Not long ago, while singing the praises of old Japanese monster movies, Quentin Tarantino talked about how "CGI-ed out" he was, and how much cooler it was back when monsters had cities to wreck and jets to knock around that were physical, hand-made models.
British filmmaker Gerry Anderson knows all about that. In the '60s, he made a number of TV series that employed some of the coolest models and miniature sets seen in sci-fi. His quest for realism included details like jets of air blowing debris when a rocket landed; even the actors were marionettes.
The new Thunderbirds Mega Set (A&E) collects the most famous of these cult series, and is captivating for reasons beyond "Supermarionation."
Set in an international future that's heavily informed by the romantic ideal of American astronauts, Anderson's puppets embody a straight-arrow, grit-your-teeth-and-do-the-right-thing lifestyle, and there is something charming and unsettling about seeing puppets as such manly-men. A sociologist could have a field day with the series — luckily for the rest of us, the episodes are gripping adventures as well.
In Captain Scarlet, also just released from A&E, the puppets become more lifelike, and the tone darkens, with a focus on mystery and intrigue rather than heroism.
Anderson's puppets are versatile, but usually animation's magic hides between the frames. Ray Harryhausen, undisputed king of stop-motion animation, is already pretty well represented on DVD (check out Columbia's 7th Voyage of Sinbad), but two new releases help flesh out the portrait. One of his first films, 20 Million Miles to Earth (Columbia / TriStar), features a bipedal lizard that, when hatched on Earth instead of its home planet, grows at an alarming rate — eventually it's running amok atop Rome's ruins. 20 Million is surprisingly well paced for a '50s sci-fi feature, and it provides the corny moments you would expect while still being effective on its own terms.
Few would claim that the 1981 Clash of the Titans (Warner Bros.) is a very good piece of storytelling. But Harryhausen's last film contains spectacular effects, most impressive of which is the serpent-haired Medusa, who slithers around her cave while torchlight flickers across her scaly body. When she fixes her gaze on the camera, it's not hard to see how she turns warriors to stone. Ignore "L.A. Law"'s Harry Hamlin as Perseus, and check out that flying horse and city-destroying Kraken!
The monsters in Mad Monster Party (Anchor Bay) are less frightening. A Rankin-Bass production in the style of their famous Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer, it collects all the well-known beasts — Wolfman, Dracula, and even a Peter Lorre-styled henchman — for a tale that, plot-wise, is strictly for kids. Most of the musical numbers are lame, but the title tune is a great spin on Goldfinger-ish pop. It's really noteworthy, though, in that Mad magazine stalwarts Harvey Kurtzman and Jack Davis helped design the characters and story.
Famous (albeit more underground) comix folk abound on the new God Hates Cartoons (www.brightredrocket.com). It's a decidedly mixed bag. It offers wonderful strip-to-cartoon translations from Jim Woodring and Tony Millionaire, and a strangely moving, long tale by Austin's Walt Holcombe. Yet it also devolves into a skit about pissing on things, and a series of "isn't perversion funny?" segments that were — get this — too stupid for Spike & Mike. Despite the latter, the disc may be a must-have for hardcore alternative comics fans.
As is Comic Book Confidential (Home Vision), a Ron Mann documentary that features interviews with key cartoonists from Will Eisner to Jaime Hernandez. It does a remarkable job of cramming the century-long history of a popular art form into 85 minutes, and is an invaluable introduction for newcomers. While serious fans will already be familiar with the ground covered here, they should relish the chance to see their favorite artists — most of whom couldn't get on film if they paid somebody — talk, however briefly, about their work.
Whaddaya know? Seven new animation releases, and not a computer-generated dinosaur among them! Tarantino must be jumping for joy.