ymir, and the Cyclops.  “The Ted Newsom Interview” (9 min.) is an interview with Ray on his early work.  The interviewer is the author of a book on Ray’s feature films.  “The Academy Archive Restoration” (6 min.) covers the process of restoring Ray’s early work.  “Filmmuseum Berlin” (3 min.) is a look at the museum’s Harryhausen exhibit.

The next category is tributes.  First, there are 3 birthday tributes.  These are short films (1 – 3 min. each) produced for Ray’s 80th birthday celebration.  “An Appreciation” (20 min.) is a number of special effects artists (including Rick Baker and Stan Winston) and film directors (including
Tim Burton, James Cameron, and Peter Jackson) talking about the influence Ray’s films have had on their careers.  “Harryhausen Tribute” (4 min.) is a speech given in tribute to Ray by stop-motion animator David Allen.

Finally, there are 6 image galleries.  They are:  Early Films & Tests (28 images), Mother Goose Stories (12 images), Fairy Tales (70 images), Filmmuseum Berlin (28 images), Hollywood Walk of Fame (18 images), and Sketches (41 images).  Particularly intriguing are the sketches for Ray’s unproduced works, especially “The Elementals.”

There are also 4 screens of DVD credits, accessible from the main menu.  The main menus on both discs are animated; all the menus have generic “twinkle twinkle” fairy tale-style music.  Despite the sheer number of individual segments in various categories, everything is well laid out and very easy to navigate.  All of the special features are subtitled and closed captioned, with the understandable exception of the audio commentary.  For some reason, the discs are encoded to prevent “on the fly” switching of subtitles; they have to be set up via the menu screens.  The printed insert includes:  A message from Ray Bradbury, notes on the restoration of Harryhausen’s early films, a message from the DVD producer, a listing of disc contents, and DVD production credits. 
Grade:  A

Final Analysis: This collection is a virtual treasure trove of material from, and relating to, Ray Harryhausen.  Ray’s influence on the fantastic film genre is truly incalculable.  His handcrafted special effects have an innate life-like quality that modern CGI rarely matches.  His development as both an animator and a storyteller is on full display here.  Expertly presented and well-organized, this DVD collection is the mother lode for Harryhausen and stop-motion fans.  Highest recommendation.  Final Grade:  A
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