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When the silent classic The Lost World (based on a novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who is better known for creating Sherlock Holmes) was originally released in 1925, it had a running time of 104 minutes. Unfortunately, however, for many decades, the movie was only available in horribly truncated versions, each with a running time of 60 minutes or less. To remedy this situation, Image Entertainment has now released a new DVD that pieces together scenes from several prints of The Lost World to arrive at a running time of 94 minutes. Because no negatives of The Lost World have survived, all the footage on Image Entertainment's DVD comes from prints of varying quality. Serge Bromberg and David Shepard examined this footage, chose the best quality material available, and then painstakingly cleaned the images and minimized scratches and other abrasions. The result is quite likely the best looking and most complete version of The Lost World that will ever be available.

When Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park sequel, The Lost World, was released in 1997, few critics made reference to the silent Lost World--which is a clear model for Spielberg's film (and Michael Crichton's novel): both movies feature 1) an expedition into a land where dinosaurs exist, 2) the capture of a dinosaur, 3) the return to civilization, and 4) the escape of the dinosaur, which rampages through city streets and destroys buildings. While Spielberg's uncredited remake received a backlash from critics and moviegoers alike who complained about the paper-thin characters, the special effects themselves were stunning. In comparison, while Willis O'Brien's special effects for The Lost World represented state-of-the-art technology in 1925, its special effects can't compare with the computer-generated brutes in Spielberg's film. However, O'Brien's models are still effective.

Some critics have argued that the storytelling in the silent The Lost World is superior to Spielberg's, but it's tough to see that logic. Both movies are beset with disposable characters and inconsequential dialogue. Both movies are about dinosaurs first and people second, and when the dinosaurs are on the screen, everything else becomes irrelevant. But having said that, The Lost World still makes for fascinating viewing.

It's about an expedition deep into the jungles of South America. Professor Challenger (Wallace Beery) has visited an isolated plateau and returned with stories of giant creatures, but few people believe him. Without any evidence to support his stories, his colleagues jeer and ridicule him during a presentation. But he vows to return to the jungle and a small group agrees to accompany him. This group includes Bessie Love as Paula White, the daughter of an explorer who disappeared on a previous expedition to the plateau; Lloyd Hughes as journalist Edward E. Malone, who serves as the love interest for Ms. Love; and Lewis Stone (who would star as Judge Hardy opposite Mickey Rooney in the Andy Hardy films) as Sir John Roxton, a big game hunter who also has a hankering for Ms. Love (but he's old enough to be her father). None of these characters make much of an impact. Beery is too gruff to acquire any sympathy and everyone else is too bland (with the screenplay largely to blame). But there is genuine suspense as the expedition nears the plateau. We see sheer cliffs that rise hundreds of feet straight up, completely cutting off the plateau from the outside world. However, Challenger knows about a column of rock that rises beside the plateau. It has a steep, but climbable, slope, and once the explorers climb to the top, Challenger orders the lone tree to be cut down. When it falls, it serves as a bridge to the plateau and the expedition walks across. But the crash of the tree has alerted a brontosaurus, which soon strolls up to the tree and knocks it off the cliff, effectively trapping the expedition on the plateau. Soon afterwards, as they're harried by a huge, leering allosaurus, they wonder if they'll survive long enough to find a way off the plateau.

Eight years after The Lost World was released, RKO developed a project that they thought was ideal for Willis O'Brien's talents, and in retrospect, The Lost World now looks like a trial run for that movie, which is regarded as one of the great American classics, King Kong. By no means, however, was The Lost World the beginning of his career in creature animation. He had been experimenting with stop-motion animation as early as 1917 in one-reel shorts such as The Dinosaur and the Missing Link and The Ghost of Slumber Mountain. Even today, his work on King Kong is widely considered as the best stop-motion animation ever committed to film. His work on The Lost World approaches the same level as King Kong, but The Lost World was a learning experience for O'Brien. Some of the creatures are all-too-obviously clay models (particularly the triceratops) and some of the animation is jerky, but it's a joy to watch this film footage. O'Brien's work was so essential that the basics of creature animation didn't change much for over 60 years, until Jurassic Park inaugurated a new era of computer-generated beasts. Special effects artist Stan Winston says, "Our creature animation in the Jurassic Park films basically descends from The Lost World of 1925. Willis O'Brien is our great pioneer" (from the DVD cover for The Lost World).

Image Entertainment's DVD is packed with extras. In addition to the restored and remastered film footage, you'll find two alternate scores: one is a traditional score compiled and conducted by Robert Israel and the second is a new score composed and performed by the Alloy Orchestra. Take your pick (although I encourage everyone to try the Alloy Orchestra's excellent score). The disc also contains 13 minutes of animation outtakes (including some brief, flickering shots of Willis O'Brien positioning his creatures) and a photo gallery with materials furnished by Roy Pilot, author of The Annotated Lost World. To top off the excellent package, Image Entertainment has included a reproduction of the original souvenir program. The only disappointing part of the DVD package is the audio commentary track, which contains very sparse commentary. Roy Pilot's commentary is good, but there is much too little for an alternate audio track. This audio would have been best suited accompanying a photo gallery. But even if the DVD had been released without an audio commentary, this still would have been an outstanding DVD package. If you're only familiar with Spielberg's Lost World, you owe it to yourself to check out where the concepts for Spielberg's bigger, splashier film originated. This is a marvelous DVD.

 


The Lost World is now available on DVD from Image Entertainment. Suggested retail price: $24.99. For more information, check out the Image Entertainment Web site.