The Valley of Gwangi Blu-ray Review
Kong but Harryhausen dinosaur-style and with cowboys
The last dinosaur-themed offering from the late, great Ray Harryhausen, was decades in the make, an 1969 dinosaur-centric Western ode to the classic 1933 story of King Kong, by way of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World.The Valley of Gwangi sees the crew from a failing Wild West Show in Mexico drawn to a mythical Forbidden Valley, where they find a Tyrannosaurus Rex which they foolishly hope to make their main attraction. Despite the loss of life along the way, the cowboys manage to secure the beast and bring it back to their town where, unsurprisingly, it breaks free and unleashes all manner of hell. Although very King Kong-esque in basic narrative, modern viewers would probably see more Jurassic Park themes here (perhaps even more The Lost World) with the ill-advised idea of venturing into a forbidden land of dinosaurs and bringing one of them back into an urban environment to provide a themed attraction.Harryhausen reportedly inherited the project, which had been in the making for decades, and was conceived by his own effects mentor, the late Willis O'Brien, who did the effects on King Kong, and imbued this Western variation on Kong with further borrowed ideas from Doyle's The Lost World (the film adaptation of which O'Brien also worked on). The end result is again remarkable more for Harryhausen's effects rather than characters and acting, with the best part of two decades of animating dinosaurs culminating in some of his most impressive work bringing the creatures to life, however there are also some nice ideas here that leave this a more distinctive offering than you might expect.
Picture QualityThe Valley of Gwangi comes to Region Free UK Blu-ray courtesy of HMV's exclusive Premium Collection, porting over the solid US release from last year which was already Region Free.
The years have not always been kind of Harryhausen, or, more specifically his stop-motion animation style - Dynamation. The trouble with this process was that it involved an elaborate variation of rear-screen projection, re-filming pre-shot live action sequences playing as a background to stop-motion animated creations moving in the foreground, matted out to further blend them in. This means that the background images of these shots simply cannot be restored by any conventional means, leaving the effects sequences that dominate the features boasting Harryhausen's work as looking worse than the rest of the film - and no amount of 2K scanning can retrieve the lost background information through filming a filmed background. Furthermore, Harryhausen's process went way beyond filming animated models, taking time and effort attempting to help viewers further suspend disbelief through integrating the models as best as he could. To this end, he would often use smoke and shadows to blend the creatures in, and favoured diffuse lenses to soften the models to the same effect. All of this would leave the highlights of the films that Harryhausen was most famous for as also being the worst looking, no matter how much restoration work was done.
The film, now pushing 50, is presented with a 1080p/AVC-encoded High Definition video presentation framed in the movie's original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1 widescreen.
Unlikely to ever look better than this
It's a surprisingly good looking affair, benefiting from dominant daylight sequences (indeed, the day-for-night sequences are perhaps the only source of consternation, as they have attracted criticism for the alternative filter that has been applied here) which bring out the best from the cinematography, lapping up the desert landscapes, and actually even impressing during the stop-motion segments, which are nowhere near as hard on the eyes as the impossible-to-clean Dynamation blended live-action / stop-motion sequences which, as noted already, carry with them pretty-much all the faults you'd expect from nothing but the worst Blu-ray presentations. In a presentation as good as this, the shift in quality can be quite jarring, but with the full knowledge of what to expect, and of the fact that - as a whole - it's unlikely to ever look better than this, the presentation can still be admired for how much has been improved upon from the days of poor old DVD. Colours are pretty rich, considering the era, with strong blue skies, and it's only those aforementioned night shots that may raise some eyebrows in the colour department. It's a strong, even very good video presentation.
Sound QualityA great little soundtrack
Mirroring the US release, we get a strong lossless DTS-HD Master Audio stereo 2.0 track to accompany the main feature, which delivers the key elements of dialogue, score and effects with aplomb. Whilst it's hardly demo territory, it ticks all the right boxes and is solid work.
Dialogue comes across clearly and coherently throughout, whilst effects embrace the wide open expanses and Western backdrop, complete with horses galloping, cowboys whooping and guns blazing. Of course it's the dino-roars that really liven thing up, growling across the array and echoing through the titular valley. They're Harryhausen's best dinosaurs, which is appropriate considering they were his last. The enthusiastic score only further livens the proceedings, and rounds off a great little track.
ExtrasA couple of relatively short extras adorn the disc, headlined by a short 8 minute conversation with Harryhausen in Return to the Valley, which is accompanied by a mere minute-long anecdote from Harryhausen about his young daughter's involvement with Gwangi. The disc is rounded off by the Trailer but the package, in typical lavish Premium Collection style, affords us a selection of art cards, as well as a DVD and Digital Copy of the film and a nice slipcase to house the amaray.
Blu-ray VerdictSome of Harryhausen's most impressive work
The Valley of Gwangi is a fun little dinosaur-themed retread of the classic King Kong story marked the end of Harryhausen's dinosaur work, showcasing his best efforts with the creatures, in a tale whose ideas have since been passed down into plenty of modern dino-driven blockbusters. This new addition to the HMV collection, the middle-entry in a trio of Harryhausen classics, affords the film strong video and audio all wrapped up in a suitably nice package which fans who haven't picked up the film yet will find a solid release.
You can buy The Valley of Gwangi on Blu-ray here
Suggested retail price when reviewed: £14.99
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