King Kong is often thought of as the first major special effects spectacle of early cinema. More specifically, if you ask someone to picture stop motion animated dinosaurs battling in an ancient film it’s highly likely King Kong would be the first image to come to mind. However, the very first movie to employ stop motion models as its main form of special effects outdates Kong by eight years. The Lost World might be a little more artistically muted than the art deco heights reached in King Kong, but the two films are thematically similar & The Lost World beat Kong to the punch in bringing dinosaurs (and humanoid apes, for that matter) to the big screen in what was at the time a majestic display. The same way the blend of CGI & animatronics floored audiences with “realistic” dinos in Jurassic Park‘s 1994 release, the stop motion dinosaurs of 1925’s The Lost World were an unfathomable achievement at its time. When the source material’s author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle screened test footage for the press (at a magician’s conference of all places) The New York Times even excitedly reported “(Conan Doyle’s) monsters of the ancient world, or of the new world which he has discovered in the ether, were extraordinarily life like. If fakes, they were masterpieces.” Imagine writing that “if fakes” qualifier in earnest & how quickly that writer’s head would have exploded if they got a glimpse of Spielberg’s work 70 years later.
At this point in time it’s understandable to be more than a little jaded about the visual accomplishments of The Lost World. Show this film to a young child following a screening of something loud, shiny, and new like Captain America: Civil War & they’re going to struggle caring or paying much attention. It probably doesn’t help that the film takes its audience’s jaw-dropped awe for granted either. Its razor-thin narrative strands a hunter, a professor, a journalist, a beautiful woman, and other assorted crew (including, in true 1920s fashion, a deeply uncomfortable blackface character named Zambo) in a modern prehistoric world hidden away somewhere along the “fifty thousand miles of unexplored waterways”in South America. Among a wealth of living, breathing dinosaurs & missing-link type primates, the in-peril crew alternates from being mystified by the old world wonders laid before them & fighting for their lives due to immediate concerns presented by the terrain. It’s a story that’s been adapted & co-opted countless times since 1925 (even with the added bonus of removing the colonialism-minded racism). Even its way of starting with more “harmless” breeds of dinos like the brontosaurus & working its way up to tn he gigantic T. Rex’s & Allosauruses of the (lost) world is a structure that’s been mimicked to death.
I’ll admit that it takes a certain joy in silent era hokeyness to enjoy this movie’s charms at face value in a modern context. I delight in the fact that the stop motion teradons look exactly like Pterri on Pee-wee’s Playhouse. Simple characterizations like Professor Challenger challenging the public to confirm his discovery amuse me (when they’re not tied to racial caricature, at least). Likes like “What are you thinking of, Paula- in this lost world of ours?” are a pure pleasure for me instead of groan-inducers. I’m also a huge sucker for stop motion animation in general, so the mix of handmade sets & real animal footage (sloths, jaguars, bear cubs, etc.) with claymation dinos is my idea of cinematic heaven. For some people this movie’s artificial dino safari will play as dull as the special effects “spectacle” of the exhaustively soulless Bwana Devil, but this is totally my happy place.
Where that for-fans-only attitude might shift is in the film’s final ten minute stretch, where it makes the same genre leap as King Kong & Spielberg’s unfairly maligned camp delight The Lost World (1997): bringing the dinos to the modern world. A brontosaurus is set loose on the streets of London, feeling like the stop motion beginnings of the kaiju genre & transcending what you might expect from a 1920s fantasy horror about a dino exploration mission. I feel like anyone with a deep affection for stop motion animation should watch this film either way; they’ll find so many handmade treasures big & small in its early special effects landmarks. If that kind of old world pleasure sounds quaint or too outdated for you, however, I urge you to at least watch the film’s concluding minutes of brontosaurus-run-wild mayhem. There’s something anachronistically bizarre & over-the-top in that segment that feels very much inline with the modern blockbuster landscape & I think a lot of people would get a kick out of its movie magic lunacy.