Wednesday 9 July 2008

Jason and the Argonauts (1963)

The kingdom of Thessaly falls to Pelias, as prophecied and decreed by Zeus. However Pelias spends twenty years waiting for the next part of the prophecy, that he will lose the throne to a child of the king he slew. That child is Jason and before he can reclaim that throne he must travel to Colchis and bring back the golden fleece that is hanging in a tree at the end of the world. It's a difficult journey, naturally, full of the sort of challenges that call for the handywork of Ray Harryhausen, but Hera, queen of the gods, has pledged to help him five times.

Of course it doesn't take long for those five times to be up. Jason holds a great games to select his crew from the brightest and the best, including the legendary Hercules who doesn't even have to compete. He also commissions a new ship which he calls the Argo, after its builder. Unfortunately Hercules manages to get the ship severely damaged at their first port of call, by disobeying the will of the gods and bringing Talos to life. And as much as the cast and crew do their best, this is what Jason and the Argonauts is all about: state of the art stop motion animation, because Talos is a giant bronze statue of a Titan.

Todd Armstrong is fine as Jason and Nigel Green is fine as Hercules, but they have no way of competing with Talos as far as star power, whether they win or not. Patrick Troughton, the best Doctor that Doctor Who ever had, is fine as the blind man Phineas, but the stop motion harpies are going to kick his ass every day, whether Jason and his crew come to turn the tables or not. The clashing rocks don't do much but there's a cool sea god to hold them back. The golden fleece is decent enough but it's protected by a wicked seven headed hydra for Jason to fight. So it's all about the stop motion animation, though Medea's red outfit in the temple of Hecate comes a close second.

Best of all, hydra teeth mean wicked stop motion Ray Harryhausen skeletons climbing out of the earth with spears and shields and an attack scream. Admittedly these effects have dated too, unsurprisingly given that this is 1963, but the saddest thing of all is that they still look way better than a lot of supposedly great CGI work that has been done over the last few years, in the 21st century no less. There's something to be said for analogue work, which takes a lot longer to become dated and tends to look a lot more natural. This is 45 year old stop analogue work but it still does its job palatably.

Beyond the effects there are some people to watch out for. Zeus and Hera are Niall MacGinnis and Honor Blackman, hardly minor names. There's Laurence Naismith, Jack Gwillim and Patrick Troughton. The leads, though, are far less known: Todd Armstrong and Nancy Kovack. Armstrong plays Jason, of course, and he only made eight films, this being number three. I'll see him again shortly in the intriguingly named Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round but it was Jason that he'll always be remembered for. Kovack is Medea, high priestess in Colchis, and her screen time hardly warrants a costarring credit, but hey, she's cute, as she was the same year playing opposite Vincent Price in Diary of a Madman. She made 15 films all told, ending with Marooned in 1969.

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