Golden Voyage of Sinbad, The

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 06/26/13 12:20:09

"What do a stop-motion genius and an evil wizard have in common?"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Few people went to movies with special effects by the late, great Ray Harryhausen for the stories; they went to see him bring impossible things to life while his collaborators wove an entertaining enough tale of high adventure to make up for the fact that, back then, a movie couldn't just be an hour and a half of monsters fighting. He made a great many of these movies, but I suspect "The Golden Voyage of Sinbad" held a special place in his heart - and held it because he empathized with the villain.

First, though, we meet the hero. Sinbad (John Phillip Law) and his crew don't seem to be sailing anywhere in particular when they spot a strange animal flying over their ship; a bowman shoots it down and they find it is carrying a strange amulet. Visions lead Sinbad to a nearby port, where the masked Vizier (Douglas Wilmer) has a second amulet that links with the first, providing direction to the fabled isle of Lemuria and its magical fountain with a local merchant's layabout son (Kurt Christian) and a lovely slave girl (Caroline Munro) whose tattooed hand matches one of Sinbad's visions in tow. They are pursued by the wizard Koura (Tom Baker), who has reasons to find this fountain beyond his desire to take control of the city.

Wizards in fantasy stories - especially the evil ones - often have broad, vaguely defined powers, capable of doing anything the story requires until the writer realizes they're too powerful and says all that expenditure of mystic energy has worn them out, so they'll be of no use until the climax. It's noteworthy enough that Koura isn't like that - he's basically got one trick, and using it takes a visible toll on him. The fact that his main skill is bringing inanimate objects to life, seeing through their eyes, directing their actions, and feeling some sort of pain when Sinbad dispatches them... You have to admit, that's a pretty interesting guy to have as a villain in a Harryhausen movie, more human than the typical evil wizard, right down to having a henchman who seems genuinely concerned with his welfare.

Not that the audience is ever in any danger of sympathizing with Koura; the story by Harryhausen and screenwriter Brian Clemens makes his murderous intent clear from the start, and Tom Baker (best known as the longest-tenured star of Doctor Who) does a quite fantastic job of making Koura thoroughly malevolent without having to fall back on the usual tropes. He holds back just enough not to overpower John Phillip Law as Sinbad, whom the story makes a little blander than he needs to be. He's a likable enough hero, confident and playful without becoming smug as so many do, though he's only got a couple of really good chances to banter with Caroline Munro. While certainly hired in part because she fits Margiana's costume very nicely, Munro does have a nice way of looking like she doesn't quite believe Sinbad when he says she's free - especially since he waited until they were on his ship to do so. And to be fair, she's not the only eye candy, with a lot of guys in costumes that show off their abs, including Kurt Christian as able-enough comic relief.

The story is fairly ridiculous at many points, pretty much there to provide sometimes-flimsy excuses to get to the next bit of "Dynamation". The their credit, Clemens and director (of everything else) Gordon Hessler make it go smoothly enough so that the audience isn't snickering when it comes time for the good stuff. And that good stuff is still pretty cool forty years later; the only times that the illusion is really hurt is when a stop-motion Sinbad must actually grapple with a creature (even shot mostly from behind, it doesn't quite look right). Harryhausen's full range of skills are on display, though - creatures like Koura's homonculi have personality to go with their smooth animation, and both the animation and matte-work often fuse the real and the unreal just as smoothly as modern digital effects. When something that shouldn't move does, it's a neat jolt, and the climactic action scene with Sinbad and his crew fighting a six-armed statue of Shiva is fairly amazing - the live-action and stop-motion blend together as well as they ever have, never feeling like the movie is cutting between two different directors and techniques.

So like Koura, Ray Harryhausen brings creatures to a very impressive imitation of life. We're just lucky that he used his powers for good rather than evil.

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