Jason and the Argonauts (1963) Review

You can’t argue with Tom Hanks. Standing at the podium, ready to award Ray Harryhausen his much deserved honorary Oscar in 1992 (how did it take that long?), Hanks stated, “”Some people say Casablanca or Citizen Kane. I say Jason and the Argonauts is the greatest film ever made.”

That is a level of respect rarely seen in Hollywood, and it is given with plenty of reasons. Argonauts may be Harryhausen’s most well-known special effects piece, a grandly scaled adventure containing the iconic skeleton assault, quite simply the most breathtaking achievement in stop motion animation you’ll likely ever see.

It takes until the end of the film to get there, Harryhausen saving his fourth-month animation odyssey for the finale. The scene works beautifully, even the build-up. The skeleton’s, brought forth by the teeth of the dead Hydra, pop out of the ground and begin marching slowly but menacingly. Their lurching is accompanied by Bernard Herrmann’s powerful score. What seems like it will be a slow death for Jason and crew takes a turn for the worse, the skeleton’s suddenly screaming and moving into a full sprint past the camera, a great scare that still works today for all three people who are unfamiliar with the sequence.

Jason (Todd Armstrong) is enough to carry the human side of this story, energetic and likeable. You can see the sense of adventure on his face, and sheer terror of seeing the massive metal statue of Talos coming towards him. Not that anyone has much care for Jason in the first place. Everyone watching is there for the imagination and otherworldly beasts Harryhausen crafted, from the Harpies to the Hydra.

Taking the film as a whole, Argonauts is a bit sluggish, the adventure taking a few turns that never seem all that necessary to the story, but this is that rare film that can transcend its storytelling for its visual power. Technically, Phineas serves little purpose. He guides the Argonauts to their goal, but the entire sequence could be condensed or cut entirely. Then again, why would you want to, losing the greatness of the Harpy assault? That’s an ugly thought, showing how strong Harryhausen’s work was, bringing life to otherwise lifeless scenes via animation.

Movie ★★★★☆ 

Sony does a remarkable job of bringing this 1963 classic to Blu-ray, with a generous AVC encode right from the opening frames. The first shot, with the Roman soldier on the right and the ocean on the left reveals every possible ripple in the water despite the distance. Things are not always that crisp and perfect for this 1:66.1 pillarbox presentation, some stock footage from Helen of Troy about four-minutes in certainly worrisome.

Things quickly clear up, with exquisite facial detail and armor texture on Phileas around 5:57. This continues to be a positive throughout, some close-ups of Jason also being spectacularly rendered at 1:10:00. Environments fare well early too, a shot of some heavy brush at 9:27 startlingly natural. The transfer is bright and loaded with depth, black levels superlative and consistent throughout. At times, this looks almost modern. The grain structure is generally sharp and inoffensive, a few optical zooms appearing heavier, while the Talos assault containing an odd, clumpy grain structure around 39:21 (and the puppet’s other close-ups).

The rest of the sequence shines, with individually defined pebbles and rocks around 33-minutes, and all of the rock walls on the Isle of Bronze delivering stunning sights. The source is absolutely pristine, not a single speck or scratch to be found. Various effects shots are notably softer as expected, including any shot inside the god’s chamber. The super-imposed fog effect does not do much for the quality. Transitions and fades also take a hit, but again, it’s normal for the era.

There has been some debate about the Harpy sequence in particular, which was shot day-for-night. The Blu-ray appears as close to night as possible, a little brightened, but much darker and some of the image would be lost. It is a compromise, yet the intent of the scene, as far as this review is concerned, remains intact.

Video ★★★★☆ 

Bernard Herrmann’s score is the initial impact of this DTS-HD effort, and it carries a general clarity, but still suffers from age. Mostly it comes through slightly distorted, things such as cymbals clashing lacking impact, or are even lost to the various horns. Bells around 7:30 are terribly flat and harsh, lacking any reasonable level of fidelity. This lack of definition almost works to the film’s benefit oddly enough, the creaking Talos sounding weirdly natural without modern audio techniques.

The score overwhelms the other action at times, the escape from Talos (and the attack) dominated by the music, any dialogue a little bit lost, although still audible. Any surround use is purely forced, including the waves coming ashore around 40:25, which comes through hollow and more of a generic echo. The effect is almost negative, and would have been better served in the stereo channels. The original mono mix is also on the disc, but compressed.

Audio ★★★☆☆ 

Two commentaries are included, the first from Ray Harryhausen and film historian Tony Dalton. Peter Jackson joins effects artist Randall William Cook on the second. Storyboards of the skeleton fight are individually viewable, followed by a fine featurette titled The Harryhausen Legacy.

John Landis has a sit-down interview with Harryhausen, and one of the skeletons from the film is shown in detail. The oft-included Harryhausen Chronicles, an hour long look at his career, is seemingly on every disc related to the man, but that doesn’t take away from its quality. Trailers and BD-Live support are left.

Extras ★★★☆☆