Thursday, January 17, 2008

Dinosaur movies--part 1

The 1925 movie adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle's movie The Lost World is unabashedly in love with its dinosaurs. And, by golly, it should be.

The story is the prototype of all the future "lost world" books and films. A group of explorers discover a remote area (in this case--a nearly inaccessible plateau in the South Amercian jungle) in which dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures have survived. In the book, the expedition reaches the plateau, has a run in with one or two dinosaurs, then gets involved in a genocidal war between a tribe of Indians and a tribe of primitive cavemen.

It's a great story, highlighed by the wonderful character of the cantakerous Professor Challenger, who heads up the expedition. But the movie opts to reduce the Indian/caveman war to an appearance by one ill-tempered apeman, thus leaving more time for more dinosaurs.

With Willis O'Brien, the pioneer of stop-motion animation, heading up the special effects, this is exactly the right decision. O'Brien and Marcel Delgado (who built the models) do a wonderful job of bringing extinct creatures back to life and giving them personality.

Again and again, the movie breaks away from the human characters just to show a few more minutes of dinosaurs battling one another. Towards the end of the film, a volcano erupts and there's a massive dinosaur stampede that is as delightful to watch today as it was 83 years ago.

The finale, in which a brontosaurus brought back to civilization escapes and rampages through London, was the start of a long and honorable tradition of movie monsters destroying a modern metropolis.

In fact, the dinosaurs easily outshine the human actors. Due to some poor editing when the movie was originally released (exasperated by some footage being lost over the years), the actual story has some narrative and pacing problems. All the same, Wallace Berry is excellent as Professor Challenger and the remaining actors do a fine job with their roles.

But it will always be the dinosaurs that are the most important element of this movie. In 1925, stop-motion was still a new technology. In fact, when Arthur Conan Doyle showed the film to a group of stage magicians (including Harry Houdini), nobody could figure out how the special effects were done. Somebody even suggested the filmmakers must have found live dinosaurs somewhere.

Nowadays, with all of us spoiled by modern CGI effects, we're not fooled at all. And O'Brien's animation on The Lost World isn't quite as smooth as it would be 8 years later when he brought King Kong to life.

But the movie is still fun to watch. Stop-motion has its own charm--a look and feel that brings the viewer more fully into a fantasy world than the "perfect" look of CGI can ever do.

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