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There is an accepted level of spectacle emanating from the films lucky enough to be part of Ray Harryhausen's larger oeuvre – for both the characters involved in the plots, and the audience that's typically watching with delight. These are enormous fantasy and science fiction films, arguably the progenitor of today's overstuffed, effects-laden Hollywood blockbusters. And yet, it hard to fault them for that, as the handmade, personal feel of Harryhausen's signature stop-motion treatment often belies the more utilitarian moneymaking endeavor of larger-than-life spectacles typically on display during the summer movie season.
In movies like 'Clash of the Titans,' 'Jason and the Argonauts,' and, in this case, 'The Golden Voyage of Sinbad,' Harryhausen's deft touch and near-endless imagination birthed a litany of wondrous creatures that seemed to truly interact with the characters on-screen, to become one of the cast. Watching these movies, its easy to see how audiences might have been awestruck in much the same way modern audiences were when Steven Spielberg brought dinosaurs to life in 'Jurassic Park,' ostensibly birthing a new age of special effects-driven cinema that dominates most moviemaking today. For its part, 'The Golden Voyage of Sinbad' came later in Harryhausen's career, and fifteen years after 'The 7th Voyage of Sinbad' arguably should have spawned an even more prolific franchise, but even though considerable time had passed between installments, the grandiosity of the film served as a powerful demonstration that Harryhausen hadn't missed a beat; in fact, he'd arguably honed his craft even more.
This time around, Sinbad's tale is told by horror director Gordon Hessler, with a bearded and slightly more roguish John Phillip Law stepping into the shoes of Kerwin Matthews as the titular hero, who once again finds himself on a gigantic quest where venturing into the fantastical is a foregone conclusion. Law, or, rather, Sinbad is joined by his crew of loyal, if undefined shipmates and fellow adventurers, who not only answer to their captain's call, but also line up to provide the film with a line of bloodless deaths at the hands of various stop-motion monstrosities, as well as offer the occasional bit of humor. Like most hunky men of the Saturday matinee, Sinbad's thirst for adventure is tempered only by his ability to attract the loveliest of leading ladies. This time around, the captain's unrelenting boldness is matched by his burgeoning feelings for the slave girl Margiana (Caroline Munro), whose increasingly barely-there costumes and burnished hair evoke the '60s and '70s New York club scene more so than ancient wonders. Rounding out the brave captains companions is the Grand Vizier of Marabia (Douglas Wilmer), whose face remains shrouded behind a golden mask until circumstances require him to reveal his scarred visage.
Simply sending Sinbad and his crew on a quest to find a mystical fountain wouldn't be enough; there must also be an adversary racing the heroes to possess the fountain's near-limitless power that would certainly spell doom for the world should it fall into the wrong hands. In this case, 'The Golden Voyage of Sinbad' offers up a villain for the ages, in the dark mystic Prince Koura – played here by fourth Doctor WhoTom Baker – a superb challenger who is not only fueled by his lust for power, but actually needs the healing abilities of the fountain, due to the deteriorative effects of the dark arts. Early in the film, Koura's oily charisma and allure, is tinged with portent for our heroes; but with each successive use of the magic, the sorcerer imbues a part of himself into his twisted creations, thereby becoming a victim of his own amazing attributes. By the time the film reaches its climax, the once beguiling mystic has been rendered a desperate old man with hardly enough strength to pull himself across the ground, let alone engage a youthful swordsman such as Sinbad.
Baker's performance is so enchanting, it nearly shines brighter than even the amazing creations Harryhausen has lined up to foil Sinbad on his amazing journey. Thankfully, though, there's an intriguing synergy between Koura's drive to beat Sinbad and the creatures he brings to life that, of course, require the deft touch of the film's special effects master. The overlap between Sinbad's encounters with Koura's devilishly animated objects, like a ship's wooden figurehead and, more famously, a statue of Kali, and Harryhausen's own uncanny ability to animate the inanimate suggests an interesting self-awareness from the filmmakers to celebrate the movie's wonder by intimating that what is being seen is, in fact, magical. And after Koura uses what little power he has left to bring Kali to life and engage Sinbad and his men in a six-armed swordfight, or when a one-eyed centaur does battle with a heroic gryphon, it's hard to argue against the likelihood this picture is at least partially enchanted.
There's an unassuming quality to the movies containing Harryhausen's work that, despite being slapped with such nonsensical marketing claptrap like "Presented in Dynarama" or even "SuperDynaMation," they still manage to transform the usual Saturday matinee fare into something far more endearing and enduring. It's true that these films will largely be remembered because of the reverence that's still held for the man behind the magic, but when you view them, there's little you can do, but continue to be amazed.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Golden Voyage of Sinbad' comes from Twilight Time as a single 50GB Blu-ray disc that is limited to just 3,000 units. In addition to the special features highlighting not only Harryhausen, but also composer Miklos Rozsa ('Ben Hur'), the film comes with a booklet containing a fantastic essay written by film historian Julie Kirgo.
The picture presented here with the 1080p AVC/MPEG-4 encoded transfer is an interesting one, as on one hand it looks gorgeous when focused simply on Sinbad and his crew, or Prince Koura and his assistant. While on the other, its tremendous clarity and focus on fine detail brings out a potentially troublesome issue when Harryhausen's creations take center stage. Obviously, the stop-motion animation required to bring a 10-foot tall one-eyed centaur to life in 1973 was a laborious endeavor, and the process wound up degrading the clarity of the real-life actors so that they could share the screen with their inanimate co-stars. The image sans special effects, then, is a bright, decadently colored feast for the eyes that becomes somewhat fuzzy, blurred, or otherwise grainy when the creature effects are added. While the image does noticeably suffer from the process of adding the fantastical elements, the creatures themselves look remarkably clear and are tremendously detailed, which offsets the loss in visual clarity to an acceptable degree. Besides, there are enough shots where the stop-motion animation winds up sharing screen time with the actors via the editing process that it creates a convincing enough image, which further reduces the film's reliance on such effects.
Otherwise, the image looks remarkably fresh and detailed, given its age. Most scenes are filled with delightful colors that hint at a wondrous world, and that is augmented here by the picture's clarity, which is highlighted by fine features in the actors' (and non-actors') faces and costumes, as well as textural elements found in the background or the overall environment. Additionally, the image boasts a high contrast level, producing deep blacks and an even shadow delineation.
Overall, the image is something of a trade-off, as the special effects look tremendous on their own, but do degrade the image behind them to a certain degree. It seems fair to say this is acceptable, considering the level of detail and clarity of the animation looks arguably better than ever before.
They simply don't make film scores like the one from Miklos Rozsa on this disc, and the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 lifts the sound to such an incredible degree, it's a good bet the exotic harmonies have never sounded better. What's more the score is balanced quite well with characters' dialogue, as it never overpowers the actors and only seems to help enhance their words and give them an extra, almost undetectable sense of meaning and purpose.
That being said the dialogue is very crisp and clear, and easily understood. There are no perceptible scratches or hisses in the mix, which gives it a pristine, untouched quality that makes the film feel more and more like an undiscovered treasure. That feeling is furthered when listening to the isolated score, which is deserving of everyone's time.
The audio mix here is quite the feat, as it manages to not merely preserve the original audio, but augment it in such a way that it truly shines.
'The Golden Voyage of Sinbad' is the kind of movie that can be enjoyed for its zesty portrayal of heroism and adventure, as much as it is for the tremendous special effects that will likely be the film's major draw. This Blu-ray features a wonderful high-definition transfer and even better sound that truly highlights the epic score from Miklos Rozsa. While the supplements are interesting in their own right, it would have been nice if there were something highlighting the film itself. At any rate, this would make a great pick for Harryhausen fans and adventure fanatics alike. Recommended.