Retro Review: Harryhausen’s Dynamation Still Holds Magic in THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD

By Mark Arson, Contributing Writer

Silver Scream Spookshow Presents THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1958); Dir: Nathan Juran; Starring Kerwin Mathews, Kathryn Grant, Torin Thatcher; Sat. April 30;  kids matinee at 1 PM and adult show at 10 PM; Plaza TheatreTrailer here.

The Internet has changed our lives in immeasurable ways. The availability of near-limitless information has made audiences more savvy and sometimes more fickle. That doesn’t even include the extras on a DVD that a consumer buys for next to nothing at the grocery store. There’s almost no point in making entertainment that breaks the fourth wall any more, since audiences are hyper-aware of the fourth wall in the first place. As such, the standard for special effects has changed. You can count on every member of the audience knowing how practical effects work and when and where to spot CGI. Strip away the end result though, and it’s hard not to notice hard work and creativity being poured into the handling of the special effects on a film.

THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD’s main attraction is, of course, the work of stop-motion animation master Ray Harryhausen. As always, his work unfolds like a thrill ride, it’s not really about the destination, but rather about the amazing creatures you’ll see along the way. Two-headed giant baby vulture? Belly-dancing snake woman? A giant cyclops fighting a dragon? Check on all of those. Harryhausen’s drive and effort (he would labor for months on effects for a film, doing most of the work himself) is matched only by the depths of his imagination; you can tell he is in it for the “wow” factor too. Often the most impressive part of the effects is the way that they are seamlessly blended with the live action; this is 40 years before WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT, and the creatures here do not hesitate to tangle with humans. This SINBAD movie is actually Harryhausen’s first color film. He would work on two more some 15 years later when his technique was a bit more polished, but there is a certain raw energy at work here.

The plot involves Sinbad (Kerwin Mathews) setting out for treasure, dealing with a treacherous magician (the fantastic, scenery-chewing Torin Thatcher), and fighting to save his bride-to-be (Kathryn Grant). Mutiny, a motley crew of criminals, a tense truce between kingdoms, magic, monsters, and a reluctant genie, this movie has it all. There is plenty of swashbuckling adventure, both on the sea and on land. Sure, the direction and acting may lack a certain amount of kinetic energy at times, but you won’t be bored, even when you may just be waiting for the next stop-motion monster menace to show up. It would be a crime not to also mention Bernard Herrmann’s rousing score, surely some of his greatest work.

As I was saying earlier, audiences have gotten savvier over time, and you would expect decades-old special effects to not have aged well. This is truly not the case here. The technique of Dynamation (the name given to Harryhausen’s process. Catchy, no?) may not be able to move as speedily as modern CGI, but it has a definite fluidity and realism, partly because it was molded by human hands over time. The result seems more refreshing than anything else. Yes, there is a good reason that modern effects are moving in a more minimal, shadow-draped direction. Profitability has something to do with it too, not to mention that someone with the work ethic and imagination of Ray Harryhausen doesn’t come along very often. The creatures and magic of THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD are out in the open for all to see, and you wouldn’t want it any other way. You also will be a little more afraid of skeletons.

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