Ymir vs. the Elephant? Ya gotta love it!

James Plath's picture

An incredulous Joan Taylor tells her interviewer, "Who would have thought, 52 years ago when I did "20 Million Miles to Earth," that I'd be talking to you, 52 years later, after I haven't worked for so long." And it is mind-boggling that a B-movie would not only stand the test of time, but also be repackaged in three separate editions (Blu-ray is coming in December!).

You have to give partial credit to a sustained sci-fi mania, but director Tim Burton knows another reason why, and (sorry, Joan) it has nothing to do with the cast. As Burton sits in the home of legendary stop-motion wizard Ray Harryhausen and holds one of the models from "Earth vs. the Flying Saucers" (1956), he remarks, "You got more personality out of this than some of the actors."


But it's true. Baby Boomers who grew up with Harryhausen's stop-motion monsters went to the movies to see his latest concoctions, not to soak up whatever shallow plot was offered, and certainly not to see the actors--most of whom we couldn't name.

Harryhausen pioneered a technique he dubbed Dynamation, which split the background and foreground so that the stop-motion could be "sandwiched." Fans, meanwhile, are split on which of Harryhausen's films offers the best special effects: "Jason and the Argonauts" (1963), "The Golden Voyage of Sinbad" (1974), or "Clash of the Titans" (1981). Not surprisingly, it has to do with what decade they grew up in. "Jason and the Argonauts," with its skeleton fight that had to have been the inspiration for the bony battles in Disney's first "Pirates of the Caribbean" movie, gets my vote. But let's not forget that Harryhausen's genre was the B-movie. They were produced on the cheap and written to be mildly entertaining vehicles for no-name actors. But Harryhausen helped those B-movies make the grade.

Harryhausen collaborated with "King Kong" stop-motion animator Willis O'Brien on a 1949 variation, "Mighty Joe Young," and went solo four years later with "The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms." Baby Boomers will most remember Harryhausen for a string of films that came in the '50s and early '60s-campy sci-fi flicks like "It Came from Beneath the Sea" (1955), "Earth vs. the Flying Saucers" (1956), this 1957 entry, "The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad" (1958), "Mysterious Island" (1961), and, of course, old Jason and his Argonaut buddies.

So how does "20 Million Miles to Earth" measure up? Not bad, actually. Harryhausen's special effects are decent the period, and as monster movies go, it's hard not to like a film that gives you a glimpse of the creature from the time it's in a Jell-O encased embryo to the time that tanks and helicopters with steel mesh nets have to be called in to bring him down. And when you make this creature from the planet Venus, rather than the latest atomic mutation that moviegoers were accustomed to seeing, you get a core of interest that's nicely supported by a script that isn't too stupid and characters and dialogue that aren't totally insipid.

The action begins off a fishing village in Sicily, where a rocket ship crashes less than 30 yards away from a fleet of fishermen. Here's where the camp kicks in: There's just a little bubbling around the edge of the rocket, which is already half-submerged and has a convenient, man-sized hole in its side. This is the calmest ocean you'll ever see, especially after a violent air crash. The fisherman, who are scared fishless by something that might well be full of aliens, nonetheless decide to check it out. Inside, they find one dead astronaut and two live ones--one of whom has a face that looks like it's fallen victim to an assortment of poxes and plagues. "Bring him," the relatively healthy astronaut says . . . though later, in the hospital, we learn that the disease that he has is the same fatal one that killed eight crewmates. So why insist on bringing a dying and his Venutian illness into an American hospital? And why isn't anybody wearing so much as an OB/GYN mask around this dying guy? While we're scratching our heads, why is it that the water was hardly disrupted when the rocket sank into oblivion?

Oh, now I remember. B-movie. Logic wasn't their province, and as Harryhausen says on the commentary track, the effects they created were dictated by budgetary constraints. He would have liked to have had more foam and bubbles around the base of the sinking rocket, for example, but that's all they could afford. And that's the way it goes throughout the film.

But the stop-motion animation on the nameless creature fans now call Ymir is as good as the rest of Harryhausen's work from this period. We might balk that the creature subsists on raw sulfur, sacks of which just happen to be stacked on a nearby farm, and you've got to prepare yourself for a constant elephant/eagle-like screeching, but the little lizardy guy looks cool. With a head that's mildly reminiscent of the "Creature from the Black Lagoon," a human torso, and a lizard's body and tail, this creature is fun to watch as he grows in Earth's atmosphere at an alarming rate. Taylor and William Hopper (as astronaut Robert Calder) are just convincing enough to make this melodrama believable as an artifact from the '50s, though, again, there are enough bloopers and silly moments to make it seem either bad to viewers, or campy . . . depending on your tastes. But as Harryhausen and others on the commentary track remind us, this film was released even before Sputnik was launched by the Soviet Union, so people were ready to believe anything when it came to Outer Space. They were willing to believe that an expedition of astronauts could have returned from Venus with a specimen that was lost during the crash and recovered by a young boy who sold it to a zoologist. They were ready to believe that the zoologist and his granddaughter would travel like gypsies with the creature in tow to take it to others for further study. They were even willing to believe that the creature would grow so quickly and become so dangerous that it would have to be hunted down.

And what better place to hunt him down than Rome? When the creature from Venus is captured and strapped down so that scientists can study him, it's hard not to think of "King Kong" in restraints. And when he busts loose and climbs to the top of the Coliseum, you can't help but picture King Kong swatting planes from the top of the Empire State Building. As monster movies from the '50s go, this one is actually pretty decent. It's probably the only film where you're going to see a creature from Venus battle it out with a plain old Earth elephant!

The big selling point here, and presumably the last stage before it was ready for HD, is that the film has been digitally remastered AND colorized, so that it's possible to watch Ymir in the original black-and-white or in GREEN, the way that he was envisioned. There's a bonus feature on the colorization process that shows Harryhausen giving his approval, saying, basically, "We always wanted to shoot in color, but didn't have the money." He's opposed to colorizing movies like "Citizen Kane" or ones that were never intended to be shot in color, but why not finally add a splash to films like his when it was what they wanted in the first place? The film is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, and it looks very good in both black-and-white and color. The latter has such natural colors that you'd never know it was originally black-and-white.

Not much you can do to dress up mono, though--but screeching is screeching.

Harryhausen is joined on a commentary track by visual effects artists Dennis Muren, Phil Tippett, and Arnold Kunert. It's really his show, and the Master does most of the talking. Even at that, there's some dead air. But if you're a sci-fi fan or a fan of Harryhausen's, it's always fascinating to hear him reveal a trick or two, then back up and say how he doesn't want to reveal any tricks.

Features are spread out over two discs. The colorization process feature is pretty standard, but nice to have when you're dealing with a sensitive issue, to some. The interview with Joan Taylor isn't bad. Same with a feature on the film's music. Video photo galleries, ad artwork, and comic are included. But the best feature, aside from the commentary track, is Burton's interview with Harryhausen. You can really get a sense of how each man relates to the other's work.

Bottom Line:
For a B-movie, "20 Million Miles to Earth" is awfully entertaining, and the big reason is Harryhausen and his big green creature from Venus. Like Godzilla, this guy has no respect for landmark buildings. Ymir vs. the Elephant? Ya gotta love it!


Film Value