Jason and the Argonauts (1963): Blu-Ray special edition
The concept of a single artesian working away in monkish solitude might seem quaint by today’s standards – think of the end credit roll on Avatar with its thousands of digital effects technicians – but Ray Harryhausen was able to create a wonderful world of monsters and myths using nothing more than his hands and his imagination. Sony has long recognized the treasure trove they have with their Harryhausen catalogue and are lovingly upgrading the home video versions to meet the digital standards of a new century. The new Blu-ray release of JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS features what has to be the finest transfer of a Harryhausen film ever, in any format.
Although THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD may rank as the critical (and my) favorite among Harryhausen’s films, JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS is still his personal favorite. The film is fine vintage Harryhausen, with its roots in classic mythology and its effects state of the art, for the time. Harryhausen manages to tell an epic tale on a low budget in less than two hours without sacrificing grandeur. There are some pacing problems, but there is also some of Harryhausen’s best work, including the giant Talos and the Hydra which guards the Golden Fleece. Most people agree that the skeleton fight at the end of the film is the finest stop motion sequence in cinematic history.
In case you feared another Blu-Ray fiasco like THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD transfer – wherein the grain was so pronounced that it looked as if the film was made in a blizzard of black snow – you can relax. On the new JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS disc, the picture is sharp and vibrant, with the day-for-night scenes – most notably, the Harpy sequence – properly color corrected as they were first seen theatrically in 1963. For those who were lucky enough to see the film in the theater as I did in 1963, this comes close to recreating that experience.
As with the picture, the sound mix has been vastly improved and is presented in HD DTS 5.1. For the purist, the film is also offered in its original mono. However, in 5.1, Bernard Herrman’s music has never sounded so good.
This new Blu-Ray package is a little skimpy on bonus features, recycling earlier DVD extras; however, it does feature two commentary tracks: the first by Harryhausen and writer Tony Dalton; a second with director Peter Jackson (THE LORD OF THE RINGS) and special effects artist Randall William Cook THE GATE). For serious students of Harryhausen, neither audio commentary provides much in the way of new information (like which actor actually dubbed Todd Armstrong’s voice) but they are fun and entertaining.
Harryhausen and Dalton in their audio commentary take us through the film with the ease of a couple of old friends. Harryhausen at 90 sounds somewhat frail, but still has the mind of a master craftsman as he pulls the curtain open and reveals how many of the effects were created. His behind-the-scenes recollections create a fascinating guide of how to create a masterpiece with a smallish budget.
Jackson and Cook alternate between geeky reverence and interesting analysis of Harryhausen’s animation techniques. Both have a genuine love for the film while still being objective enough to point out its shortcomings. Most interesting are their personal antidotes including the revelation that Cook discovered a trove of Harryhausen’s animation dailies, which Jackson has had transferred to high quality digital masters. They hint that some, or all, of this material could be seen in a documentary that Harryhausen and Dalton are planning for the near future.
Features ported over from the DVD include the Skeleton Fight Storyboards, a John Landis’ interview with Harryhausen, the Ray Harryhausen Chronicles and The Harryhausen Legacy. Unfortunately, the special features are presented here in standard format, not remastered for high definition.
To say that Ray Harryhausen is unique among filmmakers is putting it mildly. No other behind-the-scenes movie technician has achieved the same iconic status. His vision and artistry have inspired succeeding generations of filmmakers, including most of the “A” list directors working in Hollywood today. He set the standard for what great special effects should be, no matter what the budget.
This JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS Blu-ray stands as a fitting tribute to a master. Hopefully, Sony will follow with other special editions of Harryhausen’s work especially MYSTERIOUS ISLAND and FIRST MEN IN THE MOON.