Monday, April 4, 2011

I'd Love to Turn You On - At the Movies #10 - First Men In The Moon (1964, dir. Nathan Juran)

I recently bowed to the pressure of well-meaning movie fans and tried to watch Pixar’s latest blockbuster Despicable Me. I thought the voices were great and the story was clever and compelling and the animation almost looked real. So why, you may be asking yourself, did I turn it off after about 15 minutes? Well the thing about this CGI stuff is; it looks so real that I question whether it is animation anymore. I dunno, maybe I’m hopelessly outdated, but I don’t want my animation to look real. I like cartoons that look like cartoons, and I like my space monsters to interact with the human stars of the movie in a believable way while looking out-of-this-world. In a way it was this experience of trying and failing to dig CGI that drove me back to one of my favorites of an older style of animation. H.G. Wells’ First Men In The Moon was made in 1964 and features the animation of Ray Harryhausen.
You may be familiar with Harryhausen’s stop-motion animation from movies such as Mighty Joe Young, Clash Of The Titans or the Sinbad films. Harryhausen was the unquestioned master of stop-motion animation. He painstakingly manipulated small clay models, and filmed them one frame at a time to create images that stunned and influenced an entire generation of moviegoers. For me Harryhausen was the ultimate catalyst for childhood fantasy. The skeleton warriors in Jason and The Argonauts, the dinosaur in It Came From Beneath The Sea, the Cyclops, the giant chicken, Zeus, Neptune, all of the great characters from literature and imagination brought to life - not through the work of a computer programmer but through the artisan-like manipulation of real materials to create impossible landscapes and contraptions, successfully juxtaposing the fantastic and the real.
H.G. Wells’ First Men In The Moon falls somewhere between The Wizard Of Oz. and the original series of Star Trek. The storytelling has a Disneyish sweetness that is cut with the mind-altering special effects of Ray Harryhausen. It is old-fashioned storytelling and movie making. We are 45 minutes in to the movie before the first men in the moon actually leave earth. The plot revolves around a neat trick whereby modern astronauts land on the moon in 1964 and discover a small British flag dating from the 1890’s which sets the modern world on a quest to find out who put it there and how it all happened. Thus we flash back to 1899 and are invited into the story of a man who invents a method for leaving gravity behind and exploring space. The fun, childlike acting is “Flubber-esque” but with classy British accents. Harryhausen’s fingerprints are everywhere, from the first scene to the last, lending his otherworldly touch to the family-friendly proceedings. This is ultimately the great charm of Ray Harryhausen: he never lost his childlike sense of wonder. Like his boyhood friend Ray Bradbury, who always wrote with a sense of discovery that appeals to the child in all of us, yet possesses a very adult sense of irony, wit and poignancy, Harryhausen is a boy in a very talented man’s body. I never tire of his special effects. By today’s standards they are a puppet show in a fishbowl, but that is also one of the joys of Harryhausen’s work. I prefer Bela Lugosi being menacing with his eyes than a modern medical expose on fangs on flesh. But that’s just me. If we reach a point in animation where anything can be made believable, what will happen to our sense of fantasy?
Once the characters land on the moon the action is pretty fast and furious as Harryhausen’s sets and alien creations take center stage, and we discover a race of advanced insectoid creatures inhabiting an ancient civilization. Like all the best science fiction there is a dreamlike quality to the fantasy sequences. The scene of the two protagonists being chased through a cave of towering crystals by a gigantic carnivorous worm retains all the magic it originally inspired in me in the 1960’s. The whole movie is really a vehicle for Harryhausen’s memorable special effects. Part of the greatness of this movie has to be given to the source material. H.G. Wells had a way of cloaking thought-provoking morality plays in the cloth of fantasy. Like Jules Verne, his literature speaks to our grown-up minds while enthralling the kid in us. The images and characters in Harryhausen’s films enrich our lives as much as great literature and H.G. Wells’ First Men In The Moon is one of his most enjoyable films.

If you find that you like this style of animation and want to explore Ray Harryhausen’s work further I suggest the following movies:
The Seventh Voyage Of Sinbad
Jason and The Argonauts
Jules Verne’s Mysterious Island
Earth VS. The Flying Saucers
20 Million Miles To Earth
Mighty Joe Young

-Paul Epstein

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