Sony // 1957 // 82 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Dennis Prince (Retired) // December 13th, 2007
Monster of all space monsters!
Ray Harryhausen rarely requires introduction, his vast body of work in the realm of sci-fi and fantasy serving as an impressive resume of which scant few are unaware. An early pioneer in the art of stop-motion animation, Harryhausen worked alongside the legendary Willis O'Brien (1933's King Kong, The Black Scorpion), lending his promiscuous talents to the production of Mighty Joe Young. On that film, Harryhausen developed an inimitable style where he would include subtle but significant movements and behaviors into his animated creatures, giving them a definite humanity (even if they were inhuman) and delivering nuanced performances that would become unforgettable. Recall how Joe Young would always glance downward to check the ground in front of him prior to stepping forward. Remember how the Cyclops from The 7th Voyage of Sinbad tentatively grasped at the space in front of him after having been blinded by Captain Sinbad's torch. And, in the case of the feature film under scrutiny here, relive the exquisite animation that cleverly portrayed the tentativeness of the newly hatched Ymir, a creature that unwitting arrived from a point more than 20 Million Miles to Earth.
An otherwise peaceful day of fishing off the coast of Sicily is abruptly shattered when a massive rocket ship descends from the skies and plummets into the Mediterranean waters. Two fisherman and a young boy retrieve the two surviving astronauts from the ship's wreckage, a craft that had successfully landed on the planet Venus. Although one astronaut later dies in a hospital in the small village of Gerra, the remaining pilot, Col. Robert Calder (William Hopper, The Deadly Mantis), is desperate to recover a sample of Venusian life collected from the planet. The young boy, Pepe (Bart Bradley aka Bart Braverman), has found the unborn creature and sells it to the local zoologist, Dr. Leonardo (Frank Puglia, The Black Orchid). The creature hatches, startling the doctor and his young niece, Marisa (Joan Taylor, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers and soon escaping after doubling its size overnight. After killing a local farmer, the creature is hunted by the Italian police while Calder and his team attempt to capture and contain the ever-growing beast. As much as Calder and crew strive to secure and study the creature in the Rome Zoo, its rampant growth inevitably makes it a menace to the entire countryside.
If ever you've dismissed a stop-motion film as being "fake," you haven't watched a Harryhausen picture. This isn't to suggest he achieves absolute realism in the technique but, rather, that his approach instills a connection with the animated creatures that's difficult to resist. Much the way Willis O'Brien's Kong exhibited the shifting of fur that betrayed the technique being employed, you nevertheless cannot avoid being affected -- even moved -- by the character on the screen. Harryhausen likewise had his own signature style of including little movements or mannerisms that would effectively allow us to forget the technique and focus, instead, on the character. Among his four sci-fi pictures of the 1950s (including The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, and It Came from Beneath the Sea), the Ymir in 20 Million Miles to Earth achieves very Kong-like style. Harryhausen's secret: always keep the character moving. As he explains in the extra material on this disc, Harryhausen wisely realized that if a creature were ever left static within a series of frames, the illusion would be destroyed. To avoid this, he maintained constant movement of some sort, be it a turning of the head, blinking of eyes, curling of a lip, or undulation of the tail. Often, he orchestrated all of the movements simultaneously to ensure the character never appeared as the table-top model it really was. Combined with impeccable lighting and precise camera angle matching, Harryhausen's work melds seamlessly with the live action footage. Granted, you'll witness the limitations inherent in filmmaking of the 1950s, especially the sometimes-unsteady composite shots, but by and large the effect is very pleasing and assures an enjoyable fantasy setting for all ages.
Although this special 50th Anniversary Edition presentation was made available on DVD in July 2007, here's a new Blu-ray offering that unexpectedly caters to the high-definition crowd. The widescreen image, delivered via a 1080p / AVC, looks remarkably detailed, struck from one of the best archival sources yet. Although originally filmed in black and white, this edition offers you the ChromaChoice option to view in its original presentation or in a newly colorized version (more on that later). As for the black and white image, the gradients are well managed with good contrast and surprisingly adept black level representation. The high definition treatment helps draw out more detail than you've likely seen before, even to the point of revealing the unintended textures and construction of the stop motion puppets. This isn't a deal-breaker, though, since Harryhausen enthusiasts will surely revel at the opportunity to carefully study the master's creations. There is some pesky film grain and a bit of posterization that creeps in during the rocket ship rescue sequence but that's about all.
As for audio, you'll enjoy a newly-minted Dolby TrueHD 5.1 mix that gives this 50-year-old picture a very impressive soundstage. While you shouldn't expect any sort of top-end sound experience as with current productions (remember the sound designs and recording capabilities of fifty years back), you'll nonetheless be impressed at how effects are carefully chosen for specific channels and even smooth imaging around viewing area (listen to the approaching rocket ship as it's off in the distance then plummets at and behind you when it strikes the sea). Dialog is very clear although it does suffer a bit of hiss from time to time.
If the enhanced feature attraction isn't enough of a draw to Harryhausen fans, the supplement material surely will be. The audio commentary assembles ILM visual effects technicians Dennis Muren and Phil Tippett, accompanied by documentary producer Arnold Kunert and, of course, Harryhausen himself, beamed in via satellite from London. This is an excellent commentary track where you'll learn so much about the original production thanks to the insightful questions raised by Muren and Tippett (their reverence for the work on display and the ingenuity employed being clearly evident) and the free flowing information from Harryhausen. Following this is a 27-minute featurette, Remembering 20 Million Miles to Earth in which Harryhausen introduces us to the origin of the Ymir (inspired by a potentate?!). From there, the documentary collates interview segments of screen greats including Terry Gilliam, Rick Baker, John Landis, and others, all who weigh in on the importance and influence of the film. The Colorization Process offers 11 minutes with the folks at Legend Films as we watch these folks utilize cutting edge programming, with Harryhausen sitting alongside, adding color to the film and achieving a result that the master animator fully approves and enjoys. Tim Burton Sits Down with Ray Harryhausen is an odd duck in this bunch, the current day director appearing clearly unprepared and redundant in his comments and questions, making for a rather uncomfortable 27 minutes to behold. In Interview with Joan Taylor, we catch up with the film's leading lady, vibrant and radiant as ever, as she shares personal recollections of her work in this pictures as well as the several western films she did. This feature, running 17 minutes, is a real treat. In Mischa Bakaleinikoff: Movie Music's Unsung Hero, soundtrack producer David Schecter offers us a 22-minute look into the composer and the methods employed to score this and other Columbia pictures. There's still more on tap here as we get a peek into the first few pages of the new comic extension,20 Million Miles More. The Galleries offer us a look at studio portraits of the key actors as well as a look into Harryhausen's original concept artwork. Next is a real jewel, Original Ad Artwork, in which Arnold Kunert displays various press and promotional materials used in the 1950s. Given how so much of this vintage material has long been forgotten (along with the distribution operation, National Screen Service), this 17 minute featurette serves as excellent education for those who have never heard of pressbooks, lobby cards, half-sheets, inserts, window cards, and more. Strangely, the feature film's original theatrical trailer is not to be found.
Now, let's discuss the whole matter of colorization. Harryhausen makes is plainly clear that he's quite pleased with the results Legend Films has achieved in their computerized tinting process. In fact, Harryhausen indicates the pictures were originally conceived to be filmed in color and it was the budget limitations that resulted in a black and white film stock. And while the colorization here is pretty good, it still looks like a tinted film, that is, the process still lacks the ability to properly generate subtle hues and tones that would make the color layer look like much more than a less-dimensional color mask. Often, the coloring challenges the natural planes of depth, police uniforms seeming to jump ahead of a colorized element that is in front of them. Often, too, the colorization results in a "color crush," so to speak, similar to black crush where details within the colored area are lost to a flattened area of tinting. And while it's foolish to argue against Harryhausen himself and his guidance in the coloring of the Ymir, the creature has a lime green tint that fails to work within the lighting and textural nuances we've come to love about this film. A standout sequence that features the most evocative lighting on the Ymir can be found at 44:25 point in the feature, stunning in black and white yet sadly undone by the colorization process.
If you enjoy colorized films, you'll no doubt find this to be one of the better efforts of late. If, however, colorization continues to rub you the wrong way, the result of the ChromaChoice option here won't convert you to the colorized side any time soon. (As a side note, it's nice that the disc menu includes sequences from the film with the colorization result being wiped on and off as it awaits your selection. Also, you can easily toggle between color and black and white by pressing the angle button on your player's remote at any time during playback.)
Even though we enjoy technically impressive films that have come so far since 1957, we can never disregard the fact that a film like 20 Million Miles to Earth was a triumph in its own right. This film and Harryhausen's work in it has long been cited as an inspiration to some of our greatest genre filmmakers and should continue to be properly studied and enjoyed for its accomplishment. After you understand more about the stop-motion process of long ago and realize that Harryhausen was one man, working alone and without various instrumentation or video capture/playback, you'll know this is one incredible feat not to be missed.
Not guilty. The infraction of the colorization effect will be likewise dismissed given the defendant has offered a choice to viewers.
Review content copyright © 2007 Dennis Prince; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (Widescreen)
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
Running Time: 82 Minutes
Release Year: 1957
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Audio commentary
* ChromaChoice viewing selection
* Featurette: Remembering 20 Million Miles to Earth
* Featurette: The Colorization Process
* Featurette: Mischa Bakaleinikoff: Movie Music's Unsung Hero
* Featurette: Original Ad Artwork
* Interview: Tim Burton and Ray Harryhausen
* Interview: Joan Taylor
* Preview of "20 Million Miles More"
* Official Ray Harryhausen Site