Saturday, June 11, 2016

Jason and the Argonauts

   While it belongs to the sword & sandal genre and not the sword & sorcery genre, it's all the same thing when all is said and done. I'm sure somewhere there's a mythology buff who just got angry with me, but I don't care. Brave men against impossible odds, larger than life gods, mythical monsters, fanatical villains, and epic quests full of heroism and danger? Both genres are full of this stuff. The last act of Jason and the Argonauts could very well belong to a Conan movie. It's dark, mysterious, and full of monsters! The stuff that the fantasy genre thrives on. Jason and the Argonauts sets a a high and shining standard for any similar genre flick, which is no small feat.

   The movie is vibrant, colorful, and clips ahead at an energetic pace- never getting bogged down in nonsense or dialog. Some might get nostalgic over it's story, but honestly... the story is the weakest part of the movie because none of the main plot points are ever resolved. It's easy to lose track of why Jason and his crew are on this daring voyage. Jason was supposed to take back the throne of Thessily from a false king, as prophesied. But, the king tricks Jason into going on a pointless (near as I can gather) voyage to keep him occupied and the prophesy at bay. Well, it looks like he freakin' succeeded because we never see Jason return to Thessily, though the movie would have you believe that if Jason can best all the obstacles thrown at him thus far, of course he took back the throne. Duh.

   I can't possibly be mad at this movie though, it's so much fun. There's a massive sense of spectacle and wonder to the movie that you simply can't duplicate. It's full of striking visuals and impressive special effects that only the harshest cynic could possibly be unmoved by. Sure, the seams show by today's standard, but the point is... the sense of scale and scope of the movie works. Despite the seams showing, and despite the generational gap and advances in special effects- the movie still works. It works well too. When the rusty giant Talos attacks the Argonauts, you're not looking at a special effect, because the movie pulls everything off so well, and with such an impressive attention to detail, you're looking at mere men trying to fight against a gargantuan metallic foe. It's still gripping.

   Same goes for when Poseidon rises up out of the waters to hold back the clashing rocks for the argos to get safely through. It's grand sense of spectacle is so massive and impressive, you aren't seeing an actor, in a pool of water, with his hands on some fake rocks. You're seeing the god of the sea, assisting Jason and his Argonauts in a massive set piece. Sure, it's easy to notice that even making a ship look like it was actually on rough waters was a tasking effect back then. Which only puts it into perspective how good we have it now. Still, there's a handmade quality to all the special effects in the movie that you simply can't beat. From the Hyrda to the skeletons, to Talos and the clashing rocks. You know someone had to be there, hands-on, sculpting, painting, rigging, placing. It wasn't done from the comfort of a desk.

   That physical effort results in a tangible quality to the movie that most modern blockbusters don't have. People often cite movies like Jurassic Park as one of the past paragons of practical effects. What they don't realize, is that movie used a ton of CGI too, but it found a healthy balance between the two mediums. I firmly believe that a balance like that should be considered more often. CGI should be used to polish things up, obscure the 'seams', and add that bit of spark to practical effects that they might lack otherwise. Instead, CGI is the go-to medium these days. Need a giant monster? CGI. Need people on a boat? More extras? More blood? More rain? CGI. There's a silly and endearing quality to it sometimes, but more than not it gets tiresome.

   Jason and the Argonauts is the perfect antidote to that weariness. As are most movies with effects by Ray Harryhausen. The actors are all great, but Todd Armstrong steals the show. When Zeus asks him with what will he buy a ship and a crew with? He has no gold! Jason practically thumps his chest and proclaims that he'll use the hearts of men! The line is spoken with such sincerity and optimism that you can't help but adore Jason. You truly believe that this wiry hero could do just about anything. He's David, and Goliath better watch out. He embodies the best qualities in cinematic heroes, even if it comes at the cost of being somewhat two dimensional. It doesn't matter, he's so optimistic and endearing that he could probably march right out of this mythology, and into Egyptian mythology, or Norse mythology, and conquer their villains and monsters too. Todd Armstrong was perfect casting, but the same could easily be said about the rest of the cast as well.

   The movie is a classic and deservedly so. If it can hold up in 2016, where movies that feature gigantic fire breathing cobras is dismissed as 'been there, done that', as well as it held up in 1963... then everyone needs to revisit this, both audiences and filmmakers alike. There's a spark to Jason and the Argonauts that most fantasy movies are missing. Take notes people.

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