Ray Harryhausen: The Early Years Collection (DVD)

Reviewed by Johnny Butane

Released by Sparkhill DVD

Where can I begin with a collection of goodies this big? The beginning, I suppose.

Out of seemingly nowhere Sparkhill DVD, a company well-known in the industry as producers of documentaries for DVDs like the Alien Quadrilogy, announces they’re releasing Ray Harryhausen: The Early Years Collection, a collection of Ray Harryhausen’s first forays into stop-motion animation, namely the Mother Goose stories and Fairy Tales that he was commissioned to make back in the 40’s and 50’s for public schools. Unless some of us out there went to some really cool schools (because they are still shown today by the good ones), this DVD could very well be the first time anyone’s seen these wonderful short films by one of the most influential artists in cinema. And the DVD is loaded, too!

The Mother Goose stories are shown here with a mini-intro that shows Mother Goose coming out of a book with a goose and making an old-time camera appear to show the tales on the screen. This was a new bit of animation to utilize as a wrap-around, apparently, but it looks just like the rest of the stories within, which include “Little Miss Muffett”, “Old Mother Hubbard” (a tale I never heard the full version of, it’s kinda twisted), “The Queen of Hearts”, and “Humpty Dumpty”. Each one is very short, features stock music and intertitle cards to tell the story, but watching them and realizing the each one was done by hand over the course of months…it’s just amazing to see.

Then we have the Fairy Tales, longer bits with voice-over narration telling the story the way Ray thought it should be told. Most of the time as he looked into the stories’ origins, he discovered the originals to be a bit too dark for kids to understand, so he took some creative liberties with them. Ironically, most of them are just as I remember, showing that maybe Ray’s interpretation was the one embraced by most of the public today.

Included in here are “Little Red Riding Hood”, “Hansel & Gretel”, “Rapunzel”, “King Midas”, and “The Tortoise & The Hare”. For those of you familiar with Harryhausen’s career, you’ll recognize the significance of this last story, as it was one Ray began back in 1952 but never finished because he was offered work in a feature film. 50 years later, some stop-motion fans contacted him and asked if they could help him finish the tale, and luckily Ray still had the Hare, Tortoise, and Mr. Fox figures for use, and they were in excellent condition. They were given the exact same camera Harryhausen used to film the original 3 ½ minutes in order to finish it and make sure it looked as close to the existing footage as possible. The result is a shinning example of how fantastic Ray’s work was for his time, for literally very little has been done to improve upon the artistry he developed when he began. Though you can see the difference in film quality when it goes to the new footage, more or less this is a flawless continuation.

Next we have some early films like “How To Bridge A Gorge”, which Ray had made while in the Army to show that stop-motion animation could be used to cheaply and effectively convey how to do tasks that soldiers would need in the field, hence the title. “Guadalcanal” is like a mini-film about how we had taken a very important airstrip from the Japanese during WWII, also done to showcase the unique storytelling abilities of stop motion animation. Then we have a commercial demo, something Ray had done to try and get more work in commercials, and he had decided to test it out with Lucky Strikes cigarettes. Pretty funny stuff, seeing all those cigarettes dancing around happily…The final short film a compilation of commercials Harryhausen did for a new community outside of L.A. called Lakewood featuring Kenny the Key, an anthropomorphic key that touts the wonderful features of this new housing development.

While the films themselves may not be all that interesting, especially for those of you looking for monsters or dinosaurs, their significance in the career of their creator is unprecedented. The general public has never seen some of these films, and most of them were mini-resumes Ray used to use to try and get more work. Considering how far and influential his career became to pretty much everyone involved with film today, seeing his roots displayed in such a fashion is a wonderful thing.

I wish I could devote a full paragraph to all the stuff that literally packs this release to the gills, but there’s just too much of it. I will, however, give you some of the highlights…

The Tests & Experiments section is just amazing, as you see some work that Harryhausen started but didn’t finish, and some stuff he just did for fun like a Baron Munchausen test animation footage, and an alien coming forth from a the ship in War of the Worlds. As you know none of this was used for anything, but the imagination runs wild with the pure potential inherit in what Ray was doing at the time.

On Disc 2 (all of what we discussed is only on the first disc), there are birthday tributes to Ray, footage from the unveiling of his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, interviews, and even a return to Clifton’s Cafeteria, the place where Ray Harryhausen, Forrest J. Ackerman, and Ray Bradbury held their science fiction club meetings back when they were just teenagers. Three living legends gathered around a table, reminiscing about what it was like to be young and the desire for success, and how it is now that they’ve achieved that success with amazing results. It’s very cool.

The highlight of Disc 2 for me, however, was the section under Tributes called An Appreciation. It’s basically a compilation of everyone you can imagine in Hollywood, from Rick Baker to James Cameron to Peter Jackson (on the set of the King Kong remake and looking much thinner!) to Tim Burton, talking about their first experience with one of Harryhausen’s films, how it has inspired them, or just what a great man he is in general. It’s a very touching and telling showcase of just how far-reaching Ray’s influence is on those in Hollywood today that are seen as influences to a whole new generation of filmmakers.

I should note real quick Harryhausen’s actual involvement on this DVD that is basically one big “Thank You!” to the man. He’s featured in almost every segment in some capacity, does a commentary with the guys that helped finish the film on Tortoise & The Hare, and is there to introduce all the short films we see on the first disc with their history and anecdotes, as well. You can tell he is delighted that he is seen as such a mentor for so many working today, but he comes across as incredibly humble and down to earth, the kind of guy you could easily chat with for hours in a café if you were lucky enough to run into him. All in all, a consummate professional.

Sparkhill DVD have just set a very, very high standard to live up to with their next singular release. Ray Harryhausen: The Early Years Collection is plain and simple a must-own for anyone even remotely familiar with and interested in the mans work or stop motion in general, and especially so for those who grew up loving the films he worked on, their imaginations running wild with all the possibilities of a world filled with dinosaurs and creatures from outer space. Do yourself a favor, use the link below to get this DVD and see where one of the greatest artists in motion pictures got his start, and get a very clear idea of just what a great man he truly is.

5 out of 5

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Johnny Butane

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