If I say "Jules Verne's Mysterious Island", and you are anybody but a Jules Verne scholar (to judge from my Site Meter stats, there is a good possibility that this is the case), I bet that the first thing that pops into your head is "giant bees", and if it's not that, it's "giant chicken-beast", and if it's still not that it was either "giant crab" or just "giant creatures in general". Assuming, of course that anything pops into your head at all when the subject of a 51-year-old matinee picture is raised, as I hope is the case.

If you are a Jules Verne scholar, but one who has steadfastly avoided all the movies based on his novels, I suppose you are wondering what on earth giant bees, chickens, or crabs have to do with the 1875 novel L'île mystérieuse, which features none of those things. The answer cuts right to the reason why the 1961 adaptation of that novel is almost certainly the best movie ever taken from the Verne's work (give or take the great big nostalgia that a lot of people feel toward Walt Disney's 1954 production of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea - and reasonably so, I might add), which is, in short: legendary visual effects genius Ray Harryhausen. For, when all is said and done, if Mysterious Island did not have giant creatures, then there would have been no point to having Harryhausen involved at all. And to explain why it did, let's jump back to 1961.

Two hit movies were much in the public consciousness at this time: first, Disney's 20,000 Leagues, which was beloved in all sorts of ways even a half-decade or more after its release; and secondly, and more importantly, Disney's Swiss Family Robinson, which opened in December, 1960, and proceeded to make a gargantuan shitpile of money. People take notice of that kind of money, even in Hollywood.

Now, the fortunate thing for people looking to make a quick knock-off, is that there was a perfectly wonderful mash-up of 20,000 Leagues and Swiss Family Robinson just sitting there peacefully waiting as it had waited for the better part of a century: for the novel The Mysterious Island is something of a sequel to 20,000 Leagues, and it is all about life on a deserted island in the South Pacific, and best of all, if you are a movie producer, it was already in the public domain. I can't say whether it was Columbia Pictures or producer Charles H. Schneer who scrounged up the idea first, and it doesn't especially matter; the point is, by that time Schneer had already produced five films with Harryhausen onboard as effects man, and unofficially as the heart and soul of the creative team; the most important were the two most recent, 1958's The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and 1960's The 3 Worlds of Gulliver. Between them, these pictures had not only cemented Harryhausen's Dynamation process as one of the great achievements in contemporary visual effects, but given Columbia Pictures a taste for fantastic stories of exotic locations. Mysterious Island certainly had the latter of those things, and the former...

I am not one of those people who disparage old-timey writing simply because it is old-timey. If I hadn't come out of college a film expert, the next choice was Victorian fiction. And I am never going to join the chorus that derides Verne for being stuffy or boring, or whatever. But what is absolutely true is that Verne was more of an ideas man than he was a prose stylist or a gifted storyteller, and one of the horrible truths of being a visionary science-fiction genius whose work effortlessly predicted the next century of technological advance is that, as the world catches up to your ideas, it leaves them feeling awfully quaint. And even then, The Mysterious Island isn't one of his most exciting books. So truth be told, the undoubtedly mercenary and hackish decision to tart the story up with the old Schneer-Harryhausen fantasy magic really was a good one; it's the single reason that Mysterious Island '61 is still a fleet and entertaining time-waster, while the slightly earlier From the Earth to the Moon is, and I say this will all respect for '50s hard sci-fi, dull as fuck.

The story, in brief - because even in its sexed-up form, it's not really the reason anyone cares - is that it's 1865, and several prisoners have just escaped from a Confederate jail in Richmond on a hot-air balloon: Captain Cyrus Harding (Michael Craig), his subordinates Neb Nugent (Dan Jackson) and Herbert Brown (Michael Callan), journalist Gideon Spilitt (Gary Merrill), and Confederate Sergeant Pencroft (Percy Herbert), who got caught on the balloon while trying to stop them, and was only spared a very fast trip to the ground below when it became clear that he alone knows how to make the thing go.

A terrible storm blows them west all the way to the Pacific, and in due course they crash on an island - a mysterious island, you might say, if you got to the theater in time to see the opening credits. Here they find an assortment of huge fauna, as well as two washed up Englishwomen, the plummy Lady Mary Fairchild (Joan Greenwood) and her niece Elena (Beth Rogan), who is shoved toward Hebert Brown in an obvious "pair of the pretty young folks" gambit that the filmmakers find as hugely boring as we do, which is why the only time the young lovers are alone, the best that the writers can think to do is to throw a mess of car-sized bees at them. Eventually, the mystery of the mysterious island that nobody seems to have given much thought to - who is aiding us silently and invisibly in all our travails? - is answered when a pirate ship is blown up by a strange man wearing a giant mollusc shell for a diving helmet, who announces himself to be none other than Captain Nemo (Herbert Lom), the creator of the Nautilus submarine, thought to be destroyed these eight years. Nope, it's snugly harbored in a cave underneath the island, looking just about as close to the Disney version as the lawyers will allow. The giant animals, it turns out, are part of his attempt to cure world hunger; and that attempt might soon be for naught, when the giant volcano in the center of the island erupts in the next few days. The characters are terrified at this, but we know better: why even have a volcano in your South Pacific adventure movie if not to provide a third act?

Mysterious Island is a pretty much unimpeachable sample of what a family-friendly matinee in 1961 could achieve if the people making it cared, as did the people involved. It is a simple, silly movie; it is also, crucially, a lot of fun, and this is not always true of films with Ray Harryhausen effects work, which frequently play as a waiting game in between Dynamation set pieces. Director Cy Endfield (a blacklist victim who spent most of the '50s in British genre films) does a good job of keeping the pace up and the tone breezy, making the sort of movie in which a hanging human skeleton is played less for thrills than for "cool, a skeleton!" giggles; the three screenwriters - all of them credited with much larger text than Verne got, which is almost certainly appropriate - massage the basic Swiss Family Robinson/Robinson Crusoe scenario just enough that they give their project its own personality that is, for my money, far more playful and less self-satisfied than the Disney picture, while sketching the characters in bold enough colors that we know who is who without having to necessarily having to invest ourselves emotionally in their lives or fates.

It's a peppy film, that is to say, helped along considerably by the inherent eye candy that comes along with setting a film in the Pacific, even when the Pacific is played by a stretch of Spanish coastline and some really terrific matte paintings. The dialogue is just sufficiently better than actual matinee serial tripe that you don't feel yourself getting stupider while it is said, and the plot clips by at a good speed - for a 1961 movie, at least, an audience trained in contemporary norms would almost certainly find the stretch from about minute 30 (or right after the crab battle) to minute 65 (when Nemo makes himself known) stretched-out, and to this I would only say: check out Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and get back to me on boring movies from 1961.

Still, none of this is a reason to love the film: that is due almost solely to three men. One of these is Lom, giving the only performance that really sticks; not that anyone else in the picture is especially bad, given the standards of the genre. I actually quite like Joan Greenwood's not-quite-comic take on matronly reserve. But they are all, unmistakably, giving matinee movie performances: a little declaiming here a pose or two here, and don't worry about that spectacularly inconsistent Southern accent, Percy Herbert, because nobody is actually paying that much attention. Lom, though, was a for-real legitimate actor, albeit one who very infrequently got good roles. I can't say that a late-appearing attempt to briefly make audiences forget about James Mason is a "good" role, but Lom invests the part with considerable dignity and emotional remove, selling a relatively complex Nemo who is at once both humanist and misanthrope, a lover of peace and the greater good who doesn't blink at all when talking about death on a massive scale.

Then, there is Bernard Herrmann, that grand master of cinema scores, who had already worked the Schneer-Harryhausen circuit a couple of times, and would return one more time for Jason and the Argonauts; I personally believe this to be the best of the four scores he wrote for them, and while it is not one of his masterpieces overall (too many revolutionary collaborations with Hitchcock for that possibility to even be on the table), it is the best possible scoring for this material, boisterous without being obvious and bland, always hinting in its sinewy way at the mystery of the title.

And, of course, the third person is Harryhausen himself: I have gone on and will not go on again about how much I personally love these practical effects better than even the best cutting-edge CGI and motion capture, but let's take it as given that if you have any heart beating in your chest at all, you will respond on at least a "well, that was neat!" level to Harryhausen at his best. And Mysterious Island is undoubtedly Harryhausen at his best. It's already there in the storm and balloon sequence that opens it; you can absolutely tell how it has been faked if you're looking, but having seen the film on Blu-Ray and a fairly clean 35mm print in my life, I will positively state that you have to be looking, and what remains otherwise is just real enough to leave us in the film, while being sufficiently unreal to add atmosphere.

But when we who love the man refer to Harryhausen visual effects, we don't mean the mattes, or the general cinema trickery; we mean the stop-motion creatures, here the giant birds and the giant bees and the giant crabs and the giant nautiluses. They are perhaps the least fantastic creations in his bestiary; the crab in particular looks uncommonly like he might have up and animated a real dead crab, though I have not ever looked into this, as I am happiest not knowing either way. The familiarity of the animals makes it important that they are absolutely convincing in design and movement, which is so (the shot of a bee crawling over a corner is one of my favorite individual moments in Harryhausen's career); and just to game it, the artist designed the effects to have what was, at that time, an unusual amount of interaction between the real set and the composited beasts. The bird-thing, for example, knocks a fence over onto a real-live human, all in the same shot: and while we can debate whether thing itself looks "real", or like a slightly jerky puppet, it does manage to look rather more like a jerky puppet that happens to be 20 feet tall and standing on fence than it looks like it was added in later. It's impressive now, when convincing compositing is still the first thing to go when CGI has to be rushed to meet a release date; I can't even imagine what it must have played like in '61, when barbaric rear-projection was still state-of-the-art.

The end result, anyway, is that it's delightful and fun to watch and completely awesome; and since in 1961 as in 2012, most of the movies that want to be all of these things are none of them, it does well to hold on to a film like Mysterious Island with fondness. It is not the most entertaining of the Harryhausen pictures, nor among those I would defend as being more or less great cinema - it is just a fun damn movie, for 101 gleefully slight minutes, and worthy of every last scrap of our respect on that count alone.