Mike Sutton has reviewed the Region 2 release of Seventh Voyage of Sinbad.
The films made with Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion animation technique are beloved of many fantasy fans. Most of them share the same problems; hopeless writing and even worse acting. Luckily, Harryhausen’s wonderful creations have enough charisma to upstage any troupe of actors. The problem, never solved in these films, is that it’s difficult to believe in a mythic world when the actors keep bringing you back to earth everytime they open their mouths.
Seventh Voyage was the first film to showcase Harryhausen’s creations in colour. The amusing featurette describes the time consuming process as “DYNAMATION – the new miracle of the screen!” and it has to be said that, allowing for a bit of jerkiness, the monsters still look pretty good today. The trick is that while most stop motion animation features the puppets against a flat background, Harryhausen devised a process where the monsters are in the middle of the shot, with live action in front of and behind them. This allows an edge of realism which cheaper processes didn’t match. Of course, compared to modern CGI techniques it’s all rather primitive, but personally I like the cranky charm of these monsters and the physical presence adds a definite edge of excitement.
In fact, the models upstage the actors in this film without any problem. Later films have slightly better casting – especially Golden Voyage with a deliciously hammy Tom Baker and Clash of the Titans with Olivier and Maggie Smith – and it’s true that Kerwin Matthews, playing Sinbad, appears like a model which Uncle Ray has forgotten to animate. However, he gains points for his ability to look as if there is something standing in front of him when acting in scenes where the models were added later, and his swordfighting is excellent in the final confrontation with the skeleton. But he has not a shred of personality, and neither has Kathryn Grant, the immediately forgotten ingenue who plays the Princess. The only actor who does anything memorable is the entertainingly camp Torin Thatcher as the bad guy, Sekoura, who gets up to all manner of naughty things.
It moves at a fast clip, with mercifully brief dialogue exchanges once the plot gets going. Bernard Herrmann’s wonderful music score helps a lot, and the location filming in Spain adds a sense of expansiveness which would be impossible to recreate in a studio. But the monsters are the whole show, and they are brilliant. Beginning with an irritable cyclops, we get a dancing cobra-woman, a giant two-headed bird, a skeleton and, best of all, a rather cute fire-breathing dragon. There’s also an adorable giant chick that comes out of an egg and is then slaughtered by the nasty sailors. All of these are superb technical achievements, although they are child’s play compared to the astonishing Goddess Kali in Golden Voyage or the skeleton army in Jason and the Argonauts.
What the film lacks, crucially, is a sense of wonder. We rarely get the feeling that this is a mythic world where the natural and supernatural co-exist, since the dialogue is full of the “gee-whiz” cliches of bad Hollywood scriptwriting. What magic there is comes from the monsters, but it’s not carried over into the other parts of the film. The only one of the Harryhausen films that succeeds in creating a really convincing fantasy world is Jason, and even that suffers from the wooden performance of Todd Armstrong. However, that’s adult critical carping, and it’s important to remember that kids love these films and are willing to suspend disbelief rather more than middle aged cynics like myself.
Columbia have presented the film in a fine DVD package, with lots of extras, although I do have one big reservation. The picture quality is good to middling. The colours are magnificently rich, and the pciture is generally well defined and satisfying. Some grain and relatively little artifacting, although this does become a distraction during the later scenes in the dragon’s cave. Sound quality is adequate and unspectacular. I would have liked a decent remix on these films to be honest, as my memories of them in the cinema, when I saw them as a child, are as big, noisy spectaculars. However, that’s just my memory playing tricks, as they were all shot in mono 1.85:1.
My reservation refers to the extras. Now, the Dynamation featurette and the interview about Sinbad are very good, and it’s nice to see trailers for Seventh Voyage, Golden Voyage and Jason. But the hour long documentary, good as it is, is exactly the same one on the Jason DVD although there is nothing on the packaging to indicate this, which seems rather thoughtless of Columbia. There is also the same, in this context rather irrelevant, interview about Jason and the Argonauts. If you haven’t got the other disc you’ll enjoy these, but if you have you might feel rather shortchanged. Otherwise, there are an awful lot of subtitles and a reasonable 28 chapters.
A good disc generally, with a fair transfer of the film and some good extras. If you like the film then go ahead and buy this DVD, but if you have the film and just want to see the extras, then I would suggest renting it first.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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