Animator Ray Harryhausen and producer Charles Schneer do a second take on King Kong, replacing the ape with a hungry Allosaurus. Also, cowboys. The reworking of the story isn’t substantial, although by its closing act, Valley of Gwangi becomes a raucous, entertaining dino flick imbued with sensational energy courtesy of Harryhausen’s animation.
Nothing in Gwangi leaves a creative high mark. The early 1900s setting, still rife with frontier types and untouched American landscapes, helps this well trodden lost world feature feel different though – slightly, anyway. Director Eugene Lourie spun this yarn in 1961’s Gorgo – there, Londoners snagged a prehistoric reptile for a circus show which, as expected, goes awry. So too here.
Gwangi’s dino pageantry still excites
Gwangi’s dino pageantry still excites
Unlike Gorgo or even Kong, Gwangi is lighter, tamer, and despite a body count, even quaint. There’s an innocence to Gwangi. Part of this comes from Jerome Moross’ splendid score, blending western charm and dino thrills in a pleasant theme. Moross scored only this one Harryhausen outing, a shame given this lone example.
Down at its human level, Gwangi handles a light romance, slapdash science, and mild inter-personal squabbles, enough to stave off boredom between animation. James Franciscus is enjoyable as the (sometimes) narcissistic Tuck. Gila Golan holds her own in a male dominated feature, never helpless or in need of rescue. The pairing works, back-and-forth in their relationship with a clean character arc centered on greed.
Yet it’s Gwangi itself in the true lead, boldly colored and visually striking against the desert rocks. Harryhausen’s guiding hand gives Gwangi both an instinctual aggression and a sense it wishes to be left alone. Clashes with other dinosaurs give the film an action centerpiece. Unavoidably, Gwangi brings a sense of Harryhausen familiarity. Impressive as it is, cowboys roping Gwangi recalls a similar sequence in Mighty Joe Young and Gwangi tussling with an elephant comes from 20 Million Miles to Earth. Yet, the technical acumen of both shows superior style and ever progressing talent.
At 90 minutes and with a furious, satisfying finale, Gwangi briskly moves toward spectacle. Empty as the story may be beyond the well trodden warnings of man-vs-nature and grumblings over profits – inserted because the format demands it as opposed to actual commentary – Gwangi’s dino pageantry still excites. The title beast doesn’t show for 50-minutes. There’s too much going on to notice.
Beautiful grain reproduction highlights this gorgeous Blu-ray presentation, the final Harryhausen film needed for a complete set on the format. Luckily, most of them hold this level of beauty.
Generous amounts of color saturate the primaries, coating Gwangi in splendid reds, greens, and blues. Never too intense, color work won’t bleed or introduce compression artifacts. Accurate flesh tones provide a natural base.
Excusing the rather poor examples of day-for-night, terrific contrast enhances the depth. When the sun hits those rocky exterior shots, they bloom, showing off for the camera. The same goes for the finale, done in pure daylight, adding life to the fleeing crowds.
Gwangi comes to Blu-ray with a new scan, likely at 2K. Added resolution pays off in terms of definition, revealing exquisite facial detail and every bit of the work that went into the stop motion models. Long shots of mountain ranges keep fidelity high. The expected drop off when Harryhausen mattes effects into live action take their toll, but an expected one. They do so with limited damage too.
Clearly, any restoration effort went toward the video. The audio is left to rot. Note that Gila Golan’s voice is dubbed, fairly obvious even on VHS let alone newer formats. Still, other dialog sounds mired in clean-up, removing fidelity and leaving behind an artificially deadened quality.
Forget the score too, remiss for its loss of bass, leaving everything in a flat treble. Horn sections come free of distortion, if still lackluster in terms of sharpness.
DVD bonuses carry over, including Return to the Valley, an eight minute retrospective with modern visual effects artists discussing the Harryhausen impact on their careers. Gwangi and Vanessa is a short interview with Harryhausen recounting an amusing story about his daughter and the Gwangi model. The original trailer lives here too.
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