The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Jason and the Argonauts

If there's one thing I hate in movies, it would have to be computer-generated images or as we all so affectionately call it...CGI. I don't really hate all uses of CGI because sometimes it's necessary, but instead I'm more sick of directors, producers and studios overusing it to the point where I want to smash the disc apart rather than watch another minute. Movies like The Lord of the Rings trilogy are supposed to dazzle audiences with the spectacle of what they're watching, but usually for me it's always on my mind that 'hey, a computer made that.' "Cool."

That's one huge reason movies pre-CGI appeal to me. If a director wanted to do something spectacular with a scene, here's a novel thought, he actually had to do it or in some cases find a way around it with a green-screen, miniatures, matte paintings, things like that. One always reliable solution was Ray Harryhausen, a special effects master famous for his use of stop-motion animation, who specialized in all sorts of crazy creatures and creations. So when directors couldn't turn to computers to save the day, they turned to Harryhausen.

In most of the movies Harryhausen worked on, the stories required creatures of one sort or another that could not actually be replicated in real life...most of the time because they didn't exist. Greek mythology had hordes of such creatures, half-man and half-horse, species with six heads, harpies harassing people from the sky. And in director Don Chaffey's 1963 Greek mythology epic Jason and the Argonauts, Harryhausen turned in some of his greatest work that may seem dated now over 40 years later but at the time was groundbreaking.

The story itself is one of the more well-known adventures to come out of mythology as young Jason (Todd Armstrong) is trying to revive his home Thessaly to the power that it once was. He has heard of a golden fleece at the end of the world that if recovered, Jason believes will help inspire the country to regain its power. With backing from Greek gods Zeus and Hera (Honor Blackman), Jason goes about acquiring a ship, the Argo, and a crew of the strongest and smartest men Greece has to offer, including the greatest of Greek heroes, Hercules (Nigel Green) himself. But as Jason and his crew travel to lands where no Greek has gone before, they face a long list of foes and obstacles, both human and other-worldly.

Where movies like Troy tried to do away with anything godly or mythological, 'Jason' embraces everything of the sort. The gods, like Zeus, Hera and Hermes, interact with humans all the time, appearing here and there in a cloud of smoke as needed. Zeus even gives Hera just five chances to help Jason grow up because he fears she'll interfere too much in his development. The portrayal of Mount Olympus is actually pretty funny, very 60s stylish, and it made me chuckle they show Zeus and Hera as a bit of a bickering old married couple.

The treat here is of course Harryhausen's stop-motion special effects, especially the finale as Jason and two of the Argonauts engage in a sword fight with six skeltons brandishing shield and sword, check it out HERE but SPOILERS of course. It's an inspired sequence that took Harryhausen weeks to film because each skeleton had to be moved separately just to have one frame of shooting. One second equals about 24 frames so do the math, that's a long time playing with skeletons. But all around, the scene jumps off the screen both because of the skeleton warriors and the actors mimicking fighting these non-existent enemies.

'Jason' will always be remembered for that sequence but two others are almost as impressive thanks to Harryhausen. One has a man blinded by the gods attacked by two harpies, watch HERE, and the second has an enormous statue, Talos, coming to life and attacking Jason and the Argo, check the Talos scene out HERE. Sure, all these stop-motion scenes are obviously miniatures inserted into the movie so creature and actors never actually interact, but there's something nostalgic, something very cool about these sequences. Harryhausen spent months on things that could probably be done in a few days or hours today, all of which is a testament to his talent 30 years before computers started to take over.

The scenes without the Harryhausen creations do drag at times, but it's not long before another adventure comes around. Armstrong is a capable Jason -- although as an American his voice was dubbed because let's face it all Greeks speak proper old English -- and his supporting cast is good, especially scene-stealing Green as Hercules. Nancy Kovack joins the cast late as Medea, the requisite love interest, and Gary Raymond plays Acastus, the treacherous member of the Argo's crew. A fun movie all around, available to watch on Youtube starting with Part 1 of 11.

Jason and the Argonauts <----trailer (1963): ***/****

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