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Review: Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan

unnamedOnce upon a time, a young film enthusiast was taken by Willis O’Brien’s work in King Kong and decided to devote his life to making fantastical films and memorable creatures that would be remembered for generations to come. This young man was Ray Harryhausen, and the newly released documentary by Gilles Penso, Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan showcases Harryhausen’s passions and the passions they inflamed and inspired in others, including such film personalities as Guillermo Del Toro, Steven Spielberg, Terry Gillian, John Landis, and Peter Jackson.

Recently released by Arrow video, the documentary is an obvious labor of love for all involved, as the interview subjects all seem very enthusiastic while discussing Harryhausen and his overlooked contribution to cinema, which has carried on a unique legacy with his use of stop motion animation and the often times ridiculously detailed puppets used to create countless characters and sequences that will live on in the minds of film goers forever. Those of my generation will likely recall The Clash of the Titans, (1981) which was sadly his final work as a special effects artist, and its sequences with the gorgon and kraken and their mutual destruction and fun those two creatures gave audiences. While the looks back at all of the films he worked on is welcome, the real treasure is being able to hear Ray discuss the projects while looking at production drawings and seeing the puppets themselves. One of my favorite anecdotes is during the discussion on It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955) and how the production had to shoot footage of the Golden Gate Bridge illegally and how happy Ray was with the end product. Of interest here is also the fact that the giant radioactive octopus only has six tentacles, as having eight would require more work, so the missing two were always “hidden” by never seeing the entire creature at any time. These types of creative work- arounds and the general peek into the man’s process will had me smiling through much of the film’s run time.

Arrow’s new Blu-ray of the documentary looks as good as it can, and that is quite good, considering the various sources for the footage. Ranging from HD shots of feature films, and SD and HD interview pieces, it all works and is never distracting with the varying video qualities. Arrow’s disc features a nice bunch of bonus material to keep you happy after the feature has ended. It starts off with a commentary with the production team, and it’s a lively talk and worth a listen. Next up are interviews with Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg, Peter Lord, and Rick Baker that were not used in the film. Then we move onto twelve outtakes of interviews with Joe Dante, John Lasseter, Nick Park, and others. But they’re worth a view! A set of deleted scenes rounds out of the “missing bits”. Then we have a message to Ray, as many of his friends and industry peers pay tribute. A bit of behind the scenes footage from the set of Sinbad is welcome here, and runs a few minutes. The rest of the bonus material consists of a couple of Q and A pieces from London and Paris from screenings of the documentary are interesting to listen in on. There are also a trailer for the documentary and a reel of trailers for Harryhausen’s own films to round things out.

Simply put, the film is a must see for fans of animation, film history, fantasy film, and special effects in film. It’s strange to think a single person was responsible for so much and has influenced so many for decades and will probably continue to do so. But every once in a while, a certain type of genius is born and thrives. And we’re lucky to be able to witness the fruit of their labor. A solid presentation of the film and a good bunch of bonus material makes this disc a pretty solid recommendation.