Anybody with so much as a passing interest in big-screen special effects should be aware of the late great Ray Harryhausen, a legendary stop-motion animator who has fuelled the imaginations of children and budding filmmakers for decades. Among his more well-known efforts is 1963's Jason and the Argonauts, a cinematic take on Greek mythology which has lost virtually none of its appeal over fifty years after its release. A fast-paced, irresistibly fun action-adventure, Jason and the Argonauts is a thorough joy, and it was actually the first Harryhausen picture to receive a proper theatrical release. Indeed, his previous efforts were shown as double features, but Jason and the Argonauts was screened as a single film, and the pedigree speaks for itself.
In ancient Greece, Pelias (Douglas Wilmer) selfishly takes control of the kingdom of Thessaly, pushing aside the rightful heir to the throne, Jason (Todd Armstrong). Jason survives, however, thanks to the influence of goddess Hera (Honor Blackman). Decades on, Jason returns to his kingdom, and Pelias recognises him but is not willing to give up his throne. To prove his worth and show that the Gods are on his side, Jason sets off to find the mythical Golden Fleece, with Pelias encouraging him, secretly hoping that the ostensibly impossible quest will lead to his demise. Setting sail on a ship known as the Argo, Jason receives help from the likes of Hercules (Nigel Green), while Pelias's cunning son Acastus (Gary Raymond) is sent along to sabotage the voyage.
Ultimately, the main attraction of Jason and the Argonauts is Harryhausen's iconic stop-motion animation sequences, and they have aged gracefully. To be sure, the special effects do lack the refined, glossy seamlessness of contemporary blockbusters, yet their vintage and simplicity affords a certain charm, and above all there is personality to the creatures which is borderline impossible to replicate on a computer. A memorable set-piece involving the enormous bronze statue Talos even affectionately references 1933's King Kong, the movie which inspired Harryhausen when he was a boy. But it's the climactic skeleton battle that everybody remembers the most, and it truly is a sight to behold. Said climax runs less than five minutes, yet it took Harryhausen a staggering four months to animate the skeletons in the scene, and it's hard to not be impressed or entertained by its visual majesty. Other key sequences involving monsters still impress to this day, while the use of green screen and forced perspective really amplify the experience. The soundtrack, composed by Bernard Herrmann (Psycho), is overdramatic but effective, especially during the action scenes.
It may not be obvious, but Jason and the Argonauts was produced for a fairly paltry sum, even for its time period (footage from Helen of Troy was even used to save money). Yet, there is very little to complain about from a visual perspective; the location filming in Italy is gorgeous, while elaborate costumes, sets and ships look terrific. However, director John Chaffey's efforts are not entirely flawless - although the picture moves at a decent pace, storytelling is a bit on the stilted side at times, while the acting is often rigid and overly melodramatic. As fun as the movie is, people will remember the special effects sequences more than the acting or script. It's not a deal-breaker, but it would be dangerous to compare Jason and the Argonauts to the likes of King Kong, which benefits from a far more involving narrative.
Jason and the Argonauts is essentially the summer blockbuster of its era, as it's an action-adventure loaded with state-of-the-art visual effects, but it holds more appeal than the dumb action movies of today due to the sheer care involved in the production. The special effects still look convincing enough in 2016, and such a huge amount of intricate VFX sequences would have been an absolute headache to achieve in the 1960s, especially with Harryhausen working solo to achieve all of the stop-motion work. Jaded film-goers may not be as impressed with the movie as the adults who grew up with the picture, but that's entirely down to taste and preference. For my money, this is a wonderful self-recommending classic that deserves its esteemed status.