Jason and the Argonauts (1963)

Posted by on Dec 30, 2011 in Let's Get Ready to Rumble | 0 comments

Argonauts

Disclaimer: Some fairly freaky claymation monsters and violence.

You’ve likely heard of Jim Henson, Walt Disney, Hayao Miyazaki, John Lasseter, George Lucas, and Willis O’Brien, who are universally considered giants in their respective realms of film animation. One name blatantly absent from the list that you probably haven’t heard of is Ray Harryhausen, whose work on The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, Mighty Joe Young, Clash of the Titans, and, most memorably, Jason and the Argonauts, set an unbelievable standard for stop-motion animation in films.

The Greek mythology-based plot is painfully simple as Jason (Todd Armstrong) must organize a quest to retrieve a magical golden fleece from the other side of the world in order to assume the throne in Thessaly. He gathers an elite band of alpha males, including Hercules (Nigel Green), and begins the quest. Throughout his journey the goddess Medea (Nancy Kovack) finds choice situations in which to help Jason, while the other gods, including Zeus, enjoy the show.

This Don Chaffney-directed film Jason3features some hammy acting and, without the magic touch of Harryhausen, would have otherwise been a B-picture. Harryhausen’s special effects, which reportedly took two years to finish, include the Argonauts encountering a seven-headed Hydra, the bronze giant Talos, two flying demon Harpies, and an army of skeletons, famously redone as homage in Army of Darkness. Harryhausen was originally inspired, like so many others, by 1933’s King Kong, which was a landmark in many ways – including stop-motion animation. A high-schooler at the time of Kong’s release, Harryhausen approached Willis O’Brien and, after a short stint with George Pal and his puppetoon works, later collaborated with him on Mighty Joe Young.

“I didn’t know how it was done and that was half the charm,” he said. “Luckily a friend of my father’s worked for RKO and he knew all about stop-motion, so I started experimenting in my garage.”

The $3 million Jason and the Argonauts was a surprise hit as a British-American release during the waning years of mythological fantasy films dominated by Italy. Sadly, it was also the beginning of the end for Harryhausen, as hero-driven fantasy films began a steady decline and the popularity of claymation plummeted.

“The thing that finally persuaded Jason2me to quit was that I saw that the nature of the hero was changing,” Harryhausen said. “Now all you have is Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, and all those people who solve problems with their fists. It’s a different world and I sometimes feel I’m not part of it.”

Just to show that we’ll never forget Harryhausen’s incredible contributions to cinema, Monsters Inc. and Corpse Bride include brief tributes to the genius (a restaurant and a piano are named after him, respectively).

Though some may find the effects dated, I find, as with Kong, that Jason and the Argonauts accomplishes far more than a green screen and computer often do today. We see the painstaking detail in the incredibly real movements and the sheer wonder and fright of these moments make us forget to look closely for hints that it’s a rear projection.

1958’s The 7th Voyage of Sinbad is also worth more than a mere mention with a fire-breathing dragon, Cyclops, skeleton, serpent woman, and two-headed birds. While the acting and dialogue are often atrocious, this is a non-stop action flick about a rag-tag group of miscreants (led by Sinbad), who must battle Harryhausen’s monsters to save a shrunken princess. If you like these films, take a look at Harryhausen’s other films such as Clash of the Titans, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, It Came from Beneath the Sea, and One Million Years B.C.

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