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Animal World, The (DVD Review)

11 Oct, 2010 By: Mike Clark

Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
$19.95 DVD
Not rated.

Children in the late 1980s and early ’90s grew up with cuddly dinosaurs: Littlefoot from The Land Before Time plus that purple whale-bait (at least he is in my fantasies) Barney. As a friend of mine put it: “They grew up and lived happily ever after — until they were extinct.”

But in producer-writer-director Irwin Allen’s follow-up to his Oscar-winning The Sea Around Us (1952), two dino behemoths circle each other next to the ineffectual stegosaurus one of them has turned into instant dead meat. Then they proceed to chomp big bloody chunks out of each other’s necks before both topple over a cliff into some rapids.

If any screen example better crystallizes the differences between being a ’50s kid and being one 30 years later, it does not immediately come to mind. I saw The Animal World theatrically in 1956, and this brawl — executed by King Kong’s Willis O’Brien and by now fellow superstar Ray Harryhausen (who’d been O’Brien’s young assistant on Mighty Joe Young) — made a lasting impression. There was also a tie-in comic book (which I had) and a disc of 3D Animal World dino stills that youngsters could plunk into their View-Masters. (I didn’t have this one but did have a VM disc of “Tourist Attractions in Ohio” — which included, to keep it in a near-enough vernacular, Serpent Mound).

The stop-motion animation dinosaur material (about 10 minutes) is why World is remembered, though long memories are required because it hasn’t been shown such since early summer of 1956, when, by coincidence, Warner released it almost exactly in tandem with John Ford’s The Searchers. The one way you could see the movie’s defining sequence (which is naturally played up on the jacket art of this “on demand” release) was to buy or rent the DVD of 1957’s The Black Scorpion, for which O’Brien was again special effects supervisor. Distributor Warner included it as Scorpion bonus material, a decision it may regret now that they’re marketing a film that truly needs this sequence. But World’s release definitively squelches the widely circulated rumors that the non-dino parts of the movie no longer existed.
Constituting about 70 minutes, these remaining sequences are even more of a hodgepodge than anything in The Sea Around Us, though admittedly, there’s a lot of material to cover (even if wrapping the picture with a bullfight is really stretching it).  The movie was obviously influenced by Walt Disney’s "True-Life Adventures" — short subjects and features of the day so well received that The Living Desert and The Vanishing Prairie won back-to-back Oscars (1953-54) in the feature documentary category. But whereas the Disney antecedents sometimes tried one’s patience a little by attempting to reap some voiceover narrative laughs by assigning human traits to creatures, Allen’s script goes whole hog, especially when describing female behavior during animal courtship rituals. You get everything but mother-in-law jokes.

Still, there’s some occasional majesty here, starting with a celestial blue sky/twinkling star opening that almost seems to be setting us up for the screen version of Carousel.  And the creature combat or pursuit footage is, per usual, foolproof up to a point: ant vs. termite, octopus vs. moray eel, tiger-antelope, birds-insects, kangaroo rat-gila monster – and, lest we forget, man trying to maintain his supposed superiority over all of them. Of course, this is a movie that ends with a long shot (and warning shot) of Earth blowing up — part and parcel of what ’50s kids used to see at the movies all the time during the newly crowned atomic age. We may all be blown up before class resumes, but don’t forget to do your fractions, OK?

When The Animal World played its first-run downtown engagement in my hometown, Warner Bros. strengthened the bill for what were two specialized releases by adding William Wellman’s likeable boy-and-his-Basenji drama Good-bye, My Lady (the only movie to feature Walter Brennan, Brandon de Wilde, Sidney Poitier and Phil Harris together). Despite World’s limitations, oh, would I ever pay to see this duo at my multiplex this instant — that is, the day after I blew nine bucks to see Easy A (which too many people who should know better told me was good). If nothing else, auteur Allen came up with one of the great advertising taglines: “2 Billion Years in the Making.” The movie was shot in Technicolor, too (not fade-prone Warner Color, which the studio even used for the same year’s Giant). This is another way of saying that the print here looks good.

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