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Probably one of the most bizarre DVDs I’ve ever reviewed, Ray Harryhausen: The Early Years is a complete volume of the stop motion master’s pre-motion picture work. Fans shouldn’t expect very many roaring dinosaurs or heavily armoured Greek solders battling skeleton warriors, though. There is amazing talent and imagination to behold, but the novice viewer my find themselves confused and bored by the contents.

Ray Harryhausen: The Early Years
Film
The program begins with the short Mother Goose Stories, and slightly longer Fairy Tales. These are introduced by Harryhausen himself, who makes mention of how the stories were brought about. He also speaks of objections to violence found in the original stories, stating that his versions are pre-censored. Though obviously long-in-the-tooth, old Ray seems to be in good shape. The films themselves are quite old, and probably wouldn’t play well to children of today. Like most of the material on the discs, they’re presented for historical recognition more than the enjoyment of young ones. Frankly, I find the 1940s style stop motion characters more than just a little creepy, but that’s just me.

The shorts include Little Miss Muffet, Old Mother Hubbard, The Queen of Hearts, Humpty Dumpty, Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel, Rapunzl, King Midas, and The Tortoise and The Hair. Each episode shows artistic and engineering intuition on Harryhausen’s part, including fluid movements and integrated backgrounds. Each varies in length, but none longer than 10 minutes. The next section includes Army demos and commercials. Like the other shorts, these are meant for compleatists only, in fact they wouldn’t make nearly any sense without Harryhausen’s commentary. The army demos are particularly surreal, as Ray never animated any soldiers, just their equipment. These appear as toys playing by themselves. I do wonder how much, if any effect these tests had on the US Army. Where they used as mini-lesson plans as Harryhausen stated? The commercials, which include dancing cigarettes and a singing key bearing a striking similarity to the Planter’s Peanut Man, are, again, truly bizarre.

Then we get to the good stuff, Ray’s early test. Dinosaurs! Dinosaurs in black and white, colour, split-screened with live action humans, fun stuff. The kinds of things a fan expects out of Harryhausen. Mostly presented as rough footage Ray’s unfinished films are testaments to what could have been epic masterworks, Evolution and The Adventures of Baron Von Munchausenshowing the most promise. A lot of effort went into these incomplete pieces, and some of the effects innovations employed are pretty amazing even by today’s standards. Other incomplete pieces are presented in stills as Harryhausen continues his commentary. There is, for all the information on the disc, a play all option, thank God.

Ray Harryhausen: The Early Years
While I can appreciate these shorts as works of film art, I have to sadly admit that I was bored silly by them. Yes, it is very impressive that Harryhausen did these on his own, and there are some spectacular innovations made in each short, but I just can’t honestly say I enjoyed myself watching them. I’d rather that these were included as special features on a collection of theatrical works. That would be great. Spending hard-earned money on what is essentially bonus material just seems silly to me.

Video
Everything, on both discs, is presented full frame. The footage is crisp, as should be expected, but just pixilated enough to be distracting. The one and only Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences restored the short films themselves, and look pretty spiffing for 16-mm film that predates the Second World War. There is an understandable amount of grain and dirt, but the effort put into the restoration is quite commendable. As mentioned in the special features, Little Red Riding Hood is particularly colourful and bright, enough to hypnotize an infant into submission.

Audio
Both discs are presented entirely in 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround, and it is grossly unnecessary. The sound is, like the video, is very well restored, but Mono in its source material. There are no stereo or surround effects, except for the catalogue music used in the menus. Pops and crackles are present, but minimal in the shorts. Curiously, the bass track had my sub-woofer working a little too hard, which of course, seems quite unnatural. Basically though, this is a very well presented, if unnecessarily endowed audio presentation.

Ray Harryhausen: The Early Years
Extras
It was hard to decide what on the two-disc set was film and what was supplemental material, because as I stated in my film review, it’s all really supplemental material. My decision was aided by the collection’s inlay booklet, which states plainly what is what. The first disc is finished off with audio commentary and making of to compliment The Tortoise and the Hare feature. It seems Ray hadn’t finished this one until quite recently with the help of a few young aids. The commentary is moot, because Harryhausen explains himself quite thoroughly during the in-between segments, and they’ve supplied a making of. There is also an alternate ending to How to Bridge a Gorge, which is about as exciting as it sounds.

The second disc, which is longer than the first, contains a wide assortment of featurettes, tributes and image galleries. They are broken up into separate menus for easy access. Ray Harryhausen: The Hollywood Walk of Fame is very raw footage of the ceremonial unveiling of Ray’s Hollywood star. He is presented the honor by various Hollywood and Science Fiction heavyweights including Ray Bradbury, Forrest J. Ackerman, and Shawshank Redemption director Frank Darabont. The event is an important one, and it’s great that it has been chronicled, but the footage is filmed so dirty and the sound so inaudible, that it hardly seems worth viewing.

The Clifton’s Cafeteria Reunion is a sweet reunion of Forrest J. Ackerman, Ray Bradbury, and Harryhausen filmed in their old hangout. A brief history of the three’s friendship and of the restaurant is given, and each is given the chance to speak about the other. Bradbury manages to rehash most of his Walk of Fame comments (he does it again in the appreciation tribute and liner notes), and Ackerman has little to say, but I have to admit enjoying watching the three legends just sit and chat.

Harryhausen’s Livingston Statue is a very quick look at the construction of a bronze statue created from an original Harryhausen sculpture of the famous Dr. Livingston fighting off a lion attack. This featurette, along with the short study of Ray’s bronze recreations of his most famous creatures and the In the Credits featurette probably could have been lumped as one, slightly larger featurette. The running times are so short that the time spent waiting for the menu to reload between them becomes maddening.


Ray Harryhausen: The Early Years
The same thing goes for the remaining featurettes; An Evening with Ray Harryhausen, Ted Newsom Interview, The Academy Archive Restoration and Filmmuseum Berlin. Each is short enough in length and similar enough in content that one larger, re-edited version would have been preferable, at least by this weary viewer. The interviews are numbingly boring and entirely uneventful as is the restoration process. Watching film being restored can actually be even more tedious than act of restoring it.

After waking up, wiping the drool from one’s chin and digging through the couch cushions to find the remote, one may choose to move onto the Tributes section of the DVD. This include three slightly humorous Birthday Tributes presented to Ray by various special effects companies, all involving the skeletons from Jason and the Argonauts. I guess ‘cute’ would be the word for the first two, where the last, presented by the creators of MTV’s Celebrity Death Match, has a few inspired moments. These lead into the best supplement on the whole set, An Appreciation, a rather massive tribute film. An Appreciation contains snippets from interviews with dozens of the world’s finest filmmakers, including a virtual who’s who list of special effects artists. Without Ray, there probably wouldn’t be any Industrial Light and Magic or Weta Workshops, and members of these elite organizations are sure to thank him for the inspiration and innovation. The best part comes when a haggard Peter Jackson offers his thanks, and the viewer can see that not only is he wearing contacts, but that he has also lost about sixty pounds (for comparison, see Jackson’s physique at the end of the Walk of Fame featurette).

Finishing things off is a brief tribute from one David Allen, who speaks to Ray during what seems to be a press conference, and looks on the verge of death. Sure enough, the poor man died of cancer soon after the footage was filmed. Those who still have stamina may want to flip through the image galleries, which contain not only pictures of a young Harryhausen at work, but several of his original sketches. These sketches can be viewed quickly during the first disc’s Tests and Experiments section, but here they are presented in more detail, and can be appreciated more thoroughly.

Ray Harryhausen: The Early Years
Conclusions
I sincerely apologize to Ray Harryhausen fans everywhere; I did not enjoy this collection. I’m more than positive that there is an audience for this somewhere, it just wasn’t me. If DVD producers Sparkhill (the masterminds behind the fabulous Alien Quadrilogy set) had only spent a little more time editing the footage into a serviceable documentary, I may have found myself more interested. Preferably, this should be made available with one of the two Harryhausen collections already out there, as a supplement. It isn’t worth the money unless the purchaser is a true diehard fan of the man.


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