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Old school Harryhausen's classic sci-fi films remain beloved, influential

If you're of the moviegoing generation that knows the term CGI without needing it spelled out (computer-generated imagery), you may not have an appreciation for stop-motion animation.

Stop-motion is the "old-fashioned" technology where an inanimate object is painstakingly brought to life by photographing short increments of movements, frame by frame. The original "King Kong" was created with stop-motion; more recent movies including "The Nightmare Before Christmas," "Corpse Bride," "Chicken Run" and "Wallace and Gromit" used variations on the technique.

It has been well-documented that the films of Ray Harryhausen, one of the most influential names in stop-motion animation, were one reason that George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson and Tim Burton went into filmmaking. You'll learn more about that in the bonus features on "20 Million Miles to Earth: 50th Anniversary Edition" ($24.95, Sony; available Tuesday).

"I grew up watching [Harryhausen's films]. For a lot of us, that's what made us want to be in movies," Burton says during a conversation with Harryhausen that's included in the two-disc set.

Burton, one of the true visionaries of modern cinema and a really hip guy to boot, gushes like a starstruck kid during the conversation. At one point, he holds up one of Harryhausen's model spaceships from "Earth vs. the Flying Saucers" with the glee of a child in a toy store. ("You got more personality out of these [the saucers] than the actors in the movie," Burton tells Harryhausen.)

"20 Million Miles to Earth" is one of the classic big beast pictures from the 1950s. An American spaceship crashes in water near Sicily after returning from an ill-fated mission to Venus. A young boy named Pepe finds a canister with a gelatinous mass inside and sells it to buy a cowboy hat. The mass spawns a small lizardlike creature that has human characteristics and grows at a rapid pace once it breathes oxygen.

This "ymir" soon sprouts into a confused, 20-foot-tall beast rampaging through Rome. A climatic ending takes place at the Colosseum.

Harryhausen's ymir was so lifelike that Burton says he looked in pet shops to find one.

"I thought they really existed," Burton says. "Really? You thought there were ymirs?" Harryhausen laughs in response.

In the feature "Remembering 20 Million Miles to Earth," director Terry Gilliam, as well as Oscar-winning effects gurus Rick Baker and Stan Winston are among those discussing the movie.

Again, Harryhausen's influence on these men is clear.

"The worlds he created were amazing," says Gilliam, the man behind "Monty Python."

Harryhausen shares a bit on why he made his creatures carry such human characteristics as breathing and blinking their eyes. While he mentions some of his other films such as "Mighty Joe Young," "The Valley of Gwangi" and "The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms," the emphasis is on this movie.

The set also has an interview with actress Joan Taylor, plus the original black and white version of the film and a new colorized version that has Harryhausen's approval. (You can even toggle between the two versions while watching the movie.)

*Irwin Allen is another legendary name in the world of science-fiction. Allen, who later became known as the king of the disaster films by producing such blockbusters as "The Poseidon Adventure" and "Towering Inferno," made quite a name for himself on television in the 1960s with shows including "Lost in Space" and "Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea."

Now, one of his most popular series is being released in a fittingly gigantic DVD set. "Land of the Giants" was the imaginative story of a spaceship (the Spindrift) that crashed on a remote planet very much like Earth -- except for the fact that its inhabitants were about 12 times larger than the small group of people on board the Spindrift.

"Land of the Giants Complete Series -- Limited Edition" ($199.98, Fox; available now) has been released in a massive nine-disc set that has all 51 episodes, the unaired pilot and a slew of interviews with stars Gary Conway, Don Marshall, Stefan Arngrim, Don Matheson and Deanna Lund. Some of Allen's home video footage is also included.

The set comes in a collectible wooden cage that fans will recall from the show. Also included: a Spindrift keychain, iron-on crew patch, trading cards, a color booklet and a reproduction of the first comic book.

*"Todd McFarlane's Spawn: The Animated Collection" ($39.98, HBO Video, available now) is a new four-disc remastered set marking the 10th anniversary of the animated action series.

Bonus features include storyboards, behind-the-scenes featurettes, audio commentaries, character profiles and an interview with McFarlane.


Coming Tuesday

"Everything's Gone Green" (First Independent), "Firehouse Dog" (Fox), "Kung Fu Hustle Axe-Kickin' Edition" (Sony), "The List" (Warner), "Los Zafiros: Music From the Edge of Time" (Shout! Factory), "Pathfinder" (Fox), "Played" (Lionsgate), "Roving Mars" (Buena Vista), "The Situation" (New Video), "Starter for 10" (HBO) and "300" (Warner).

TV on DVD: "The Archie Show: The Complete Season" (Classic Media), "Dallas: The Complete Seventh Season" (Warner), "Hawaii Five-O: The Second Season" (Paramount) and "Sabrina The Teenage Witch: The Second Season" (Paramount).



ULTIMATE UNDERDOG COLLECTION: No need to fear, Underdog is here. Seasons one through three of the show starring the original animated caped canine have been individually released. ($12.95 each, Classic Media. Available now.)


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