We are used to seeing box sets that combine multiple movies from a single director, actor or main character, but it is telling that the titles in Sony’s Ray Harryhausen Collection are thematically linked by their special effects designer. Before modern computer generated graphics, Hollywood relied on more “primitive” means to create the illusion of aliens and monsters, and Harryhausen is legendary for pioneering Dynamation, a technology that utilized model animation, matte screens and stop action photography. While most people cannot remember the director or actors in many of the movies that Ray worked upon, they do know his name in connection with the “magical” effects he provided. 1958’s The 7th Voyage of Sinbad is the first of his classics to be filmed in color and arguably his most iconic film. It is included in the aforementioned box set and as a stand-alone Blu-ray release.
The thin plot revolves around the title character’s (Kerwin Matthews) quest to restore (to normal size) Princess Parisa (Kathryn Grant) who has been shrunk by the evil magician Sokurah (Torin Thatcher). The themes in the story are pulled from a hodgepodge of Arabic, Greek and Roman myths blended together in a vague fantasy setting. During Sinbad’s adventures he encounters imaginative entities (all with FX work done by Ray) such as a Cyclops, a genie in a bottle, a two-headed bird (the Roc), a fire breathing dragon and an animated skeleton (a precursor to Harryhausen’s work in Jason and the Argonauts).
As Harryhausen mentions in an interview in the Blu-ray features, before his work with Dynamation similarly themed fantasy/adventure movies existed. However there was no available technology to portray the inventive creatures, and all the action involved therein had to take place off screen, which made for a less than memorable experience. Since the acting in Sinbad is generally stiff and unremarkable (though I would argue that Thatcher’s turn as Sokurah is a notch above the rest), if it were not for the stupendous special effects work combined with Bernard Herrmann’s memorable score, the film most probably would have become yet another long forgotten entry in the fantasy film genre.
Though the Dynamation technology has been supplanted by more sophisticated means of producing cinematic illusions, Harryhausen’s effects have made Sinbad a classic that has stood the test of time. His FX work throughout numerous features is remarkable for cementing images of the Cyclops and animated skeletons, among other visionary creatures, upon our consciousness. I have fond memories from growing up watching Sinbad on a 13 inch black and white television on Saturday or Sunday afternoons. This is before the days of home video where you were forced to watch a movie when it was broadcast, and all my friends would eagerly talk about it at school the following Monday. My viewing of this inventive classic on Blu-ray only further reminds me why The 7th Voyage of Sinbad is a movie that will continue to capture our imagination for decades to come.
This is definitely the first time I have seen Sinbad in its original aspect ratio that is presented at 1.66:1 and possibly the first time I have seen it in color, as (ashamed as I am to admit) I have missed it on DVD all these years. The initial thing you will notice about the 1080p AVC/Mpeg-4 encoded transfer is that it retains all the grain from the original film source. This is the grainiest catalog title I have yet to see on Blu-ray, and it took a few minutes to get used to. While I love natural grain in film, this is slightly heavy even for my tastes and can be a bit distracting in some scenes. Still, I would much rather the studio let the transfer succeed or fail on its own merits than digitally clean it to cater to more “modern” tastes.
The transfer’s biggest strength is color that boldly reproduces its Technicolor filming process. Hues are vibrant, well saturated and probably haven’t looked this good since displayed theatrically, if even then. Detail is displayed with mixed results and will vary between shots. The scenes where model animation and actors are both included cause a noticeable dip in quality for the part of the film containing the actors while the creatures are displayed with more fidelity. I am guessing this is due to the matte and rear projection techniques needed to combine the animation and actors in the same scene.
Contrast is passable for the time period in which the film was shot. Black levels are fairly solid but never as inky as better transfers and take a hit in some scenes where they fail to resolve properly. There is some minor flickering in sections that were shot for the Island of Colossa sequences displayed early and midway through the film but are otherwise not noticeable. While this transfer has issues originating with its source material and obviously does not equally compare with modern CGI enhanced spectacles, it presents its own variation of cinematic magic and should be viewed within that context.
English audio is provided in both 5.1 Dolby TrueHD and a lossy mono track to replicate the original soundtrack. I am generally skeptical of surround mixes reconstructed from mono sources, but this one actually sounds decent. It is commendable that the studio included the original mono mix for purists, but I think the Dolby TrueHD track is superior in this case. There is also a 5.1 Dolby TrueHD track in French and a 5.1 Dolby Digital track in Thai. Subtitles are included in English, English (SDH), Chinese, French, Indonesian, Korean, Spanish and Thai.
The Dolby TrueHD track shows the weaknesses of its source material with dialog reproduced as mostly clear though a bit thin sounding and a low end that is never prominent. The track is mixed with a good use of the rear speakers to permeate Bernard Herrmann’s beautiful and thematically appropriate score that works well to carry the mood of the film.
Compared to the mono track, the Dolby TrueHD surround mix is spacious but not enveloping and lacks the sense of fullness that modern high-def audio can provide. The mono track feels tighter since it does not have its minimal sound elements spread across the surround speakers but sounds painfully compressed. This is probably due to it being encoded at a paltry 192kb/sec while the lossless track averages around 1.5Mb/sec and actualizes the potential of the source material while also showing its inherent limitations.
The extras for Sinbad are fairly wide ranging including a few videos ported over from the previous DVD release, and many newly created for this edition. It is disappointing that the new material, if nothing else, is not presented in HD. The extras are as follows:
Audio Commentary from Ray Harryhausen, FX Artists Phil Tippett and Randall William Cook, Steven Smith (author on a book about composer Bernard Herrmann) and agent Arnold Kunert. If you are interested in the background on the effects and production of the movie, this is a very absorbing track. It spans the majority of the feature with minimum dropout and gives details on the production including filming locations, special effects work and musical score.
Considering the number of participants, you do not have to deal with much contention in the dialog, and there are many interesting moments included. Casual fans may find it a bit detail heavy. But if you are a long time fan of the film there are some very interesting contextual aspects to be gleaned and the general camaraderie between the participants is enjoyable.
Remembering The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (23:31): Recorded for this release, Ray Harryhausen recollects his work on the film. There is some overlap with the commentary and his interview from the 1995 feature, but there are many very interesting specifics brought up as the FX artist reminisces about how his effects work came together for Sinbad.
The Harryhausen Legacy (25:32): This newly recorded featurette includes a film historian, two directors (John Landis and Joe Dante) and a slew of FX artists (including legends Phil Tippett and John Dykstra) recollecting Harryhausen’s influence on their careers. The genuine enthusiasm from each participant is palatable, and it is impressive how many times you hear something to the effect of how Ray “changed my life.” Most participants reference The 7th Voyage of Sinbad as the catalyst for them beginning their careers, and special note is often made of the Cyclops scene.
Landis Interviews Harryhausen (11:52): This video is from a 1995 interview of John Landis interviewing Ray about this work on Jason and the Argonauts. It gives some brief but interesting details and is most notable for the friendly interchange between the two.
A Look Behind The Voyage (11:47): Recorded in 1995, this featurette contains interviews with Harryhausen, Kerwin Mathews (Sinbad) and producer Charles Schneer about their involvement in the movie. It is interesting but some of the information from Ray is duplicated in the newly recorded featurette and commentary.
“Sinbad May Have Been Bad, But He’s Been Good To Me” Music Video (3:07): A promotional song created at the time of the films’ release. DJ’s and movie theaters used it to promote the movie. The song is fairly catchy and plays while posters of the film from various countries are displayed.
This is Dynamation (3:25): A short promotional film created at the time of the Sinbad’s release which gives high level detail around the special effects process pioneered by Harryhausen.
Photo Gallery (9:34): Black and white and color photos from the film displayed with excerpts from the soundtrack. This is easily the weakest of the included extras.
The Music of Bernard Herrmann (26:52): This intriguing featurette gives background on the resourceful composer of the score. We learn that Herrmann began his career doing radio shows and got his break in movies on Citizen Kane. He went on to work with Hitchcock on such titles as Vertigo, Psycho and North by Northwest, and his last major score was for Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. His relationship with Harryhausen films began with Sinbad and continued through three other pictures.
Sinbad is BD-Live (profile 2.0 player required) enabled but as of this writing there is no exclusive content.
The 7th Voyage of Sinbad is officially 50 years old and takes its place in the cannon of classic fantasy films. Many of us have nostalgic memories of it from childhood, whether in the theater, on TV or home video. For those inclined to the genre but have never watched it, be prepared for the time appropriate technology. Dynamation is not CGI but is definitely not something that should immediately be dismissed as inferior.
Sony’s Blu-ray release gives the best home video presentation we are likely to see and does full justice to Harryhausen’s imaginative animation. We also get a nice lossless audio surround mix alongside the original mono mix to please purists and modern audiences alike. The extras are well rounded and give a careful background detailing the pioneering work, which has made Ray Harryhausen a legend.
– Robert Searle