A strong feeling of déjà vu permeates Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977), the third and final Ray Harryhausen Sinbad movie and, as it turned out, the penultimate film of the famous stop-motion artist's career. Generally regarded as one of Harryhausen's weakest films, weaker certainly than The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958) and The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973), this reviewer was reluctant to revisit a movie remembered as both cheap-looking and excruciatingly dull when Columbia/TriStar released it to DVD back in 2000.
But it proved a minor revelation of sorts, and does so once again on Blu-ray. There's a lot that's wrong with it, certainly, but overall it's a much better movie than the far more expensive Clash of the Titans (1981), Harryhausen's final film, and in many respects it's better than The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, which most regard as better in virtually every way.
The story: After Prince Kassim (Damien Thomas) is magically transformed into a baboon at the very moment he is to be crowned Caliph, his distraught sister, Princess Farah (Jane Seymour) implores Sinbad (Patrick Wayne, son of John Wayne) to help them. Sinbad and Farah, along with Sinbad's typically disposable crew, locate the great alchemist Melanthius (Patrick Troughton) who, with daughter Dione (Taryn Power, daughter of Tyrone Power and Linda Christian), join Sinbad on a voyage to the alternately icy and fertile land of Hyperborea. Along the way, Farah's stepmother, the witch Zenobia (Margaret Whiting), who transformed Kassim so her own son could ascend the throne, pursues them.
None of this, of course, matters much. More than ever, Harryhausen's pictures had by 1977 become little more than showcases for his stop-motion set pieces. Longtime business partner Charles H. Schneer, who produced every Harryhausen picture from the mid-1950s forward, has taken a lot of abuse from fans who blame him for the weaknesses of movies like Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger. But the truth is Harryhausen, who co-produced the picture and is credited with co-writing its story, had more production input, certainly after the first Sinbad, than is usually acknowledged, and thus must share some of the blame. Perhaps Harryhausen feared he might lose creative control of his effects sequences, or maybe he was concerned that truly imaginative directors or a genuinely charismatic, bankable star might overshadow his own hard work. Whatever the case, Harryhausen's movies were ultimately directed by competent but journeymen filmmakers who functioned more like traffic cops than artists. This seems true across the board. After Bernard Herrmann's great score for The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, and Miklós Rózsa's good one (for Golden Voyage...), Roy Budd's music for Eye of the Tiger can't help but sound like cheap filler.
The biggest problem though is Beverley Cross's script. Eye of the Tiger is, for starters, practically a remake of 7th Voyage, but is so dramatically clumsy on its own terms as to almost defy imagination. In one particularly ludicrous scene, Zenobia has used her black magic to shrink herself down to about six inches in height. She is, however, captured by Melanthius, who decides to question the now helpless villainess, whom he encases in a glass jar. In Cross's clumsy hands, Melanthius the scientific genius suddenly becomes as stupid as Homer Simpson, unthinkingly revealing every secret Zenobia wants to know, foolishly uses her magic potion to create a giant bumblebee which threatens him, and provides the means for the witch's escape. He gives away the store -- and all in the span of about 90 seconds. And all this is possible because, in an earlier scene, Princess Farah acted like a dope, too, blurting out Sinbad's top secret plans to Zenobia. Harryhausen apparently admired Cross's knowledge of mythology and history, but as a dramatist, he sucks rocks.
On the plus side, several of Harryhausen's creations are more like characters than the usual monsters our heroes poke sticks at. The prince, in baboon form, and his gradual dehumanization, wins audience sympathy, and there's a genuinely moving scene when he sheds tears after seeing himself in a mirror, the likes of which hadn't been since in Harryhausen's animation since Mighty Joe Young (1949). Other set pieces, such as the trio of goblins brought to life by Zenobia, may be highly derivative, but at least they showcase Harryhausen's superb talent for stop-motion lighting.
But overall the majority of creations only recall similar characters done better in other films. Harryhausen, in his later films especially, seemed to want to fool audiences with photo-real stop-motion animals (in this case, a baboon, bee, and most absurd of all, a giant walrus), a misguided aim at best. Audiences wanted to see characters they couldn't see for real at the local zoo, perhaps most memorably the Cyclops from 7th Voyage. When a giant saber-toothed tiger comes to life at the climax, Harryhausen, for all his talent, can't avoid making the thing look like a stuffed animal.
Director Sam Wanamaker, the formerly blacklisted actor, doesn't bring much to the film. The picture is crudely cut together, edited with a complete disregard of the "180-degree rule," giving some scenes a jumbled sense of geography.
Yet, as unoriginal as it is, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger is better structured and paced than The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, which is quite uneventful in its first-half, and spends far too much time aboard Sinbad's ship. John Phillip Law's Sinbad in that film was more authentic but also humorless and lacking in warmth. Patrick Wayne isn't nearly as good an actor as Law was, and Law had more screen presence, yet Wayne's Sinbad comes off better, and closer to the romanticized heroes of earlier, classical fantasy films.
Also, for all this reviewer's bellyaching, one can't deny or easily dismiss the palpable excitement generated among 10-year-old boys when a new Ray Harryhausen opened at the local bijou. And for all his films' faults, we still hold a strong affection for them, every last one, even generally lesser efforts like Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger.
Video & Audio
Twilight Time's Limited Edition Blu-ray (3,000 units) of Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, licensed from Columbia, looks outstanding. Resolution is greatly enhanced and for the first time the film's vibrant primary colors pop off the screen like they should. (Even in 35mm in theaters, the movie never looked this good!) The added sharpness allows viewers a better opportunity to appreciate the fine details of Harryhausen's models, naturally, but also the film's many quality matte paintings and some of the miniature landscapes. Even much of the Dynarama footage (sandwiching live-action actors and stop-motion puppets within the same shot) looks better than usual. However, the movie's great overreliance on travelling mattes, typically with the principal actors matted against various real and created locations, is often painfully apparent. The 1080p video is 1.85:1 widescreen (Golden Voyage was 1.66:1) while the excellent 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio greatly improves upon the 2000 DVD's mono audio, though that included numerous subtitle options that this does not (English SDH only here, six languages on the old DVD).
Overly-familiar extras used and used again on earlier Harryhausen DVDs ("This is Dynamation" featurette, trailer, etc.) all return here. New is Roy Budd's score on an isolated track, and Julie Kirgo's usual fine liner notes.
Imperfect Harryhausen but still a fun picture that seems to getter better over time and with multiple viewings, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger is Highly Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian and publisher-editor of World Cinema Paradise. His credits include film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features.