Ray Harryhausen Goes The Extra Mile -- in Color

The recently colorized
The recently colorized "20 Million Miles to Earth." (Sony Home Entertainment)
By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 27, 2007

According to special-effects auteur Ray Harryhausen, "We would have been shot in color if we could have afforded it. . . . The color sure improves it."

That's what Harryhausen says on the commentary track for his 1957 classic, "20 Million Miles to Earth," which arrives Tuesday in a two-disc 50th anniversary special edition set ($24.96). The first disc contains full-frame and anamorphic versions of the film in black-and-white, as well as the newly colorized edition, which Harryhausen personally supervised.

That "it adds a new life," as Harryhausen notes on the commentary, may be understating matters. There have been major advances in colorization in the past decade, and working with San Diego's Legend Films, Harryhausen has managed to make "20 Million Miles to Earth" look like it was shot in color. Most important, one of his greatest creatures, Ymir from Venus -- part lizard, part humanoid, part dinosaur -- is now a glorious green hue, albeit emotionally blue as he suffers the travails of King Kong. That's appropriate, since it was Willis O'Brien's stop-motion Kong that originally inspired Harryhausen. Harryhausen took the technique -- in which a puppet or model is painstakingly moved one frame at a time to suggest motion -- to new heights, inspiring generations of filmmakers to emulate his '50s classics, "It Came From Beneath the Sea," "The 7th Voyage of Sinbad" and "20 Million Miles."

Terry Gilliam, one of numerous fantasy and sci-fi directors appearing in a featurette on the second disc, surely speaks for his imaginative brethren when he says Harryhausen "opened a lot of people's minds to the fact that these fantastical worlds, these extraordinary beings, these events can actually be put on film, and once you believe that, off you go."

The story itself is formulaic, a prototype for many alien creature films to come. When a spaceship returning from Venus crash-lands off the coast of Sicily, fishermen rescue its surviving crew member (William Hopper, son of gossip legend Hedda and later investigator Paul Drake on "Perry Mason"). Back on shore, a young boy finds a mysterious container with an egg inside and sells it to a professor. The egg hatches overnight, and out comes Ymir, a foot-high creature that's more trusting and curious than it is threatening, clearly intrigued by its new environment and apparently hungry for sulphur. The professor and his lovely daughter promptly shove him in a cage.

As it turns out, our atmosphere makes Ymir (the monster is never actually named in the film) grow exponentially. Suddenly it's 20 feet tall and as clumsy as any teen going through a sudden growth spurt, which naturally leads to fear, harassment, persecution and the inevitable operatic death scene atop a big city landmark, in this case Rome's Colosseum. Obviously, there are Kong-like parallels, including our natural sympathy for a creature snatched from its natural surroundings and brought to civilization against its will. Ymir is misunderstood and mistreated from the word "go." You gotta feel for it!

Although the plot may be archaic, Harryhausen's stop-motion animation still looks amazing. A major alien/human confrontation inside a barn is spectacular, and a pre-finale fight with an elephant is terrific as well. The commentary track featuring Harryhausen and visual-effects artists Dennis Muren and Phil Tippett is a treat; they discuss tricks and technical processes as well as the folks in front of and behind the cameras. The original black-and-white version has been digitally restored to pristine quality, and you can switch between it and the colorized version as it plays. The second disc is rich with featurettes, including an interview with Harryhausen conducted by director and super-fan Tim Burton, an interview with directors and effects masters Stan Winston and Rick Baker recalling the impact of Harryhausen's work, and a fascinating piece on composer-conductor Mischa Bakaleinikoff in the segment "Film Music's Unsung Hero." The 82-minute "20 Million Miles to Earth" is not rated, but the project gets an A+.

The film, Harryhausen's sixth feature, was the last of three black-and-white monster pictures he made for Columbia; they were released in a box set in 2005. There won't be "anniversary" editions, but the other two films in that collection will be available this fall in colorized versions: 1955's epic "It Came From Beneath the Sea" (man and woman vs. giant octopus) in October and 1956's Washington-gets-attacked film "Earth vs. the Flying Saucers" in November. Can't wait.

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