“Magic” is an overused word in film criticism, especially by me, but I think it really does apply here. It was an important moment in film history when the 14-year-old Harryhausen saw King Kong. He spent the rest of his career dedicated to sharing that same sense of childlike wonder that he got from that most influential of films.
In an age where the visual effects themselves are almost meaningless, since computers can do everything, Harryhausen’s work bespeaks the painstaking craft of illusion. This article is not an all-out nostalgia-fest, and there is something to be said for CGI: now that filmmakers can rarely impress solely with special effects, they have to find other ways to impress with the story-telling and choreography of the set-pieces themselves. But the wonder in Harryhausen’s art is the impression it gives that the creator is as enchanted as anyone by what he can put on screen. He didn’t show you an imaginative world; he shared it.
Harryhausen understood that special effects didn’t have to look real to be magical: they had to be special. The creaking skeleton warriors in Jason and the Argonauts are not terrifying because they’re moving skeletons, but because of their jerky stop-motion movements, the uneasy way they look with the rest of the frame, just as if they have come from another world. Computers have broken down the limits of cinema and made effects achievable without the patience-shredding labour of stop motion, but something evocative has undoubtedly been lost in the process.
In all honesty, Harryhausen’s filmography is actually a litany of pretty average adventure movies, but he gave these bad films so many great memories that he’s become one of the rare individuals who single-handedly turn films into classics. That this should be said of a member of the production team, and not an actor or director (though his creations are another matter), is remarkable. I remember nothing about Clash of the Titans except what he gave to it: the stone transformation of the Medusa! The metal owl! These are puppets upstaging Laurence Olivier.
Ray Harryhausen was able to grab hold of what it was that had always made film an exciting art form. His effects may now look cheap or dated, and the train may have moved forward, but it moved along tracks he did as much as anyone else to lay. He opened a window for millions of imaginations everywhere, and anyone who loves movies, monsters, or adventure is in his debt.