Friday, December 13, 2013

Review: 'The Golden Voyage of Sinbad' and 'Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger' Blu-rays

Late in his career, Ray Harryhausen returned to the subject of one of his hugest mid-period successes to make The Golden Voyage of Sinbad and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger. Neither of these films received the accolades or classic status of 1958’s The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, though I suspect the main reason is that folks started viewing Harryhausen’s DynaMation stop-motion technique as a bit old-fashioned in light of the special effects developments displayed in recent films like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Planet of the Apes. That Eye of the Tiger came out the same year as Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind probably didn’t do it any favors in that department either.

Watching these films today is a totally different experience. While the knowledge that all modern special effects are done by some nerd with a computer has robbed them of their “Wow!” value, Harryhausen’s effects are all “Wow!” In The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973), a bat-like homunculus drops a prized golden amulet in the famed sailor’s ship, sending him on a treasure hunt in which he duels with his ship’s animated figurehead and a six-armed Kali statue and encounters a giant Cyclops-centaur and a griffin. In The Eye of the Tiger (1977), his mission to rescue a prince transformed into a stop-motion baboon leads him to fend off a gaggle of bug-eyed goblins and a dinosaur-sized walrus, while also befriending a giant, horned troglodyte. These creatures are as magical as any in Harryhausen’s more critically lauded films, so it’s kind of unfair that they get short shrift just because of the era in which they appeared.

The stories that surround these animals and monsters are better than their reputations too, though the human characters are usually up-staged by the creatures. This is actually particularly true of the better film, Golden Voyage, which drags for the mostly creature-deprived opening 38 minutes but takes off like a monster-packed rocket for the final hour. Still, that film’s Sinbad, played by the reasonably charismatic John Phillip Law, is much more enjoyable than the personality-devoid Patrick Wayne, who plays our hero in Eye of the Tiger. That film makes up for his shortcomings with a stronger gang of supporting players led by Jane Seymour as the baboon-prince’s sister and Sinbad’s girlfriend (she’s a much more engaging heroine than Caroline Munro’s nearly dialogue-less slave girl in Golden Voyage) and Patrick Troughton as the wizard with the knowledge to un-monkey her brother.

However, these being Ray Harryhausen films—the only kinds of films we think of as belonging to the special effects guy rather than the director—the effects are paramount, which is why Golden Voyage comes off as superior. Tiger’s goblins are like poorly designed retreads of Harryhausen’s legendary skeleton soldiers from Jason and the Argonauts. The baboon-prince and the troglodyte are both wonderfully articulate and disarmingly emotive creations, but the other animals are less imaginative than the monsters of Golden Voyage. The overuse of bad traveling matte shots is another issue with Eye of the Tiger.

So it is fitting that Twilight Time has put a lot more effort into their new Golden Voyage of Sinbad blu-ray than their Eye of the Tiger disc. Both films look excellent in high-definition, which is a real relief considering the possibility that stop-motion might not have translated well in such flaw-revealing clarity. Golden Voyage has received an especially careful restoration. Take a look at the details on those fabulous costumes: the golden texture of the Grand Vizier’s frock, the spangles on the villain’s black robe, and the nap of the little patches of purple velvet on his sleeves. Eye of the Tiger isn’t quite as dazzling because it’s a lot less colorful with too many poor-contrast night scenes, though that’s probably more the film’s fault than the restoration’s.

Golden Voyage has some nice extras to match it spectacular visuals. There are three Harryhausen interviews focusing on his earlier films Mysterious Island, The Three Worlds of Gulliver, and Earth vs. the Flying Saucers. He talks about his special effects techniques (including animating a real dead crab in Mysterious Island), use of travelling mattes, locations, and props. In the Earth vs. the Flying Saucers featurette, interviewer Joe Dante gets to manhandle the actual UFO prop used in the film, ostensibly because he wants to explain how it works… but you know he just wanted to play with a really cool toy. There are no details on when these interviews took place, but based on how young Dante looks, I’d guess late eighties/early nineties.

The Golden Voyage of Sinbad also features a booklet essay and an isolated musical score track. These extras are included on the Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger blu-ray too, though the only featurette is a three-minute 1958 documentary on DynaMation. It has nice retro value, but Twilight Time would have given this disc more value had it spread those interviews between both discs instead of hording them on one. So Golden Voyage is the totally essential disc, but both are well worth checking out for their underrated main features. But you better not dilly-dally because they’re both only available as limited editions of 3,000 units, as are all Twilight Time releases. The Golden Voyage of Sinbad and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger are only available at Screen

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