Columbia Pictures // 1961 // 101 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Russell Engebretson // March 21st, 2012
A World Beyond Imagination! Adventure Beyond Belief!
Ray Harryhausen, master of stop-motion animation, would reach his artistic peak two years later with Jason and the Argonauts, but the 1961 release of Mysterious Island (based on the Jules Verne novel) is arguably his second-best animation extravaganza. The sheer number of creatures that hop, slither, buzz, and squawk their way across the screen almost offsets the mediocre screenplay. Twilight Time, in collaboration with Sony/Paramount, is now offering the restored and re-mastered Mysterious Island (Blu-ray) in a limited edition of 3,000 copies.
The film begins with the escape of a small group of Union soldiers from a Confederate stockade, led by Captain Cyrus Harding (Michael Craig). They manage to fight their way to a hydrogen balloon, only to be blown out to sea by a violent storm. After a rough landing in the ocean, the escapees find themselves washed up on the shore of an uncharted island somewhere near New Zealand. After a quick exploration of the small island, the castaways begin work on a shelter and gather up some unusually large oysters for their meal. The bucolic Robinson Crusoe scenario is rudely interrupted by the appearance of an irritated, man-eating crab the size of a VW bus. The intrepid defenders manage to topple the giant crustacean into a convenient nearby boiling spring. Monster hijinks continue as a variety of mutated beasts pop up with metronomic regularity. Other creatures that menace the group include an eight-foot prehistoric chicken, man-sized bees, and a humongous underwater "devil-fish," a bizarre cross between an octopus (minus a couple of tentacles) and a Nautilus.
About a third of the way through the proceedings a couple of shipwrecked damsels (Joan Greenwood and Beth Rogan) drift ashore to provide obligatory romantic interest, and sometime later Captain Nemo (Herbert Lom, A Shot in the Dark) reveals himself by striding out of the sea in deep-sea diving gear fashioned from giant sea shells. It turns out that Nemo has been living on the island in his dry-docked submarine, the Nautilus, for years, after his unsuccessful stab at pacifying the world by sinking warships. Now he has perfected a technique of growing animals to gigantic proportions to provide the world's expanding human population with an unlimited food supply. However, an active volcano is about to blow. Unless a plan can be quickly devised, it will send his scientific discoveries and the island's inhabitants to the bottom of the sea.
Director Cy Endfield delivers an entertaining enough movie, and the cast is very good. Lom's Nemo plays J.S. Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor (the obligatory melody for film villains and megalomaniacs) with offhand nonchalance, and delivers his lines with a highbrow seriousness that belies the silliness of the dialogue. Gary Merrill as a war correspondent is suitably wry and cynical, and Michael Craig is fine as the upright, can-do Captain. The best sequence in the movie is the balloon escape and its plunge into the ocean. There's some real suspense generated as the men attempt to gain altitude in the raging storm, throwing out everything possible to survive, including the intrepid Captain who leaps from the basket into the storm tossed waves. One can see the flair that Endfield had for extended suspense scenes involving men in desperate straits, a talent that would serve him well when he went on in 1964 to direct the epic war movie Zulu. Once our heroes hit the beach, however, the soggy, boilerplate plot requires a parade of inventive creatures to keep interest from flagging.
The film's true highlights are the music and stop-motion animation. Bernard Herrmann cranks out a grand score to accompany the top-notch effects work, and Harryhausen's creature animations for Mysterious Island are some of the smoothest he ever created. On the minus side, his matte paintings are not much more than adequate. A rather crude tribute to the fallen tree that spans a chasm as in the original King Kong is the worst malefactor. Happily, the brilliant creature animations more than compensate for those shortcomings.
The new Mysterious Island (Blu-ray) 1080p encode is gorgeous. Colors are rich and vivid (note the striking red crest of the chicken monster, or the subtle color gradations of the period costumes), natural grain is present, and contrast is well-balanced. Dark scenes in the balloon escape that were lost in the murk of the 2002 DVD are crisp and detailed on this new transfer. It's a big improvement over any previous release, and looks as filmlike as I remember it from the theatrical showing. The aspect ratio has been restored to its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio, so there are slim black bars (pillar boxing) on the sides of a 1.78:1 display. Thanks to the newly corrected OAR, there is no cropping of the top and bottom of the image as on the 1.85:1 DVD. The audio is available in either 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, or the original monophonic, also in DTS-HD MA. The audio restoration is every bit as impressive as the picture. There is only so much that can be done with a fifty-year-old soundtrack, but I doubt it will ever sound better than this. Dialogue and ambient sounds are crystal clear, with a minimum of hiss or distortion. The orchestral score is rich and brassy, only dynamically limited by its original source.
Due to licensing constraints, this new re-master is missing the extras on the DVD (the "Making Of Mysterious Island," and "Harryhausen Chronicles"). The Blu-ray includes a full-color, eight-page booklet, a pair of trailers for the movie (a color trailer for theaters, and a black-and-white 1.33:1 trailer for TV), and an isolated score track. Bernard Herrmann's complete, isolated stereo score is a fine extra, and might even merit a purchase in itself for soundtrack fans. Most of the interest in the rather pricey limited edition of Mysterious Island (Blu-ray) will come from audiences who thrilled to the film in a theater as kids (or saw one of its many television broadcasts in the Sixties and Seventies). It's absolutely worth a purchase for fans of the movie and collectors of all things Herrmann and Harryhausen.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Columbia Pictures
* 1.66:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS HD 1.0 Mono (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 101 Minutes
Release Year: 1961
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Isolated Score