Jason & The Argonauts
Plus Q & A with Director
Phoenix Picture House, 27.03.04

The foyer was packed. It's not often that stars make personal appearances at the cinema.

It should be no surprise, though: the Phoenix Cinema is the most daring and innovative cinema in town. Last year they previewed "The Hours" with the director Stephen Daldry weeks before its national release. Today it was showing the classic "Jason and the Argonauts" with animator Ray Harryhausen.

Animation: finally, something you can bring the kids to. Signs on the door said free tickets to anyone who showed their "Kids Club" membership. A mother picked up her five-year old son by his breeches to let me get into my seat.

Ray Harryhausen? you ask. Just the legendary 3-D animator, who influenced such greats as Stephen Spielberg and of whom, Kermit the Frog once said, "One of the world's great manipulators." The crowd came to hear him answer questions and get his re-released book "Animated Life" signed. (For the kid next to me, it was an opportunity to wiggle and rustle until his mother was forced to quiet him with candy).

Harryhausen saw King Kong as a kid and was blown away: how did they do it? The answer: stop-motion animation. That means they manipulated 3-D models, frame by frame, projected them onto real-time footage and then coordinated them both to make it look seamless. (Well - for those of you who still remember King Kong - relatively seamless.) Inspired, Harryhausen made a three-minute short with little army figures he bought at the corner store. One of his teachers sent it off to Frank Capra - and the rest, as they say, is history.

The interview included such comically understated answers as "I learned a great deal of patience--that was important in stop-motion" and "I got tired of destroying cities: Coney Island, Rome, Washington." and references to Harryhausen's "Dinosaur period" of movies. Harryhausen said he's done all the animation in his films except one. He spent four months alone working, frame-by-frame on the five-minute fight scene with seven skeletons that is the highlight of "Jason and the Argonauts".

When asked what he thought of modern special effects, Harryhausen gave a layered response: it is an excellent tool, but he prefers his old animation techniques. The old techniques gave movies a magical feel; in new movies, it's both so real and yet so unbelievable, he doesn't care when someone dies. The audience gave Harryhausen a prolonged ovation at the end; the kid next to me ran down the aisle to get a close-up view of the hideous looking model of the serpent-lady Medea.

After the books were all signed and the kid was back in his seat, the movie began. The movie is based on the Greek myth, where Jason sets out to find the Golden Fleece and avenge his murdered father. Jason is played by a handsome American (Todd Armstrong) who stands out against the rest of the cast who are genuinely trying to act like people from ancient Greece. Made in 1963, the movie emphasizes the devotion of Greek citizens to their gods, but unselfconsciously uses modern religious notions such as "sin" and "believer". The scenes with gods atop Mount Olympus are genuinely funny; other bits, such as lady Medea's declaration of love are unintentionally so.

The movie is, however, consistently suspenseful. The five year old next to me looked positively entertained. It feels like a 1963 version of "The Fellowship of the Ring": it moves from one near-tragedy to the next, with only just enough characterization to keep the chase going. The fight scene with the hydra-beast is the least interesting: it looks like mediocre claymation and the actor doesn't really know how to fight or be frightened by such a creature. The ending battle, however, is brilliant. The freakish skeletons with swords and shields are still frightening and look suspiciously similar to the army of dead skeletons in the "The Return of the King".

Harryhausen's influence, perhaps?

Oliver Morrison

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