Friday, February 28, 2020

Forgotten Gems: The Bugs Bunny Birthday Blowout

As I've related in the past, I grew up a poor kid, who didn't get a Nintendo Entertainment System until late 1990, as an early birthday present. My NES system came with the infamous Super Mario Bros./Duck Hunt combo cartridge, which of course I played the ever loving shit out of (IE as much as my grandmother would let me). In the handful of months between when I got my NES early, as an incentive to be more focused about doing homework (I was allowed to play only if I got it done), and Christmas, I actually did get at least a couple of other games, including another Zapper shooting game called To The Earth, and one that would become an instant favorite, Arkista's Ring.

But thanks to our fairly close proximity to an "All the Best Video" store, which was obviously one of my favorite places growing up, we also rented a fair few games too, just trying out what was on the system. In the future, I will have to write up a piece on the now mostly lost glory of rental stores and game rentals. But for now, sufficed to say, in that same span of time, I was allowed on some weekends, to pick out a game to try. And I want to say that, as I recall, I gravitated early on, to a game based on Bugs Bunny, one of my childhood heroes.

One of my earliest game rentals.

THREE Sylvesters, now THAT'S trouble!

That game, as seen above, was called The Bugs Bunny Crazy Castle. Though I wouldn't know this for many years, it was originally released in Japan on the Famicom, as simply Roger Rabbit, the first video game to be based off of that amazing piece of late 80s cinema. Not having the Roger license in North America, however, Kemco decided to tweak the graphics a bit, and released it as a Bugs Bunny game instead.

The Roger Rabbit original.

Mickey Mouse on Game Boy.

As you can see, the Roger-based Famicom game and the Bugs Bunny game I rented, are basically the same. Roger's sprite was swapped out for Bugs, and the Weasels from the movie, were instead turned into multi-colored Sylvesters. He would be joined by other Looney Tunes favorites, such as Daffy Duck, Wile E. Coyote and Yosemite Sam. The complicated and interesting nature of game licenses doesn't merely stop with Roger and Bugs, however. In Japan, Kemco continued the series on Game Boy as Mickey Mouse games. But they didn't have the Mickey license for NA, so again, they became multiple Bugs Bunny Crazy Castle installments in the States instead. But to go ever FURTHER, what was known as Mickey Mouse II on Game Boy in Japan, was Bugs Bunny in America, and a game based on the character Hugo, over in Europe. Not only that, but for extra fun, what was known in Japan on Game Boy as Mickey Mouse IV: The Magical Labyrinth, in America became based on The Real Ghostbusters, and in Europe, on the beloved cat Garfield! That might well be the only time in gaming history, certainly that I know of, where a video game series featured six (ultimately seven if you count a Woody Woodpecker game on Game Boy Advance) different licensed properties across its games.

I can't say for 100% certain, but I vaguely remember beating this game, probably the first such rental that I beat. Which is no small feat, considering the game has, as I recall, around 50 stages of gradually increased difficulty. The game itself, regardless of incarnation, revolves around simplistic arcade style action, wherein you have to collect all of a certain item in a given stage, and then reach the exit, without getting caught by the baddies. In Roger Rabbit, you had to collect hearts. In the Bugs game I played, you have to collect, naturally, carrots. In the later games on Game Boy, regardless of character/region, you instead have to collect keys. But all in all, the Crazy Castle games are, in this man's opinion, good simple fun. I am most nostalgic for the first Bugs game I rented, of course, but I would say any of them, with perhaps the exception of the Woody game on GBA, are well worth checking out.

Mickey Mouse

Kid Klown

As a quick aside, this tangled Crazy Castle series, also had a spin-off of sorts. Originally released in Japan as a Famicom sequel to the first two Game Boy Mickey Mouse games, this spin-off was called Mickey III: Balloon Dreams. In it, Minnie has been kidnapped by an evil sorcerer, and with the aid of some awesome magic balloon abilities, you have to go save her. In all honesty, it would have been pretty great if they had managed to release this as a Mickey game in America, because as Mickey games go, it's one of the best. But, their Mickey license remained Japan-Only, so for the NA release, they transformed the game into a vehicle for a brand new, Kemco original character, known as Kid Klown! This too was a childhood game rental for me, quite some time later, but one that I thoroughly enjoyed, and wish I had owned back then. It, like the game I'm actually here to talk about today, is one of my top favorite NES games.

One of the greatest stars of animation, ever.

The Evolution of Bugs Bunny.

As fortune would have it, while the original Crazy Castle game was released in 1989, 1990 happened to be the 50th birthday of Bugs Bunny himself. Technically speaking, as you can see above, a white rabbit, sometimes referred to as "Happy Rabbit", essentially a prototype version of Bugs, was first featured in the Porky Pig short "Porky's Hair Hunt". A goofier looking, gray rabbit with black-tipped ears, would appear in a couple of early Elmer Fudd cartoons. But what is considered to be the first "Official" Bugs Bunny cartoon, was released in 1940, called "A Wild Hare". This was the first time Bugs had his now infamous look, and the first cartoon in which his well-known personality was truly on display.

That wascally wabbit!

To capitalize on this monumental anniversary, Kemco made a new game, technically unrelated to the Crazy Castle franchise. In this particular case, the game released in all regions basically the exact same, and it was dubbed The Bugs Bunny Birthday Blowout (or Happy Birthday Bugs in Japan). The game's plot, in fact, was based around Bugs' birthday, and it was, for its time, strongly promoted with the anniversary tie-in.

If only he knew...

It's a trap!

This game was an early rental for me as well, as I guess I must've been on a Bugs kick. And I must admit, that while I enjoyed Crazy Castle, I instantly loved Birthday Blowout much more. A side-scrolling platformer, you play Bugs, who has received a mysterious invitation to a party. Little does he know, that it was sent by his fellow Looney Tunes stars, who apparently are jealous that he is so popular and gets all the fame. So to GET to this party, he has to traverse what turn out to be vast lands, including rolling hills, scorching deserts, haunted caves, and even a live volcano!

The basic gameplay is still pretty simple, but more involved than that of Crazy Castle. As Bugs, you can run and jump, staples of the platformer genre. In fact, being a rabbit, Bugs can jump fairly high, in comparison to most other such games. As his method of defending himself from the variety of traps and monsters that have been set against him, he employs the use of a rather sizable gray mallet, which you use to bonk enemies, and smash blocks in your way. As a kid, I found the block smashing to be rather fun, and even imagined that Bugs' day job must be some sort of construction (or in this case demolition) worker.

Remember this guy?

Another focus of the game, like Crazy Castle but not, is collecting carrots. In this game's case, you collect them for use in the between-level bonus games. In point of fact, this game can be rather generous with the extra lives, IF you're good at collecting carrots, and if you don't just completely suck (or not touch the controller at all), during the bonus games. The most typical bonus stage you get, is a kind of number match game, that is, frankly, nigh-impossible to actually get the numbers you want, due to them cycling by at ridiculous speed. So it's more of a game of chance.

At the end of every world, however, you get the bonus game seen above. It stars the lesser known "Willie the Weasel" character, featured in a few Foghorn Leghorn shorts, and it's basically Whack-a-Mole. You have much more control over whether you get 1-Ups or not, as you have to whack as many Willies as you can within a given time limit. If you reach the next required number whacked, you continue on. I always found this bonus both fun, and a bit frustrating, as sometimes the Willies will psych you out and not actually pop up when you think they will.

Cowabunga, dudes!

The game features six worlds, each with four stages, for a total of twenty four levels. These include grassy hills, a desert, a fiery mountain, haunted caverns, a wild jungle, and finally, an ancient (super dangerous) temple. Each level features an end boss, which happens to be one of your fellow Looney Tunes "friends". The most common is Bugs' friend/rival Daffy Duck, though he is also by far the easiest. I guess ol' Daffy's heart just isn't really in it, as his "fights" require you to avoid him, while getting to a giant carrot that turns into a hot air balloon. In a few of these, it really requires no effort to avoid him, whatsoever. But to be fair, Daffy is also the only boss you can't hit, either.

On the other hand, all of the game's OTHER bosses, feature actual fights, where you have to avoid their attacks, whilst bashing them with your giant hammer. These bosses include: Tweety Bird, Sylvester J. Cat and his son Junior, Elmer Fudd, Wile E. Coyote, Foghorn Leghorn, Pepe Lepew, and Yosemite Sam. At the end of the game, the final boss is none other than the Tasmanian Devil himself, who instead of employing his trademark spin attack on you, he throws...footballs? Very slow motion footballs. While none of the game's bosses are SUPER hard, the fact is, getting through that last Temple level is actually fairly challenging. And beating Taz once you get to him, is not. That is, unless you're super low on hearts, thanks to the damn level prior to him.

Someone forgot to color Bugs in!

 When I rented this game all those years ago, I didn't beat it, though I did enjoy it. I don't think I LOVED it at the time, certainly nowhere near the level of Super Mario Bros., or even Arkista's Ring. But I did enjoy it. So when Christmas 1990 came along, and I got that glorious big brown box, filled with Nintendo goodies, I was rather pleased to find that one of the three games inside, was none other than good ol' Bugs Bunny. Unfortunately for Bugs at the time, not only had I recently played it, but it was also far overshadowed by the MAIN event of that box, the game that would become my instant childhood obsession for years, and still remains my favorite game of all time to this day: Super Mario Bros. 3. But once the initial "HOLY SHIT I OWN MARIO 3" shine toned down a little, I went back to Bugs, and eventually beat that bad boy too!

For some reason, amongst so-called "Retro Gamers", Kemco games, especially Kemco NES games, seem to get a bit of a bum rap. But to me, they produced some genuine gems on that console, two of which, Kid Klown and this, being probably two of my favorite games of all time. Birthday Blowout is a bright, cheerful, fun game, with bouncy tunes and solid gameplay. The game isn't a nail-biter by any means, in fact like Kid Klown, I'd say much of it goes along at a somewhat leisurely pace. But that's OK, because to me that is part of their appeal. Bugs certainly presents challenge, but it isn't so hard it makes you want to throw anything across the room. It's not so long a game that it gets tiresome, but it also has enough meat on them bones, and enough variety (including the bonus games), that there is plenty to come back to. If you've never given this Looney Tunes classic a whirl, I highly suggest you do so, because in this man's humble opinion, it is one of the better games on the system. Certainly one of the best Looney Tunes games ever crafted, I think. 

If you'd like to see the game in action, and don't mind some spicy, goofball commentary (and colorful language), then I'd also suggest you watch my recent playthrough, over on the Retro Revelations Youtube channel! Until next time, T-t-t-t-that's All, Folks!

Monday, December 23, 2019

Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer

One of the most infamous and popular characters in modern Christmas/Holiday folklore, is Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Pretty much all kids hear about him and his story growing up. But the story of Rudolf isn't merely a fun tale centered around Christmas. It's the story of a misfit, an outcast, someone who is different, and thus doesn't fit in with "normal" people. A lot of us can identify with that, which I feel is a huge part of why the Rudolf mythos has remained so strong over the decades.

The legendary song.

Rudolf was born out of the imagination of one Robert Lewis May, in 1939. The department store Montgomery Ward had been giving out coloring books for kids for years, but wanted to save money by releasing their own story, instead of licensing out others. So they hired May to create a coloring book for them, and what he ultimately came up with, was the tale of a misfit reindeer with a shiny red nose. Originally outcast because of his difference from other reindeer, he eventually gets accepted, even celebrated, when his unique nose helps Santa save Christmas.

The book was a huge hit, becoming a repeat seller in later years. It also got turned into a popular song, which most of you are familiar with, originally sung by country-western singer Gene Autry. As insane as it sounds, that record was so popular, that it sold over 25 million copies, and was the second best selling album of all time until sometime in the 1980s (I'm going to imagine it got unseated, perhaps, by Michael Jackson's "Thriller"). The song alone is one of the top "Christmas Songs" people tend to associate with the season, along with other perennials like "Frosty the Snowman", "Silver Bells", "White Christmas", etc.

The original cartoon.

On November 11th, 1948, Max Fleischer released the first ever film adaptation of the Rudolf story. Produced at the time to help advertise Montgomery Ward, it was one of his last major projects, after such a successful earlier career with properties like Betty Boop, Popeye the Sailor, and Superman. This theatrical short, takes more after the original book than the song, in fact the first release didn't even include the song. But it is a great piece of animation, and a faithful, simple telling of Rudolf's story. It's widely available to watch now for free online, as it's in the public domain, and I highly suggest if you've never seen it, dedicating eight minutes of your life to experience what you could rightly call Fleischer's last masterpiece.

The one EVERYONE knows.

The more famous adaptation, of course, wouldn't come until roughly sixteen years later, in 1964. Arthur Rankin Jr and Jules Bass, who had founded the production company called "Videocraft International", later known as Rankin/Bass Productions, were just starting what would be a long and successful career for them as creators of (mostly) television content.As Fate would have it, the project which would become their first major success, would be a new adaptation of the Rudolf story. In point of fact, it would go on to become THE most enduring and popular telling of it.

Different from birth.

Narrated by the great folk music legend Burl Ives, himself known for some great Christmas songs, in the friendly guise of Sam the Snowman, the Rankin/Bass telling was based more around the by-then famous song. Rudolf, born to Santa's lead reindeer, Donner, and his wife, is immediately noticed by his parents for being different. Even Santa, who stops by to see the child, takes note of the "Shiny Nose", and Donner swears he'll grow out of it. Except that poor Rudolf DOESN'T grow out of it, prompting Donner to fashion a silly looking fake black nose, to make his son look "normal".

Meanwhile, Hermy the Elf, a completely new character who doesn't especially love Christmas or making toys like all the rest of Santa's elves do, instead has aspirations to be a dentist. This gains him the ire and derision of his fellow elves, making him a misfit as well. I'll note here, that Hermy also doesn't seem to look like the other elves, outside of being short. Most notably, he has rounded, human-like ears, instead of pointy ones. This is never addressed in the special, but one would imagine his looking different, like Rudolf, would also set him apart.

The dashing young doe, Clarice.

When it comes time for young Rudolf to play in the "Reindeer Games", where they get trained to fly and such, he immediately makes what seems to be a friend, in Fireball, the son of Comet. He also takes notice of a pretty young doe named Clarice, who seems to be the daughter of another of the famous Eight Reindeer who pull Santa's sleigh. He works up the courage to talk to her, and she tells him she thinks he's cute, which sends him leaping off into the air, flying better than any of the other young reindeer. Comet, the coach, is impressed, until Rudolf's nose, after roughhousing with Fireball, is revealed to all. He is, as the song goes, forbidden from playing in any more "Reindeer Games", all because of his looks.

I'd like to take the time to point out that in this special, Santa Claus, a character for whom I have great life-long affection, spends most of his time acting like a stressed out grump. Mrs. Claus spends her time trying to get him to eat, because he's "too skinny" at the time. And Santa, upon seeing Rudolf's nose, which he didn't grow out of, is shown expressing disappointment to Donner, even telling him "you ought to be ashamed". While I love this special, I think the portrayal of Santa is silly, as realistically, this character who is supposed to be the embodiment of jolliness and generosity, would not be so petty and low as to care about, much less shame, Rudolf's odd "malformity". But I digress.

New best friends.

Their savior, Yukon.

After Rudolf runs away, being ridiculously shunned by the other reindeer, Clarice runs after him, telling him she doesn't care about his nose. In fact, she seems to have taken quite a liking to him, though her father shows up, and tells Rudolf in no uncertain terms that "no doe of mine is going to be seen with a red-nosed reindeer!" This is the final straw, and Rudolf, after a chance meeting with the equally shunned Hermy the Elf, decides that together, they are going to run away, since they're not wanted.

This leads them out into the frozen wastes of the North Pole, and they find themselves having to hide Rudolf's nose in a snowstorm, lest they be seen, and presumably eaten, by the Monster of the North, the Abominable Snowman. Somehow surviving the night, even though they clearly have no idea what they're doing, their fortunes change when run across a new friend, a human named Yukon Cornelius, who has traveled so far north with his sled-dogs, in search of Silver and Gold. Ol' Yukon shows them the ropes, and helps them to survive, though they run afoul of "Old Bumble" once more, causing them to flee on an ice drift.

The Bumble.

King Moonracer, of the Island of Misfit Toys.

They wind up on a hidden island, The Island of Misfit Toys, where toys seemingly unwanted for various defects, live because allegedly no child would want them. They are introduced to the island's ruler, King MoonRacer, a magical winged lion, who tells them of the toys' plight. They resolve that they should eventually return home, and tell Santa about the toys, in hopes that he'll find homes for them. Rudolf, still believing himself to be a danger to others, takes off on his own, returning home first, only to find that his parents and Clarice have gotten lost somewhere, out looking for him.

What a hero.

Finally being recognized.

He tracks them down, only to find that they are endangered by the Abominable himself, who Rudolf stands up to, only to get knocked out. Ultimately, the day is saved by Yukon, who seemingly perishes falling over a cliff with the monster. The reindeer return home, in time to find that Christmas is in trouble, because the worst snowstorm in years is making it so Santa won't be able to fly his sleigh to take presents to the world's children. But wouldn't you know it, he sees Rudolf's glowing nose, and EUREKA, he realizes that it could act as a lamp to light their way! Christmas is saved, and Rudolf, who has been unjustly ostracized all along for something he can't help, is finally not only accepted, but is the hero of the day.

The NEW lead reindeer.

The Misfit Toys.

They also manage to keep their promise, and stop by the island, to pick up the Misfit Toys, whom Santa finds homes for. They even learn that Yukon survived, because duh, "Bumbles Bounce", and that Hermey, who had stayed behind to look for him, used his dental accumen to remove the poor monster's teeth, rendering him harmless. Not only harmless, but friendly, as he helps put he star on the North Pole Christmas Tree! All's well that ends well, and everyone seems to live happily ever after.

Sam the Snowman.

Voiced by Burl Ives.

As a kid, like many kids I'm sure, I saw this special at an early age. Early enough, in fact, that I had already seen it multiple times by the time I was in pre-school, and knew how it went. So when they showed it at school, I stated matter-of-factly that I had "already seen it", and was allowed to go play with toys while the other kids watched, even though I still watched some of it anyway. Pre-school snootiness aside, I've always been a fan of this Rankin/Bass Production, as I was of many of their other creations (including the 80s shows Thundercats and Silverhawks). I remember being afraid of the Bumble monster, and even at a young age dreaming of finding "my own Clarice".

In its own way, this special is a masterpiece. The stop-motion animation, handled as most of their animation was in Japan, while certainly not up to the standards of theatrical excellence that Ray Harryhausen set, is still rather good. The characters are memorable, as are the songs, mostly sung by Burl Ives, including one of my favorite Christmas standards that he made famous, "Have a Holly Jolly Christmas". I actually remember my grandmother owning some Burl Ives tapes, one of which was a Christmas album, which I would listen to often as a child. His voice, in many ways to me, was the "Voice of Christmas" as I was growing up.

Lending a helping hand.

All in all, the story of Rudolf itself, I think endures because it is a tale of difference, and being accepted for your differences. The Rankin/Bass special, has played on TV every single year (sometimes multiple times), since it's debut in 1964, which makes it the longest running Christmas special of all time. A pretty cool distinction if you ask me, though to be fair, A Charlie Brown Christmas and How the Grinch Stole Christmas, have also been shown pretty much every year since their debuts as well.

To me, as a life-long fan of stop-motion animation, I'm glad that the Rudolf special endures, because it allows the art-form, as well as the great special itself, to be seen by new generations of kids. And I think that's important, personally. If I ever get to have children, while they are of course free to like whatever new stuff they want (even if I hate it), I am absolutely going to raise them on all of the classic things that I myself love. I'm going to share my passions with them, and this special, and others like it, will be a part of that. And it goes without saying, that yes, my kids will be allowed to believe in Santa. I think it's ridiculous, even mean-spirited, to not allow that. Santa, and the Christmas Season in general, meant so much to me as a kid. It's such a time of wonder, and fun, and I think every kid, regardless of culture or religion, deserves something like that.

Anyways, I hope that you all have a Holly Jolly Christmas, or whatever you celebrate. And if you get a chance, give the old Rudolf special a spin, especially if you have kids who have never seen it before!

Saturday, November 30, 2019

Silver Screen Stories: The 7th Voyage of Sinbad

Growing up as a child in the 80s and early 90s, the legendary figure of Sinbad the Sailor, was something of a hero of mine. I don't remember at what age I first saw a Sinbad film, but it must have been young enough, because when I was freshly 6 years old, I got my first dog, a fluffy white terrier mix that I named Sinbad. Clearly, the character was in my kindergarten age consciousness enough, that I chose that name, and was aware who the mythical sailor was.

I'm going to venture a guess, that the first Sinbad movie I ever saw, was not one of Ray Harryhausen's masterpieces. Instead, it was probably a film that I'll get to in a few moments. To start with, of course, the stories of Sinbad, for the unfamiliar, originated as late entries into the infamous "1001 Arabian Nights" story collection. The same collection that characters such as Aladdin, and Ali Baba came from. If you actually look at the old stories, much like actually looking at the stories of Greek heroes like Jason, Heracles or Perseus, you'll see a character who looks far less virtuous and heroic than what we know and think of in modern media. Let's just say that I'm glad I didn't read his stories as a kid, for I likely wouldn't have been nearly as big a fan of him.

Animation innovator Ub Iwerks' take on the character.

Fellow innovator Max Fleischer's unique, villainous take.

The first two depictions of Sinbad on film, were actually cartoons. The first, produced by Ub Iwerks studio after he had (temporarily) parted ways with Walt Disney, was a 1935 theatrical short, which featured the typical "Disney-like" whimsy that Iwerks brought to his productions. A year later, Disney's primary competitor on the theatrical short front, Fleischer Studios, led by brothers Max and Dave Fleischer, released their own, more unique take on the character. Max Fleischer had been an innovator on the animation scene, pioneering advanced techniques like Multi-Plane and Rotoscoping. With his biggest success of the time, predating his great Superman cartoons, Popeye (along with Betty Boop and others), he was giving Disney a run for his money. And when he saw that Disney was preparing a feature-length animated film, something risky and unheard of at the time, he saw that his own dream of an animated feature was possible.

So he took his top star, Popeye the Sailor, and set him up against his rival, Bluto, playing the part of a more vain, villainous take on Sinbad the Sailor. A duel, if you will, of which great sailor was better. The 1936 Popeye the Sailor Meets Sinbad the Sailor, was a double-reel cartoon, clocking in at about sixteen and a half minutes. Fleischer would continue to use Popeye in other short films, where he would continue to experiment and up the ante, in stories based on Ali Baba and Aladdin, working his way towards his 1939 feature release, Gulliver's Travels. Of the three extended Popeye "specials", however, the original Sinbad one was and remains the most popular. Personally, what stands out in the Sinbad Popeye cartoon, aside from the usual humor, was Bluto's great turn as a boastful, bully Sinbad, and his island of various animals and monsters. The one thing the two very different Sinbad cartoons had in common, was the giant mythical monster bird known as Roc, said to be big enough to carry off elephants in its claws. The Roc featured in one or more of the original Sinbad stories, and would be important in a certain future film.

The first live action Sinbad.

Sinbad would first see representation in a live action film, in the more comical 1942 Arabian Nights, from Universal Studios. There, he was played by Shemp Howard of Three Stooges fame, of all people, and was more of a minor character. His first, true debut to feature movies, was in the 1947 RKO film, appropriately titled Sinbad the Sailor. Starring dashing Douglas Fairbanks Jr. in the titular role, with Maureen O'Hara as the beautiful Shireen, this story is much tamer than the later Sinbad adventures. The plot focuses on Sinbad learning of the treasures of Alexander the Great, and his adventures trying to find them. There is little to no real magic or supernatural happenings in this film, which makes it lesser in my eyes (and many other fans', most likely). But it's still a solid film for what it is, and Fairbanks makes a good Sinbad. A few years later, in 1955, RKO released another movie entitled Son of Sinbad, which featured western cowboy star Dale Robertson in the role of the legend's alleged son. It too featured no real magic or epicness. I wouldn't see either movie until my adult years anyway, which is just as well.

Now THAT'S what I'm talkin' about!

While it came it several years later than the movie we're here today to discuss, the first Sinbad movie I probably saw as a child, on TV, was 1963's Captain Sindbad. I'm not entirely sure about the alternate spelling of the name, perhaps they just wanted to be different. But all the same, THIS was the kind of Sinbad tale the character deserved. While it lacks, and seriously could have benefited from stop-motion magic like Harryhausen's, this MGM production is still packed with all of the magic, and wonder, and adventure you could want in such a fantasy feature. Starring Guy Williams as "Sindbad", the tale includes threats such as an arena battle with an invisible monster, a deadly Hydra, and a magically guarded tower. I think this film deserves its own article someday, but for now, it's enough to say that it is likely this that left the impression on me as a child, and inspired me to name my dog after the hero.

The cover of my VHS copy.

As I've explained in previous articles, my love of both Godzilla and Harryhausen films, really both exploded thanks to our finally getting a VCR player around 1989/90 or so. Just as Godzilla vs. The Sea Monster was likely the first of his films that I got to own, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad was definitely the first (and only) Sinbad movie I owned in my childhood. I would get to see Captain Sindbad again on TV somewhere around this time, and I would see Harryhausen's two other Sinbad greats (The Golden Voyage and Eye of the Tiger), along with his others epics like Jason and the Argonauts and Clash of the Titans, thanks to my childhood obsession, TNT's MonsterVision.

But while I love all of those movies dearly, both in equals parts because of childhood nostalgia, but also because it's a truly great and wonderful film, 7th Voyage to this day is still my favorite Sinbad film, and live action fantasy film in general.

The film's two starring heroes.

Ray Harryhausen had, up until this film, pretty much exclusively done science fiction movies, including standouts The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms and Earth vs. The Flying Saucers. He started teaming with producer Charles H. Schneer on the 1955 monster film It Came From Beneath the Sea, and they began regularly teaming from then on. So it was Schneer who helped bring about this first true fantasy epic Sinbad tale to the screen. Nathan Juran, who had worked with the pair on their previous project 20 Million Miles to Earth, was hired to direct, while composer Bernard Herrman, who had done great work with Alfred Hitchcock, and would go on to score other Harryhausen films like Mysterious Island and Jason and the Argonauts, would bring the action to life with fantastic music.

To play the titular hero, they cast actor Kerwin Matthews, in his first starring role. They cast the young Kathryn Grant as Princess Parisa, Sinbad's love, and Torin Thatcher, in a marvelous turn as the mysterious magician Sokurah. As the Genie of the magic lamp, they cast child actor Richard Eyer, who had previously starred in the only other film to feature the great Robbie the Robot (of Forbidden Planet fame), 1957's The Invisible Boy. All told, the cast, the music, the production, the locals and sets, and of course Ray's stop-motions magic, were all on point. The film released in 1958, becoming a financial success that would not only boost Ray Harryhausen's career, but also help lead to something of a surge in fantasy films.

Sinbad, and tiny Parisa.

The core of the plot, sees Captain Sinbad and his crew, caught in a storm, which has blown them far off course. They are trying to reach Baghdad with the Princess Parisa on time for their wedding, which will also help avert a war with her country of Chandra. The storm blows them off the shore of mysterious Colossa Island, where they disembark to gather food and fresh water. Unfortunately for them, they run afoul of a giant Cyclops, who is chasing an enigmatic magician called Sokurah, for he has stolen from them the prized and powerful magic lamp. He uses the lamp to create a barrier between Sinbad's men and the Cyclops, to aid both their and his own escape, but the Cyclops has other ideas, hurling a great boulder over the barrier, capsizing their rowboat, and causing Sokurah to drop the lamp into the sea, which the Cyclops then retrieves.

Beside himself with grief, the sorcerer is obsessed with getting that lamp back, as the genie's power is immense. To that end, he offers Sinbad a bag full of precious gems, worth a fortune, stating there is many times that treasure hidden by the Cyclops back on his island. But Sinbad refuses to turn the ship around, knowing they are already running late for he and Parisa's wedding. The wedding is set to take place, but Sokurah, unable to convince the Caliph of Baghdad to grant him an expedition back to his island, casts dark magic to make Parisa shrink to the size of a living doll. This causes her blustering father to declare war on Baghdad, and Sinbad manages to convince the exiled magician to stay and help them return Parisa to her rightful state, not knowing it was Sokurah who has caused it.

The monstrous bird, Roc.

Naturally, the last ingredient for the potion to cure her, happens to be the shell of a Roc egg, which can only be found, you guessed it, on Sokurah's island of Colossa. With Sinbad's old crew mostly refusing to go back to that accursed place, Sinbad is forced to recruit criminals from Baghdad's prison, offering them freedom in return for making the voyage. Many agree to go, but as the voyage nears its destination, they try to mutiny, only failing because of a nearby island, whose demons' wails drive men mad, and drive their ships to smash on jagged rocks. Sinbad and company are freed to save the ship, and within little time, they are back on Colossa, gigantic crossbow in tow, to help them fend off any Cyclops.

The genie, Barani.

Not to give away too much of the plot, you could probably guess that when Sinbad's dwindling crew manage to secure a piece of Roc's eggshell, that bastard Sokurah snatches Parisa, in a bid to force Sinbad to come to his hidden castle and give him his precious lamp. Before this, however, Parisa had braved to venture inside the lamp itself, meeting the genie, who looks like a little boy. He is a slave to the lamp, though there is a prophecy inscribed which states he could possibly be freed some day. Parisa promises to try and free him, if he'll teach her the words to summon his aid, which she in turn taught to Sinbad. It is thus with the Genie's help, that Sinbad finds Sokurah's castle, and rushes to the final confrontation.

One thing that stands out about this film, to people who follow mythology and folklore, is that Harryhausen took some liberties with a couple of the film's primary monsters, namely the Roc bird and the Cyclops. He chose to give the Roc two heads, both the hatchling they run across and the angry parent, perhaps to make it more imposing. Though if you ask me, a ginormous bird with one head would be pretty terrifying. And for the Cyclops, he altered their Greek myth form, of essentially just being gigantic one-eyed people, to instead being more inhuman, satyr-like beings with cloven hooves, and a horn crowning their heads. Departure or not, I love his version of the Cyclops, and I think it is one of the single most iconic movie monsters of all time.

One of Ray's gorgeous concept drawings.

From concept to reality.

Additionally, while not AS iconic in most fans' minds as the infamous skeleton fight in Jason and the Argonauts, which came five years later, 7th Voyage features a duel with a single animated skeleton warrior, seen above, which would serve as Ray's prototype for the later, more ambitious scene. Still, nothing like this fight between Sinbad and the Skeleton had ever really been done before, and Kerwin Matthews had to train with a fencing master, to the point of getting down dance-like timing, to be able to act as if he were fighting an opponent who was not truly there. This was, of course, decades before such things would be attempted with the aid of computer graphics. Not only did Matthews have to get all of his movements precisely correct, but Ray had to match the skeleton's movements up precisely as well. The final product, is one of the coolest scenes in movie history, which still looks great and stands up to this day.

That sly devil, Sokurah.

To me, as a child, I was absolutely entranced by this movie, just as much in '89/'90 as I'm sure kids/people were when it originally released in 1958. That's not only a testament to how good Harryhausen's special effects were, but also a testament to how good the movie in general is. Trust me, I have seen some movies with cool stop-motion effects, which as MOVIES go, are garbage. But to my mind, everything about 7th Voyage stands out. The pacing and cinematography are on point, the casting and acting are great, and the story itself, while simple and fairy-tale-like, is also just really entertaining. And it needs to be said that Bernard Herrman's magical score fits the mood of every scene perfectly. From the very opening of the Columbia logo, the main theme of the film kicks in and really grabs you, holding on throughout. Scenes such as the magic snake dance in Baghdad, feature such wonderfully imaginative and fitting musical flourishes and refrains, and the score never feels off or out of place. Like a good movie score should, it helps tell the story as much as the visuals and acting do.

Perhaps the most iconic scene of the film.

Of course, while I loved the entire film and watched it a ton as a kid, at that age, the part that naturally stood out the most to me, "monster kid" that I was, were the monsters themselves. And the climactic battle between a Cyclops and Sokurah's protective dragon, was the main event! I liked, and still like, the Cyclops. But even as a child, I've always had a thing for dragons, which perhaps led to my love of dinosaurs, and Godzilla, etc. One of my favorite childhood films, even though it was goofy, was the original Pete's Dragon, with me of course wishing I had a dragon friend like him. So it probably goes without saying then, that I rooted for the dragon in this fight.

Within the next couple of years of my young life, as TNT started their marathons, and other stations played late-night monster movies as well, as I said before, I was able to see Captain Sindbad again, and The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, and Sinbad and the Tiger's Eye. But while I think those are all excellent films, and I love them all a lot, to my mind, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad is still the best of the lot. As awesome as Tom Baker and Margaret Whiting are as Koura and Zenobia, or even Pedro Armenderiz as the vile El Kharim in "Sindbad", to me Torin Thatcher as Sokurah is the perfect villain. He may not even be as purely evil as those others, but his obsession with power and specifically with owning the magic lamp, push him to deliciously dastardly ends.

The Princess saving the day.

Or, for example, while the other Sinbad movies feature some genuinely gorgeous, and even cool leading ladies, for my money, Princess Parisa rocks. Not only was she beautiful, but she wasn't your typical damsel in distress. When she is shrunken to tiny size, and her whole world is ruined and her father flies off into a warmongering rage, she doesn't freak out or cry, she keeps her cool and even comforts a mourning Sinbad. And twice during the tale, it is she, using her size to their advantage, who displays great courage and resourcefulness, saving Sinbad and his crew from a cage, and later braving the magical unknown to try talking to the Genie of the lamp. She is also incredibly honorable, as even though they could use the Genie's magic late in the story, she remains steadfast in her promise to try and free him instead.

For that matter, as much as I love ALL of Harryhausen's monsters, especially the ones from the Sinbad films, none of them are AS classy or as classic to me, as the Roc, and the Cyclops, and the Dragon. And while I think that all of those Sinbad actors, from Douglas Fairbanks Jr. in the 40s, to Guy Williams, John Phillip Law, and Patrick Wayne (son of John Wayne), are good and they all owned the role in their own way, they ALL made good Sinbads. I would still argue that Kerwin Matthews was the best in the role, and at the very least, he's my personal favorite Sinbad, and always will be.

Ray and his babies.

While in many ways, the later two Harryhausen Sinbad epics, both of which feature a Doctor Who (Golden has Tom Baker and Tiger has Patrick Troughton), are even more elaborate and epic films with arguably superior effects work, 7th Voyage still stands above them as the most charming, whimsical, and complete of Ray's unofficial "Sinbad Trilogy". And while a majority of film fans and historians seem to agree that Jason and the Argonauts is Ray's greatest work, and I myself call 1981's Clash of the Titans, sadly his final feature film, to be his magnum opus, his masterpiece. I would still ultimately say that to ME, for my money, in my heart of hearts, 7th Voyage is his best overall film. And again, at the very least, it is MY personal favorite Harryhausen movie.

It actually stands the test of time in my Top 5 Favorite Films ever, which have fluctuated in position a bit, even since I wrote that article talking about them. For one thing, Jim Henson's The Dark Crystal arguably belongs in my Top 5, instead of merely Top 10. If you were to ask me right now, while the movies themselves remain the same, the position for my Top 10 favorites of all time, would look more like this:

1. The Hobbit (1977)

2. The Dark Crystal (1982)

The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958)

4. Young Frankenstein (1974)
5. Big Trouble in Little China (1985)

6. Godzilla vs. Monster Zero (1965)

7. Ghostbusters (1984)

8. Throw Mama From the Train (1987)

9. The Goonies (1985)

10. The 'Burbs (1989)

But 7th Voyage has, and will continue no matter what, to remain in my personal Top 5, even over a Godzilla film, for the rest of my life.

As I always seem to say, if you've never seen this film, or ANY Harryhausen movie for that matter, then please, do yourself, your kids, your pets, everyone a favor, and watch The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. It is, in a word, delightful. And if the word "wholesome" should ever be attached to any fantasy/adventure epic, this would be it as well. It is, I'm not afraid or ashamed to state, at least as far as I'm concerned, the best (live action at least) fantasy film ever crafted.

THE master of movie magic and special effects, 1920-2013.