Georges Méliès: 5 of the Director's Innovative Films and How to Watch Them

In sci-fi and fantasy, Méliès defined early filmmaking.

Although the innovative and bizarre films of Georges Méliès were made over 100 years ago, thanks to the work of film archivists and the wonderfully public forum known as YouTube, several of his best are available to watch online for free.

The French filmmaker, whose inventive special effects techniques greatly influenced the early days of cinema, was honored with a Google Doodle on Thursday. It coincided with the 106th anniversary of the release of À la Conquête du Pôle — known in English as “The Conquest of the Pole” — one of Méliès’ most beloved films. It’s difficult to choose favorites for this filmmaker; Méliès directed over 500 films between 1896 and 1913, although only around 200 of those have been preserved. Although he was known to cover almost all fictional genres during his prolific career, it’s within the realms of fantasy and sci-fi that Méliès’ elaborate sets and ingenious special effects are best exemplified.

Here are five of the best:

5. Cinderella, 1899

The classic fairytale gets the Méliès treatment of elaborate painted sets and multiple actors. It was his first major success, as well as his first attempt at multiple scenes: The film employs six distinct sets and five scene changes.

4. A Trip to the Moon, 1902

Always ahead of his time in technology and narrative, Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon is a lunar caper involving a group of astronomers who take off in a tin rocket to the moon. Arriving safely, they rejoice — until they encounter demonic moon inhabitants, and barely escape with their lives.

3. The Mermaid, 1904

Méliès’ foray into entertainment started out in the world of magic — he once ran a magic theater in Paris — so it’s no wonder that some of his films celebrate the form. In this one, a magician pulls rabbits out of a hat, but even better, he eventually transmits himself to a magical place in which a mermaid appears seemingly suspended in the air.

2. Baron Munchausen’s Dream, 1911

One of Méliès’ more psychedelic films, Baron Munchausen’s Dream follows the character of Baron Munchausen. After falling asleep drunk, he “wakes up” to encounter an Egyptian queen, Grecian sirens… and reptiles. The sets are as elaborate as the scenes are zany.

1. The Conquest of the Pole, 1912

Loosely based on Jules Verne’s Voyages Extraordinaires series, this surreal film follows a group of explorers as they race to the North Pole. Naturally, they encounter the supernatural — specifically, a giant, pipe-smoking snow monster — when they get there. Made toward the end of his career, The Conquest of the Pole has been called one of Méliès’ greatest works. The subject matter, thought surreal, was very much of the moment, as Western explorers were reaching the North and South Poles around that very time. This is also Méliès’ longest work, clocking in at around 40 minutes when it was originally screened.

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