To start with, we’d better admit that there are some clunky elements
to this kids’ classic. The hero seems at times to be as wooden as the
figurehead on his ship, and there are cultural and gender representations (women
and men) that could do with a bit of discussing. But it’s good to remember
that sometimes, even often, a film’s weakness can have little to no negative
effect on the sympathetic viewer’s experience or enjoyment. So, all things
considered, this remains one of the most exciting and exhilarating of adventure
films that young people and adults can enjoy together. The pleasure it provides
is partly a result of conventional film elements. The great Hollywood composer
Bernard Hermann contributes one of his most effective scores. Among a number
of pleasing performances, Nigel Green’s Hercules stands out as being particularly
beautiful. And of course the ancient story is full of fascinating incident.
(Viewers might be
interested/relieved to know that the end of Jason and Medea’s tale, as set forth in Euripedes terrifying play, is not played out here.) But finally it’s in the rendering of the incidents that Jason and the Argonauts reaches stratospheric levels. In other words, it all comes down to Ray Harryhausen. Harryhausen was an apprentice of special effects pioneer Willis O’Brien, who is best remembered for his figure animation work on Merian Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack’s King Kong. Now thirty years on, in Jason and the Argonauts we find the one time apprentice working at the height of his considerable powers. Harryhausen’s animations are the high points of this film. Overly prescriptive viewers may feel that these animations are not exactly realistic, and they will be right. But having observed a thing, it does not necessarily follow that we must condemn it. Harryhausen’s work is better than realistic. The artificiality is evident, as are the labour and the skill and affection that informed it. There are numerous highlights: the Argonauts’ confrontation with the giant Talos, the marvelous miniatures and rear projections used in the episode of Triton and the clashing rocks, the battles with Harpies and the Hydra, and most memorably, the climactic battle between the Greek heroes and the skeletal children of the Hydra. Where many modern special effects pictures attempt to hide the joints and present us with what passes for reality, Harryhausen actually demonstrates the processes of imagination and creation, leaving them open for the active and industrious child who wants to join in.