FIRST MEN IN THE MOON

Director:  Nathan Juran

Starring:  Edward Judd, Lionel Jeffries, Martha Hyer, Miles Malleson

A brief sideways step into science fiction for fantasy film maker Ray Harryhausen, First Men in the Moon remains on of his best-loved films, and a fine - and remarkably faithful adaptation of H.G. Wells' groundbreaking 1901 novel. (The script was co-written by genre giant Nigel Kneale).

Most UK Harryhausen fans haven't had a chance to see the film in its original Panavision (2.35:1) ratio. Many TV broadcasts have begun, tantalisingly, in the correct ratio, but quickly zoom in to crop off 40% of the picture, and the rest of the film is a sorry mess. The movie has been available in letterboxed format before (there was a very nice NTSC laserdisc from Pioneer) but this DVD is the first time it's had a widescreen release in the UK. 

First Men in the Moon is the only film Harryhausen made in anamorphic widescreen. Having assessed the extra cost of producing model landscapes that were more panoramic than usual, and knowing to his cost that a wide ratio meant having to have more critters to fill the frame, he weighed the disadvantages against the likely benefits. Put bluntly, would there have been any fewer bums on seats if the film had been shot in a more modest ratio? Deciding that the answer was "probably not", he never used the format again.

The film made considerable demands on Harryhausen, who decided that his traditional method of putting creatures into existing live-action material simply wasn't up to creating believable moonscapes. Instead Harryhausen opted to shoot many sequences using model backgrounds, and instead inserted the live actors into them using traditional matte techniques. Harryhausen was also reluctantly forced to use children dressed in Selenite costumes for some shots, realising that otherwise the film would require more animation than he could cope with.  

The film is a terrific romp, boasting some of the maestro's most compelling stop-motion work. The Selenites may not have had the personality of Jason and the Argonauts' Talos, or even Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger's Troglodyte, but they're wonderfully designed, and beautifully animated. Edward Judd makes an excellent Bedford, and Lioned Jeffries is suitably dotty in a role not 218,658 miles away from the one he would give in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Martha Hyer is an appealing heroine, although her presence in the story may give Wells purists palpitations.

The disc offers substantial improvements over all previously available home video versions. The new 16:9-enhanced anamorphic transfer is much better than the laserdisc (although still not perfect - it looks like it's had a fair bit of wear and tear over the years). The pop art colours that illuminate the moon sequences have never looked stronger, and black levels are solid. The disc also offers substantially improved sound, this time in four-channel stereo (discreet right, left and centre channels, and a mono surround channel, at a generous 448kbps). This adds considerable presence to Laurie Johnson's Bernard Herrmann-inspired score.

For the dedicated Harryhausen fan the disc scores poorly on the extras front. It does include the excellent hour-long Harryhausen Chronicles documentary, and the This Is Dynamation featurette (about The 7th Voyage of Sinbad), but both of these are on most of Columbia's Harryhausen discs, so they're only of any real use to someone who doesn't have any of the other discs. Frankly, they're a waste of disc space which could have been allocated to the main feature. The disc also offers a shoddy photo' gallery (some of which are simply frame enlargements), and trailers for First Men in the Moon and The Golden Voyage of Sinbad. Although their efforts have been well-intentioned and generally very commendable, Columbia should not escape criticism for not adding commentary tracks to their Harryhausen titles, while many of the key participants are still with us. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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