I'm sure anyone who grew up loving older sci-fi and fantasy films is familiar with the name Ray Harryhausen. The stop-motion legend is not only responsible for pioneering what has become the "dynamation" technique (as seen in such classics as 'Earth vs. The Flying Saucers,' 'The Golden Voyage of Sinbad,' and my own personal favorite -- 'Clash of the Titans'), his masterful creations have been the driving force behind many a filmmaker over the years and his incredible work has carved a significant niche throughout the annals of cinematic history. Just a week after Harryhausen turns ninety years old, Sony finally brings to Blu-ray the film Harryhausen himself considers his greatest achievement--the Greek mythological adventure 'Jason and the Argonauts.'
Loosely based on the epic poem The Argonautica by Apollonius Rhodius, the film recounts the tale of Jason and his infamous voyage to find the fabled Golden Fleece. In this version, Pelias (Douglas Wilmer) learns from a seer that he is destined to overthrow King Aristo of Thessaly, but he will lose his reign to one of Aristo's offspring. Pelias, of course, doesn't like the sound of that end bit, so after seizing control of the city he viciously begins eliminating Aristo's bloodline. This infuriates the Queen of the Gods -- Hera (Honor Blackman, best known as Bond girl Pussy Galore from 'Goldfinger'), who stops Pelias from harming Aristo's infant son Jason -- and reveals that a man wearing a single sandal will one day bring his doom.
Twenty years pass and Jason -- now a dashing heroic adventurer played by American Todd Armstrong (who much to his dismay had his voice dubbed by British actor Tim Turner), returns to reclaim his rightful place as heir to the throne. Along his way, Jason rescues a man from drowning in a river and loses his sandal while saving him. The man turns out to be Pelias, and though Jason is unaware of Pelias' true identity, Pelias knows exactly who his savior is and doesn't intend on giving up his kingdom. Since he can't outright kill Jason for fear of stirring the wrath of the gods, Pelias figures the next best thing is to send Jason on some deadly wild goose chase for the mythical Golden Fleece. And so, with a ship he names the Argo -- after its shipbuilder Argos (Laurence Naismith), and a group of well-greased Greeks he dubs the Argonauts -- including the legendary mighty Hercules (Nigel Green) and the cunning Acastus (Gary Raymond), Jason sets sail to the end of the world -- with danger lurking around every corner.
At the time of its release in 1963, 'Jason and the Argonauts' was one of the first Harryhausen films to get a single billing in theaters (as opposed to being part of a B-movie double feature) and mesmerized audiences of all ages. Now it may not have quite the same impact, but it's still lighthearted nostalgic fun. While the story by Beverley Cross (who wrote the other Harryhausen classics 'Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger' and 'Clash of the Titans') and co-writer Jan Read is simple and straightforward, it captures much of the fantastical essence of Greek mythology. The acting can be rigid and excessively melodramatic, but Armstrong brings energy and charisma to our main hero, and Green is probably the most entertaining as the boastful strongman -- oozing machismo and leaving a trail of manliness in his wake. The action sequences are just as overplayed and cartoonish as the performances (this is a G-rated film from the sixties after all), yet they're still amusing in their own way. The sword fight that takes place on the Argo is unintentionally hilarious. One of the stronger parts of the movie is the attractive backdrops featuring real ancient ruins, as 'Jason and the Argonauts' was filmed on location at numerous places in Italy. Director John Chaffey also keeps the film moving at a decent clip, going from one setting to the next with hardly any dull points in between.
Like any film touched by Harryhausen, though, the real stars of the show are his magnificent creations. Harryhausen breathes life into Talos--a bronze giant inspired by the Colossus of Rhodes, who dominates the screen with such grandeur that in 2004 Empire magazine listed it as the second best movie monster of all time after King Kong. I also love the motion of the bat-like wings of the harpies as well as the distinct movements of each of the hydra's seven heads. But it's the skeleton battle from this film that is perhaps Harryhausen's pièce de résistance, which would later serve as Sam Raimi's inspiration for the legion of undead in 'Army of Darkness.' The three minute sequence took a staggering four months to complete, and after nearly fifty years it's still a fitting grand finale to one of Ray Harryhausen's finest classics.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Jason and the Argonauts' sail to high-definition on a BD-50 Blu-ray disc inside a standard blue keepcase. After a short loading screen, the disc boots up directly to the menu without any previews or annoying Blu-ray promos. The disc is also reported to be region free and therefore should function properly in all machines.
Sony has given 'Jason and the Argonauts' a respectable 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 (1.66:1 aspect ratio) encode for this Blu-ray release that naturally has a few issues stemming from the quality of the source material, but in general it looks pretty spiffy.
The film has been cleaned up significantly, with hardly any specs or splotches to speak of. The picture is still quite grainy. There's some crawling activity, most noticeably in the baby blue sky, though I wouldn't really call it a nuisance. Colors can be pretty rich and vibrant--especially the deep crimsons of the actors' cloaks and the greenery of plant life--and whites can look phenomenal. Black levels are also decent overall with adequate shadow detailing. Skin tones are accurate and Argos is more bronze from working on the ship under the sun. Fine details are nicely rendered, too--from the lines separating blades of grass, the ridges and cracks in the mountainous cliffs of the Clashing Rocks and various stonework ruins, and you can practically get entangled in the carpet growing on Hercules' chest. Many scenes have a good level of depth to them as well.
Of course, the scenes combining stop-motion with live-action don't look very attractive in high-definition, although to be fair they will never be due to the techniques originally used in the film. These cases tend to have a flatter picture, sporadic occurrences of blurring, and colors are heavily washed out. Black levels here can be weaker, though I actually still found them to be sufficient, particularly in the sequences lacking sunlight with the harpies. The detailing on Harryhausen's monstrosities is appealing in close-ups, but there is an occasional shroud of murkiness in places. With the amount of grain still intact DNR doesn't seem to be an issue, and there may be some edge enhancement but it's most likely just due to the application of the effects.
All things considered, though, Sony's Blu-ray transfer for 'Jason and the Argonauts' is a good one and easily trumps Warner's for 'Clash of the Titans' for sure.
'Jason and the Argonauts' shines even more in the audio department--as this Blu-ray not only includes the original mono soundtrack from past releases, but Sony's engineers have also remastered the track to provide an all-new DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix as the default option on the disc.
The new track is still generally front heavy, as this isn't a film with much in terms of discreet effects and ambient surround activity, but the wider presence is certainly a welcome upgrade. Although occasionally a little bit hollow, dialog is cleaner and the creature effects sound more robust. There's some (albeit minimal) added directionality, with the most noticeable being a few swooshes from Jason's sword when he is fending off the hydra. But the best part is the energetic score composed and conducted by Bernard Herrmann ('Citizen Kane' and 'Psycho') and performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. This is really only where we get a hint of bass activity, but the music has a nice expansive flow throughout the room and sounds terrific.
'Jason and the Argonauts' still can't compete with some of the more modern bombastic action films, but fans used to listening to the mono tracks will definitely be pleased with the new and improved results on this Blu-ray.
Sony previously brought 'Jason and the Argonauts' to DVD in 1998 and again as part of 'The Ray Harryhausen Collection - The Legendary Monster Series' box set back in 2004. Both releases only included a featurette and a trailer. Sony not only ports over that content to this Blu-ray, they've also gone the extra mile to provide a wealth of high-definition exclusives (see appropriate section below).
'Jason and the Argonauts' is one of Ray Harryhausen's finest films and contains some of his most memorable creations. Even though the stop-motion effects may not win over younger audiences, Harryhausen's work is an influential steppingstone in cinematic history and is still impressive even today.
Sony honors the FX legend's 90th B-day by giving the film Harryhausen personally considers to be his best a great Blu-ray release. The video and audio definitely blow the DVDs away, but it's the collection of new exclusive goodies that is the real selling point of this disc. Factored in with an attractive suggested retail price, and 'Jason and the Argonauts' easily comes recommended for any home video library.