Jason and the Argonauts (Sony)
Special effects legend Ray Harryhausen turned 90 last month. Consider the Blu-ray debut of this 1963 fantasy classic as a present to all of us. Though credited only as associate producer and special effects creator, this is Harryhausen’s baby, from conception through production, and he offers his fantasia of the classic Greek myth with a brawny odyssey through lands of magic, all at the behest of the gods using humans as pieces in their competitive games and wagers.
Todd Armstrong is anonymously satisfactory as the heroic Jason, sent by the gods to retrieve the magical Golden Fleece, and Nancy Kovack is gorgeous as Medea, who betrays her own people for the love of this plundering stranger, but the real stars are Harryhausen’s magnificent creations: The great bronze giant that destroys Jason’s ship, the seven-headed hydra guarding the fleece (which Harryhausen knowingly imported from another myth), the lizard-like flying harpies and of course the seven armed skeletons that takes swords against Jason and two of his heroes. Harryhausen and his writers take some liberties with the myth, most obviously in the specifics of the various challenges along the way (which Harryhausen explains in his commentary) but most dramatically in removing all traces of the tragedy of Jason and Medea to give them a romantic happy ending. And Harryhausen has the added benefit of director who can create visual dynamism in the live-action scenes—Don Chaffey is no action auteur, but he is more accomplished than Harryhausen creature feature veteran Nathan Juran—and composer Bernard Herrmann, whose dramatic score adds greatly to the excitement.
There is always the danger of the exacting clarity of Blu-ray to reveal the seams of old-Hollywood matte shots and photographic effects. What’s so revealing in this case is just how exacting was Harryhausen’s marriage of live and animated footage. Modern eyes can differentiate the miniatures from the people but the action matching is so accurate that human swords and skeleton swords really seem to clash in space, and he did it using only the optical photographic techniques of his day. It’s the perfect marriage of art, alchemy and engineering in the service of fantasy.
Features two new commentary tracks: one by Ray Harryhausen with film historian and Harryhausen biographer Tony Dalton, who guide you through production stories and the various techniques used in each effects shot, the other by director/fan Peter Jackson and visual effects artist Randall William Cook, who offer an appreciation of the production. Also features a Harryhausen interview conducted by adoring fan John Landis, the hour-long documentary “The Harryhausen Chronicles” and the 25-minute “The Harryhausen Legacy,” all from the earlier DVD release, and the original storyboards for the skeleton fight.