Sony // 1963 // 104 Minutes // Rated G
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Mac McEntire // September 18th, 2011
"What ship is strong enough to reach the edge of the world? What crew brave enough to sail in her?"
There are blockbusters, and then there are blockbusters -- and then there's Jason and the Argonauts.
Way back in ancient Greece, the sinister Pelias (Douglas Wilmer) took over the kingdom. The rightful heir to the throne, Jason (Todd Armstrong) survives, thanks to a little meddling by the gods, and sets off to find the golden fleece, a magical treasure that can not only help him reclaim the kingdom, but show the people that the gods are on his side. As Jason and his buddies the Argonauts face peril after monstrous peril, he's left to wonder whose side the gods are really on.
Before Steven Spielberg dabbled with aliens, dinosaurs, and Nazi-fightin' archeologists, before Peter Jackson dreamt of J.R.R., and before James Cameron captured sinking ships and blue-skinned tree-huggers, we had Jason and the Argonauts. Everything about this movie is big. Big sets, big vistas, big drama, and big, big, monsters. Although antiquated in a few ways, this old-timey epic holds up nicely today.
As we all know, the movie's centerpiece is the visual effects, including but not limited to eye-popping stop motion animation by the legendary special effects whiz Ray Harryhausen. Maybe some jaded viewers will balk at the datedness of the stop motion, but I say it's just as thrilling as ever. This is because Harryhausen's stop motion creations are filled with personality. When the metal titan first turns his head, you can tell that he's royally ticked off. When the skeletons first rise, there's this moment when they look at each other and at themselves, as if to say, "Hey, check it out, we're a bunch of badass skeletons." The effects are more than just effects, they're characters. That sense of personality was Harryhausen's gift, and it's on full display throughout.
You already know about the effects. How does the rest of the movie hold up? The acting is, like everything else, big and broad. Some might argue that the actors are little too stiff and forthright in their roles, but their stateliness fits the overall Greek myth feel the filmmakers are going for. Plus, not everyone is all formal. Nigel Green shows a lot of liveliness as the one and only Hercules. He may not look how you imagined the famous Herc, but he certainly has the character's lust for life down pat. The plot is mostly episodic, as our heroes venture from one scrape to the next. As for themes, like a lot of these Greek epics, it has to do with the tenuous relationship between man and the gods. The gods are petty and selfish, while our mortal heroes stand up to them by being honorable and true.
All of today's blockbusters are made with high-def in mind, but how do older films hold up on Blu-ray? If they all look as good as Jason and the Argonauts, then bring on more classics. The whole movie has a could-have-been-made-yesterday look, with astounding clarity and fine details throughout. Take any shot where the characters are standing against a rocky background (this happens a lot) and you can make out every crag and crack in the rock face. The flesh tones are naturalistic and vivid, as you can see how sweaty and grimy everyone gets during their seafaring adventures. To be fair, one or two day-for-night shots look a little rough, but those blue filters were never the finest-looking film technique to begin with. A few special effects shots have a tiny amount of grain, but not nearly enough to ruin anyone's enjoyment. For some, it might add to the movie's nostalgia factor. The sound is solid, especially when Bernard Hermann's magnificent score (by the gods, what an amazing score!) kicks in. Dialogue and sound effects are clean and clear.
Fans are treated to an Olympian amount of bonus features, including two commentaries. The first is with Peter Jackson, director of The Lord of the Rings, and two special effects experts, talking about their nostalgic love of the film. The other is an interview-style commentary with Harryhausen and a film historian, in which the effects expert goes over his philosophies behind the creation and techniques behind his monstrous creations. From there, we get the original storyboards for the skeleton scene, another interview with Harryhausen, and two featurettes looking at Harryhausen's career in general.
Good old-fashioned fun on a stellar Blu-ray. It's a must-buy.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.66:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 104 Minutes
Release Year: 1963
MPAA Rating: Rated G
* DVD Verdict Interview: Ray Harryhausen