16 May 2013

HARRYHAUSEN WEEK: WALKING WITH GIANTS

Jonathan Swift's beloved 1726 satire Gulliver's Travels has had such a miserable history in its various cinematic adaptations that picking one out as the "best" isn't saying a goddamned thing, other than "this version actually includes something other than Lilliput". Which, as it happens, 1960's The 3 Worlds of Gullivers does, and that's a huge part of the reason that I'm sort of inclined to suggest that it's the best movie adaptation of the book (there are fuller versions, including the 1996 TV miniseries starring Ted Danson - ah! the mid-'90s bloated fantasy miniseries trend! how I miss thee - but it's too ponderous and too Ted Danson-starring to seriously compete as a tremendously watchable piece of filmed entertainment). The other is that, in degraded form 3 Worlds actually retains some scant measure of Swift's satiric intent, however distorted: the themes of the second sequence in particular don't resemble the original book much at all, but the point is, this is a Gulliver movie in which there are themes, no matter how watered-down for the child-dominated matinee audience that Columbia had in mind for this production. The 1939 animated feature version can't claim that. The 2010 Jack Black vehicle sure as living fuck can't.

Of course, The 3 Worlds of Gulliver is still primarily a glossy fantasy of the sort that producer Charles H. Schneer had found such immense success with two years earlier, in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. Fantasy, in fact, became the chief mode of Schneer's career from 1960 onwards, as he and effects artist Ray Harryhausen - for though there were other collaborators worth talking about, it's pretty clear to all and sundry that the Schneer fantasy cycle was really entirely based on the fact that he and Harryhausen worked well together, and fantasy was where Harryhausen did his most iconic work - played in the myths of this culture and that, while stopping over to plug their particular brand of swashbuckling and movie magic into a pair of literary adaptations, beginning here (the second was Mysterious Island from 1961, a much less obvious candidate for the Harryhausen treatment, until an army of giant animals were randomly shoved into the scenario).

Truthfully, Harryhausen's particular talents had been used much better elsewhere. As far as stop-motion animation, there are only two Dynamation critters in 3 Worlds, though both of them are pretty stellar: one is a giant squirrel that threatens Gulliver (Kerwin Matthews) and his new bride Elizabeth (June Thorburn) as they honeymoon in the country on the giants' island of Brobdingnag, the other is the Brobdingnagian king's (Grégoire Aslan) pet crocodile, which he sics on Gulliver as punishment for being the face of Reason and Enlightenment in a supertitious, medieval-style country. It's impossible for me to find fault with either creature (the squirrel especially is animated, basically, to perfection), other than they are not onscreen for a very long time; so at the very least, we can safely claim for the movie that it finds Harryhausen in his usual fine form.

But I must reiterate: the film wastes his talent. The vast bulk of the movie - which, after all, finds Dr. Lemuel Gulliver first marooned on an island of five-inch tall Lillputians, and then on an island where he himself is about that proportional height to the Brobdingnagians - requires mostly a lot of matte work to combine very large and very small people in the same shot, and make it look like they're talking and, to a small degree, interacting, though there's little enough onscreen physical interaction between characters that it's always done in a showy and distracting "LOOKIT OUR AMAZING SPECIAL EFFECTS IT'S LIKE HE'S REALLY ON AN ISLAND OF TINY PEOPLE" way, rather than something simple and spare that merely underlines the reality of the situation without belaboring it.

To be sure, it's incredible matte work. Not flawless, but it's the kind of film that you could use to shut up anybody's argument about the relatively primitive effects work of the '50s and '60s being somehow less sophisticated than the present day (and let's not forget, it wasn't a terribly costly movie, either). Ray Harryhausen might be thought of as an animator more than a compositor, for that is where his most impressive and unique work was done, but he was really gifted at all elements of effects work. Still, he wasn't so much better at matte shots than anybody else that it makes sense to assign him to bringing to life a movie where that's nearly the entirety of the effects work. It's like hiring Joël Robuchon to make you an egg salad sandwich: sure, the results are great, but why?

As is usually the case in Harryhausen's projects of this period, the film surrounding the effects is more than satisfactory, though unabashedly juvenile, even with writers Arthur Ross and Jack Sher (the director, as well) replacing Swift's own broadsides against European militarism and inhumanism with slightly more up-to-date barbs against runaway financial greed and superstition; it is a film that, though only in a moderate way, espouses a charitable humanism based in a very '60s-style enthusiasm for knowledge and science (Swift, whose book included an entire segment dedicated to mocking science and the Age of Reason, would perhaps have blanched at this change to his source material). The simple fact is, though, whatever thematic depth you spy in the movie is not really the point of it at all, more the byproduct of trying to freshen up material that can't help but be a bit messagey, because of its basis in overt symbolism. The 3 Worlds of Gulliver is first and always chiefly a matinee movie, with lots of broadly funny material and broadly exciting material and broadly impressive effects-driven setpieces, all of it meant to keep children enthralled and their adult minders sufficiently amused that they don't want to kill themselves. It works at that - the adult part, anyway (unlike most films with Harryhausen effects, I hadn't see 3 Worlds except for the odd scene here or that prior to watching it for this review). It's agreeable entertainment that doesn't completely insult the spirit of Swift's book, and it keeps juggling plot points enough that even a 100-minute running time that's definitely on the long side for this kind pf picture doesn't manage to feel languorous. Bernard Herrmann's boisterous, chipper score (the same year that he composed the nightmarish strings for Psycho!) helps considerably to keep things light and fast-moving, though it's possibly the simplest of the four scores he wrote for Schneer/Harryhausen pictures.

The biggest problem with the film happens to be exactly the same big problem that The 7th Voyage of Sinbad suffers from: Kerwin Matthews, who just isn't very interesting, even by the narrow standards of '50s and '60s matinee stars. He's too blandly all-American without any sense that he's got an inner life; and his Gulliver is slightly worse than his Sinbad, for while the Arabian hero merely feels like an anonymous placeholder, the English adventurer is projecting a sense of self-righteousness that's a little more rankling than it could be, owing to Matthews's failure to base it in any kind of psychological register. Mostly, though, he's just boring to watch and listen to, which makes it good that most of the time, he's surrounded by either very large or very small cartoons being played with full plummy delight by a clutch of marginally recognisable character actors, or a couple of exceptionally well-cast child actors. With all the spectacle and frivolous comedy filling every corner of the film, we never really need to pay much attention to Gulliver until the horribly mis-written ending. It's not nearly as timeless as the better-known of Harryhausen's adventure movies, nor as visually imaginative, but for a throwaway adventure film of this vintage, it holds up pretty well as a bit of harmless entertainment with a screenplay that's quite a bit more literate than it has any real need to be.

3 comments:

javi75 said...

Apparently, some of the shots of Gulliver interacting with the Lillputians were not matte shots, but done with forced perspective. I believe that saved a lot of hard work/money.

Tim said...

I've heard the same; I don't know which shots those are, though there are several possibilities. At any rate, the matte work and the forced perspective alike are of impeccable quality.

David Greenwood said...

"ah! the mid-'90s bloated fantasy miniseries trend! how I miss thee"

That is one of my wife's absolute favorite genres... "The 10th Kingdom" is a favorite of hers and mine, though I also enjoyed "Arabian Nights", mostly due to John Leguizamo's truly inspired dual role as the battling genies.