Jules Verne, like Jane Austen and William Shakespeare, has proven himself one of Hollywood's most reliable screenwriters long after his death. Verne's fantasy/adventure novels, such as Journey to the Center of the Earth, From the Earth to the Moon, and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, have inspired cinematic treatments both blockbuster and bizarre for more than a century beginning with George Méliès' 1902 silent short "A Trip to the Moon," through at least five incarnations of 20,000 Leagues since 1907, to TV's The Secret Adventures of Jules Verne, and an adaptation of Around the World in 80 Days tricked out for Jackie Chan. In a sort-of sequel to 20,000 Leagues, Verne brought back Captain Nemo in 1874's The Mysterious Island, and screenwriters from Hollywood to Soviet Russia have repeatedly (albeit loosely) dipped into its fantastical fathoms. Prized among collectors of movie rarities is a 1929 version starring Lionel Barrymore and co-directed by Lucien Hubbard, Benjamin Christensen (Häxan), and Maurice Tourneur, father of Jacques Tourneur (Night of the Demon). However, the most fondly remembered version premiered in 1961. It's a spectacle-rich Brobdingnagian monsterfest showcasing the stop-motion animation work of Ray Harryhausen.
Taking the predictable liberties with Verne's novel, this Mysterious Island is a lavish production directed by Cy Endfield, who's most distinguished as the writer-director of Zulu (1964). A band of Union soldiers (led by Michael Craig) from the American Civil War escape a Confederate prison in an observation balloon. A fierce storm sends the fugitives over ocean waters for days, eventually marooning them on an unknown island. The castaways quickly discover that the island is inhabited and that they're being watched. Bigger mysteries begin when they're forced to battle a gigantic crab large enough to grasp a man in its foreclaws. Fortune sees to it that they are joined by two shipwrecked Englishwomen, haughty Joan Greenwood and winsome Beth Rogan (who's soon clad in a buckskin minidress). Run-ins with a giant bee, a prehistoric "chicken" as big as a horse, and a pirate ship destroyed by unseen defenses further prove that something strange is in charge here. Evidence in a cave points to notorious Capt. Nemo, an idealist/terrorist whose submarine, the Nautilus, vanished without a trace eight years before. And indeed, after the functioning Nautilus is discovered in a flooded cavern, it's clear that the island is the refuge of the infamous Nemo (Herbert Lom, The Ladykillers, Hopscotch). His experiments with genetics are responsible for the island's outsized fauna, an attempt to provide greater food sources for a warring world fraught with starvation. However, Nemo's redemption is soon cut short by a volcano that places the captain and the castaways in peril.
The hallmark of Mysterious Island, of course, is Ray Harryhausen, who by 1961 was riding high on the success of The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. For young viewers who grew up watching Mysterious Island's frequent local TV airings on weekend afternoons throughout the '70s and '80s, the stop-motion model effects (and Beth Rogan's diminished costume) are among the most durable of screen memories. The rodeo-rustling of the dino-bird, the hero and heroine honeycombed by that magnificent giant bee, and especially the crab battle remain such favorite Harryhausen moments that the CGI whizzes behind 2002's Attack of the Clones and Spy Kids II gave their films deliberate homages to key scenes here. As is typical in a Harryhausen feature, the action scenes lift up an otherwise routine and episodic movie. Not to mention that some matte paintings and effects (such as the volcano explosion, the remains of an Atlantean civilization, and a monster-truck-sized cephalopod) have aged better in our memories than here in pixels.
Still, those formerly young viewers, now parents themselves, who give those memories a new digital spin will find their nostalgia rewarded. Plus, Joan Greenwood's regally unflappable Lady Mary Fairchild proves again (as in The Man in the White Suit and The Importance of Being Earnest) that her voice distills Victoria's Empire to the creamy consistency of warm butterscotch pudding. Herbert Lom's reformed Nemo is well turned. And while it's true that Verne's book didn't have a giant dino-bird, it also didn't boast Bernard Herrmann's terrific score.
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Columbia TriStar's DVD release of Mysterious Island is a gotta-have-it addition to their "Ray Harryhausen Signature Collection." However, aficionados are forewarned that it underscores both the benefits and the perils of the medium. While this dual-layer disc's new digital remastering yields a fine anamorphic transfer (1.85:1), its crisp resolution really brings out the flaws in the source material, particularly the process shots required for the "Super Dynamation" and matte effects. The crab battle and other showpieces suddenly go softer, grainier, and messier than shots surrounding them. It's a consequence of the vintage optical printing that sandwiched layer upon layer of film footage together, so it's forgivable. But. It's a shame that no restorative buff-and-polish was applied to those components that are, really, the reason we want the disc in the first place. Generally, the film's colors, contrast, and detail are fine, though some fading, scratches, and wear can be seen throughout. Herrmann's score is well served by the limited but clean monaural Dolby Digital 2.0 audio.
A new nine-minute retrospective delivers Harryhausen guiding us through a photo album of the movie's natal stages. (That giant crab? It was a real crab hollowed out and animated.) A photo gallery contains Mysterious Island concept sketches, stills, and promo art. Also here and familiar from First Men in the Moon and other discs in the series are the excellent documentaries "The Ray Harryhausen Chronicles" and "This is Dynamation." Trailers, keep-case.