A Film from the Past
Of a World of the Past
That's still got it today!
There isn't much question that the special effects of this film pale in comparison to those used today and I'll grant you that the dinosaurs primarily look like plastic toys come to life. But let's rewind and repeat here... they look like plastic toys... come to life! This was in 1925 (and was in the works during 1924). The effects here are nothing short of incredible considering the age and the fact that Willis O'Brien had essentially taught himself stop motion animation (inventing his own version as they say). So meticulous was O'Brien's work that you can see the saliva stretching between the teeth of the mighty beasts! The dinosaur eyes move, as do their brows, even during a mundane task. The bellies rise and fall as if breathing and the monsters even eat. The blood even flows realistically in battle and the dirt and scenery around them seem to react logically to their presence. All this with stop motion animation! There are a lot of things (particularly during the stunning finale) that for the life of me, I still can't figure out how the hell Obie did 'em!
The story here is far from secondary but admittedly isn't the main reason to watch this film. A mad scientist named Professor Challenger (Mr. Wallace Beery) returns from a trek in the Amazon with an amazing story of a plateau populated by creatures long believed extinct by the general public. Naturally no one believes him (but the fact that he looks like a cross between Ming the Merciless and Rasputin and gets violent as Sean Penn whenever the press is around probably doesn't help). Challenger begins to organize a safari back to that "Lost World" to prove that he's not pulling a Ross Perot here. Renowned gamesman Sir John Roxton (Mr. Lewis Stone) joins the party as does Paula White (Miss Bessie Love), who lost her father in Challenger's last expedition. Challenger is all too ready to include "colleague" Prof. Summerlee (Mr. Arthur Hoyt) even though Summerlee is tagging along just to discredit the man. But Challenger is far more hesitant to include Edward E. Malone (Mr. Lloyd Hughes) simply because he's a reporter. Did I say "hesitant"? Well, he chases Malone down the road and tries to kill him, so I guess that fits well enough. When Malone's paper agrees to finance the trip in exchange for the exclusive story, Challenger goes from seeing red to seeing green (I guess everybody's got their price).
Do I have to tell you Challenger was right? Probably not! What follows is an exciting adventure through a prehistoric world, just isolated enough to remain self-contained (and just "classic" enough that we shouldn't be nitpicking the science of such ideas). This one is great fun to watch through and through, and you won't want to tune out until the final sequence, even if you're not a "silent movie" fan!
However, there are a lot of 1920's staples at work here that can get in the way of enjoying a good flick. For example, Bessie Love (lovely as she is) essentially reprises the standard swooning damsel in distress that we've seen so often, there is the obligatory white guy in black face (whose dialogue cards are far from what we would call politically correct) and, of course, being a silent film, these actors are as expressive as a mime on amphetamines. There are also a lot of plot contrivances that give the impression that a few puzzle pieces were missing from the box this one came in! Strangest of all of these is one strangely made-up Ape-Man (Mr. Bull Montana) who shows up once in a while just to wreak havoc upon our hapless travelers. Is this guy a new version of Obie's "Missing Link" character? Is this some proto-King Kong? All we really know is... he's kind of a jackass. If nothing else, this makes one want to read the original novel to get a better idea.
But again, this film is really a technical showcase for some amazing special effects, and these are here in spades! So convincing for the time were they that legend purports that Arthur Conan Doyle himself brought footage of this film before its release to show a group of paleontologists (implying that it was "Documentary Footage").
O'Brien had a knack for making beasts look as real as possible. He even kept the tell-tale "jerkiness" (which simply couldnĺt be helped) to a minimum here, showing a flowing and relaxed movement unmatched for decades. Truly notable in all of this is the fact that, in many scenes, humans are seen in the frame with the dinosaurs themselves. There is a seamlessness to the matting that possibly even exceeds that of Mighty Joe Young, more than two decades later. His use of huge puppet appendages and force perspective in some scenes helps this illusion.
Of course these were all tools he would re-employ to even greater effect a few years later in King Kong and what's striking about The Lost World is how much of it shows back up again in Kong and even Son of Kong! The great fall, the "log scene" (also to have been used in the abandoned Creation) and the urban rampage all achieved a genesis of sorts here (or in Doyle's brain). This certainly makes King Kong no less an achievement although it does raise Obie's status up just a tad in the creation of that film.
The Lost World may need a spoon full of sugar to take eighty years after its release but can still be enjoyed today, especially by those who are interested in special effects. Taken as a whole, considering the masterful work coupled with some of the more illogical and contrived aspects of the plot The Lost World gets Three and One Half Stars out of Five. Computer Graphics have all-but replaced Stop-Motion animation in movies and in many ways, that's all for the best. However the craftsmanship, hard work and stunning attention to detail that Willis H. O'Brien and his team showed here more than proves why stop motion was the standard for so very long. So until you return from your next trip to Universal City and tell me that there's a place packed with living dinosaurs there, I'll see you in the next reel, you firebrand you.
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