Ray Harryhausen is one of the best people in the world. I think that’s a fairly safe statement. Not only did he bring some of the most fantastical films of the twentieth century into being, but he’s been a dramatic influence on almost every other filmmaker who uses special effects. I’ve loved Clash of the Titans, Jason and The Argonauts and the Sinbad films for as long as I can remember. The intricate stop-motion process, matteing into the live action and the beautiful models all added something special to those films. Ray Harryhausen, Special Effects Titan is a huge understatement (that might be an overstatement).
The documentary consists of a series of interviews with Ray and many current directors and special effects technical folks (including Spielberg, Cameron, Nick Parks and tonnes of others) roughly following the chronology of the films and his earlier work. If you’re already into Harryhausen, you probably won’t learn much but there are many clips from the films and we see lots of the original models (and the attempts being made to preserve Ray’s extensive legacy).
It feels very much like a TV documentary or a student film. If I didn’t care about the subject I wouldn’t have been satisfied by the tacked together clips from other interviews and dodgy production values. I guess that’s fitting in some respects – most of Ray’s films are not great films, and certainly wouldn’t be remembered were it not for the incredible life he injected into those animated characters. It’s a shame they aren’t better scripted and acted.
Perhaps the most satisfying things in the documentary are the directors fawning over Ray and pouring out their effusive praise. I most enjoyed James Cameron (maker of the awful Avatar – a film only rescued by its remarkable special effects) declaring that Ray would absolutely definitely be using CGI if he was making films today, followed by a clip of Ray saying he would always rather use models, even today. There’s also some lovely footage of Ray’s birthday party and award ceremonies. I enjoyed it, but then I was always going to. It’s a fine complement to the (amazing) coffee table book Ray Harryhausen: An Animated Life and Ray Harryhausen: The Early Years DVD.
Before the documentary, Broadway Cinema also showed Jason and The Argonauts, which is probably Ray’s best film overall. Due to a scheduling conflict we had to watch it at home the day before (still awesome). It follows the mythical tale of Jason fulfilling the prophecy that a man with one sandal shall come and kill the king of Thessaly because the king killed his mum, and off he goes to get the Golden Fleece. Splendid fun.
It features possibly the greatest ever battle with skeletons, Neptune and the clashing cliffs, Talos the big bronze dude, an unusually good script and a Hercules with magnificent hair. If you haven’t seen it then you will definitely have seen it endlessly ripped off since 1963 (in homages, as they like to call them). My favourite thing about it is the lovely cloudy overlays that Olympus has when we’re following the surprisingly affable gods’ interest in mortal affairs. It’s also notable for utterly failing to resolve the plot as the film simply ends a nice romantic hug and Zeus saying he’s got other stuff for Jason to do; he never does go back and kill the king. No one seems to care about this except me.
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