If you know anything about these old Harryhausen films, you know that they don't, no matter what you do to the print, or how you transfer it, look anywhere near the standards by which many designate hi-definition. Because of the varied film-stock and the intricate types of photography and the relative low budget the productions toiled under, they just can't come up gleaming, pristine and three-dimensional. When the camera and the type of film changes from shot to shot and the very nature of combining the stop-motion footage with the live-action, via multiple plates creating a sandwich effect, the resulting picture is not what you would conventionally call “consistent”.
Okay, so that clears up the fact that Jason And The Argonauts, after 7th Voyage Of Sinbad and 20 Million Miles To Earth, is not going to blow the minds of those weaned on a strict 1080p diet. But this takes nothing at all away from what is surely the best ever transfer that these films have received. Jason, folks, looks breathtaking when you stop and look back at the versions we have had before. Breathtaking. Detail in this 1.66:1 AVC MPEG-4 encode is much greater. Fine embroideries, the texture on costumes, the foliage and leaves on trees, the surface of masonry and rock walls, the surface, even, of the sea - all things that benefit from the greater resolution. You will not be able to avoid noticing the abrupt changes in clarity and detail between the types of shots, though, and this is something that cannot be altered. For example, just look at the Harpy sequence. The FX shots, more defined as they may be, are ghastly when compared to the sudden cuts to Phinius, on his own, as he scrambles to safety. But this is the nature of the beast - and certainly not something that you can put down to the transfer. I would even say that the transitions between such shots are, somehow, smoother as well.
Wires have been removed and edges have been enhanced. Both areas for concern, of course. But I found no smearing or evidence of the digital removal, so no worries there, except for the die-hard fans who believe that “everything from the original print should be preserved, warts and all”. Older versions looked grubby and the wires were often highly visible in every other frame. This version - virtually nothing on show and certainly nowhere near as grubby. The sharpening, though, is a different matter. And to complicate things a little further, this is the type of film that probably appears to have a whole lot more than it really does. Because of the nature of the film stock, and the predilection for framing characters and objects against horizons, matte shots or visual effects, a certain amount of haloing is going to take place anyway from the photography itself. But, aside from this, there are still plenty of shots when edges have been enhanced a touch further. I, personally, had no problem with it though, and when you compare it to the appalling haloing that takes place on the DVDs, you will suddenly discover that you have nothing to moan about, really.
The colours are terrific. We are now seeing shadings on the bodies of the Harpies, on the Hydra and the green patina of age on Talos with much more distinction. The lilac and blue distinction between the Harpies is much more apparent now, no longer are they just smudgy browns an greys. The Hydra is far more vivid, with the reds of tongues quite apparent, and the colour a garish green which, having seen close-up images of the model involved, is faithful. The Golden Fleece shimmers brighter now, especially when it is called upon to rejuvenate Medea. The golden trim on the Argonauts' robes, as well as on their armour and shields is crisper too. Skin-tones are equally burnished, and a few more freckles are on show on the backs of the rowers. These elements look more natural now, though possibly a touch too ruddy.
Black levels are strong - the Hydra suddenly looming out of its cave, for instance, now has more impact as a result. But there are still some of the vintage areas of darkness that look a touch more drab and slightly noisier than others. This is a bright and colourful movie, though, and the shadows serve their purpose very well when called for. The image is often far more painterly than previously because of the better and more reliable contrast. The compositions that Harryhausen and Wilkie strived for now look resplendent. I'm thinking here of the scene within Talos' treasure trove, or the setting of the Golden Fleece, or the temple-dance sequence. All look elegant and captivating.
Now there's a crucial point to make here about the colour timing. Take a deep breath, purists, because it is different than you may have seen it before. Now, before you go all puritanical and spleen-venting, the reasons for this are simple ... and possibly essential. Several day-for-night scenes have seen various interpretations over the years and in their respective releases, but one sequence, in particular, serves to highlight this quality best of all, and is renowned for not having had the right colour on DVD before. When we first meet Phineas, Patrick Troughton's Harpy-tormented old blind man, the scene, detailing the initial attack and the subsequent introduction between him and Jason and his Argonauts is now daytime. Bright daytime. Proper daytime. The DVDs that came before, and even VHS and broadcast versions (so far as I am aware, and can recall) had been darkened to make us think that this section was dusk or, at least, very gloomy and overcast, though I suspect the real reasons were possibly to help conceal the wires that hoist the Harpies into action. Now, whether with the full endorsement and supervision of Ray Harryhausen or not (at the time of writing, I have no information regarding his involvement with the transfer, although he certainly helped oversee Kino's deluxe release of She and took an active role in the hi-def colourisation of 20 Million Miles To Earth), the sequence plays out much brighter and with a considerably more cheerful disposition. On the DVD, you can see the deep blue sky above their heads in certain shots, and you can tell from the light on their faces that this is far sunnier occasion than the shade would suggest. The Criterion Laser Disc does the same thing, the image graded down to look darker. At the moment, however, I am in the dark (pun intended) as to how the scenes in question - others are when Jason ascends to Olympus to meet with the Gods, and later on when he tells the crew about his plans to enter Colchis - are actually supposed to look. We know that Criterion did some of their magic on the LD transfer, but was that the accurate look? Or is this the way it is supposed to appear? It is true that Harryhausen approved the Criterion transfer but it is so long since I've seen it, myself, that I cannot remember how it looked - which only complicates the matter further. Any info from someone who can compare this transfer to the Criterion would be very welcome indeed.
But as far as I am concerned, the scenes now play out much more evenly and believably and, in the case of the Harpies sequence, it is now clear, and more logical that we have passed from day to night for the Argonauts' victory over the creatures in the next encounter.
There is some print damage in the shot that pans across the faces of the crew as they witness the figurehead of Hera speak (this has always been present), but, all things considered, this is remarkably blemish-free and clean. Grain fluctuates as a result of the combination of elements - FX and live-action, matte-shots and the sandwiching of Dynamation - but it hasn't been horribly removed.
Jason And The Argonauts looks spectacular, folks. Good enough for the gods.This won't challenge the top tier of modern releases, and you should not be judging it against them, but a 7.5 out of 10 seems about right for how improved this image looks. Which brings it down to an official 7, I suppose. Or an 8, depending upon you view things, eh?
You could be forgiven for having a feeling of trepidation regarding the inclusion of a DTS-MA HD 5.1 audio track on this 1963 picture. But you have no need to worry. Although some attempt to stretch out the soundfield has been made and the engineers have been unable to resist throwing in some steerage and surround, it has been done tastefully and, as far as I am concerned, quite effectively. And if you don't want a revamped soundtrack, then you will be pleased to know that the original mono track is included too, and this sounds very good indeed. Both versions have a degree of dubbed dislocation, though nothing too distracting and possibly part of the film's vintage charm, and the mono track even seems to give more of a lift to the dialogue, whereas the lossless surround track makes more of an effort to place it within the soundscape. Niall MacGinnis' Zeus, for instance, can sound brighter and louder when you flick to the mono track, but the lossless variant supplies some nice subtle echoing to his voice that works better, I think.
The stereo spread across the front is welcome and provides some width and spatiality to even the quieter scenes without sounding bogus. But the track wants to engage you, it wants to bring these creatures and encounters to life and, as a result, there is an added dynamism to the mix that I, for one, welcome. The sudden roll of angry thunder as Zeus barks back down at Phinius for his effrontery. The groaning of the aged bronze as Talos moves from his ancient plinth. The crashing of the rocks as Medea's ship is wrecked and the sudden rising of Triton from the depths. All these things sound meatier and more emphatic, but without trading-in the restrained quality of the era's original design. The clashing of swords - as the men hack the ropes holding the nets above the Harpies, and especially during the skeleton fight - is now sharper and cleaner. The scratching of Harpy claws on the stone pillar is more acute, and their horrific shrieking is slightly more shrill. All this stuff sounds good in the mono track, too, but the enhanced involvement we experience with the lossless option just feels more enticing.
Occasionally, we get some mood-setting wind whistling around the back of the environment - when Jason meets old Argos and we first get to see the ship, the Argo, and, more acutely, when Hercules and Hylas stand in the eerie valley of the Titans - and the sound of a crowd can stretch around the back quite reasonably - the good-natured celebration of the earlier scene when Hylas outwits Hercules, say. The surging surf of the Isle Of Bronze is also brought more vividly to life with some crashing resonance travelling front to back. There is a nice little touch when Jason seeks assistance from the Hera figurehead as the ship and the crew founder in the sea after Talos has toyed with them, when the soft woodwind theme for the Goddess emanates from the rears. All this shows that some thought has gone into putting this mix together, that effects haven't just been lashed around the channels for the sake of it.
The music is the best and most frequent recipient of the lossless mix, though - which won't come as a surprise to many people. Separation and detailed instrumentation is the great reward for fans here. Herrmann's brass and percussion broadside is delivered to all the channels and with clarity and presence. Listen now to the much keener and more vivid display from the xylophone during the Harpy capture, for instance. And much of the cues now benefit from depth, warmth and a welcome spread across the soundscape. You can't argue with that, can you?
If there is anything untoward that I noticed with the mix then it would only be an effect during the skeleton fight when one of the bony battlers rushes in to attack Jason from the left, but the sound of its “off-screen” approach seems to come from the wrong direction. But this is only a very slight glitch in a track that is, otherwise, a very pleasing treat.
Considering what has been achieved with a limited source, and the fact that the same limited source is on here as well, Sony's BD of Jason And The Argonauts gets a strong 7 out of 10. Don't be comparing it to new stuff, though!
Okay, we don't get any new documentaries on this release, but you really can't fault it for supplying, as it does, two brand new Blu-ray commentaries that go, in-depth, into the production itself, courtesy of one Mister Ray Harryhausen, and one that probes the legacy, the techniques and the innovation from a modern-day filmmaker's perspective, as well as commenting on the hi-def transfer, courtesy of one Mister Peter Jackson. Plus, we get a fine set of Original Storyboards for the Skeleton Sequence to see how well the film matches up to what Ray Harryhausen had in mind. It matches up exceptionally, Ray!
Harryhausen, himself, is doing extremely well and, despite his advancing years, has a fine, fine memory and a great clarity. Together with his friend and biographer, Tony Dalton, he delivers a comprehensive dissection of the film, from the initial concepts, the scouting for locations, the shooting of its live-action material and, of course, the laborious creativity that he embarked-upon for its effects. The two work extremely well together, easily matching the other pair of commentators for fact delivery, anecdote, personal recollection, sheer adoration and enthusiasm for the achievement that the film made, and a positive attitude towards future projects. It is also great the way that these two, who have undergone extensive collaboration together and must these films intimately, manage to keep the track bubbling and interesting for us, too.
Revelations, affectations and obsessive confessions abound in one of the geek-tracks to end them all in the second yak-fest. Once you get used to Effects Artist Randall William Cook's lethargic speech and preponderance for “Errrrms”, you will find this to be a treasure-trove of reminiscence, trivia, hard fact and know-how, and often painstaking examinations of the very visionary work that would foster such ambitions and dreams in the minds of people who would go on become premier players in the world of fantastic cinema, despite those extraordinary visions now looking quaint and primitive to modern audiences. Jackson has always been a terrific commentator and his enthusiasm and passion for the films of Ray Harryhausen, coupled with that of Cook's, make for absolutely compulsive listening. Peter doesn't seem quite convinced by his companion's assertions over just when Jason's skeleton-skewering sword transformed into a stop-motion model, though. If you are fan of Jason, and of the entire concept that the master stop-motion animator created, then this track is like nectar. Jackson spots the new colour timing and remarks that it looks the way he had always remembered before the DVDs were released. You may also be justifiably intrigued by the teasing nuggets of what could be on the way from the Harryhausen archives and the fact that Jackson and his studio have been overseeing 4K transfers of such material of late. Cracking good stuff!
The rest of the special features have all been seen before on the various Harryhausen DVD and BD releases, but they make a welcome return here.
The Harryhausen Legacy is a 25-minute tribute from the industry's biggest fans of fx-bods and filmmakers, who all recount how they were first introduced to his movies and how the experience utterly transformed and influenced them. People like historian Bob Burns, directors John Landis, Frank Darabont and Joe Dante (who looks more and more like Tony Slattery every time I see him!) and effects people Phil Tippet, Ken Ralston, the late Stan Winston, Rick Baker, Dennis Muren, John Dykstra and the Chiodo Brothers all love the Cyclops and revere Harryhausen. Obviously, and a little regrettably, this otherwise fine feature becomes a little too sweet with sugary praise and adulation ... but is still worth going the distance with.
The Interview With John Landis (11.52 mins) should be equally well-known. Utterly cringe-worthy with Landis' woefully unprofessional style totally overbearing and patronising, this is possibly classic parody material. Harryhausen very bravely soldiers on, however.
The Harryhausen Chronicles is the real deal, though. Well-filmed and featuring lots of beautiful close-ups of Harryhausen's creations, good, incisive interviews and a terrifically informative, no-nonsense approach that refuses to just kiss the great man's backside (too much), this offers up anecdote, examination and honest critique of his style, methods and practices. Other luminaries, such as ILM's Dennis Muren, Charles H. Schneer, Henry (James And The Giant Peach) Selick, and even a second or two from George Lucas, lend their thoughts and praise for the guy that inspired them. But it is from lifelong friend and fellow fabulist, Ray Bradbury, that the most touching epithets come. Muren, though, hits the nail on the head regarding Harryhausen's enduring success. He states quite simply that Harryhausen's gift is in injecting empathy for his creatures. The documentary charts all the films in order - from his fledgling 16mm efforts after being bowled over by Willis O'Brien's triumphant King Kong (more than any other movie in cinematic history, Kong's legacy has provided so much), through the titles in this set and on through the scintillating sword and sorcery epics to the Kracken-filled finale of Clash Of The Titans in 1981. We even get to see Ray Bradbury issuing heartfelt praise for his friend on stage during the 1992 Academy Awards, when Harryhausen was awarded a special Oscar for his achievements. But, one of the coolest treats is seeing the concept art and test footage Harryhausen made for his interpretation of H.G. Wells' The War Of The Worlds. Sadly, this project, like so many others, never got off the ground. All in all, a well thought out production, informative and entertaining from start to finish.
A great little selection. The disc is also BD-Live enabled.
I cannot deny that Jason And The Argonauts is one of my favourite films of all time, literally cherished right alongside 7th Voyage Of Sinbad. But far from making me biased towards this new edition and, especially, its hi-def transfer, this probably made me less forgiving and more critical. I'd hoped for perfection, but expected something much, much less from it. However, this looks and sounds terrific for a film that is, notoriously, difficult to assess in terms of other productions from the period.
I need to either see the Criterion LD again or hear from someone who has it to ascertain just how this transfer differs, or doesn't differ, in terms of those day-for-night sequences, but there is no doubt that this Blu-ray version is considerably better than anything other than the Criterion transfer. The image is strong and far better detailed, much more effectively colour-timed and so much clearer than you might think. Given the vintage of the film, and the nature of the processes involved in its production, this is a terrific transfer from Sony and Columbia. And the audio is something special, too. Barring that very slight error, the lossless track is great fun, both amplifying the atmospherics of the story and Herrmann's exemplary score and remaining faithful to the original mix without any naff embellishments. Kudos should go to inclusion of a fine mono track, too. And with the addition of a couple of great commentary tracks, as well as the customary Harryhausen documentaries, this is marvellous value that won't, ahem, fleece you.
In the fantasy genre, Jason And The Argonauts is a high-water mark. Dismissed all too often for its screenplay, its acting and its outdated FX (“ahhh, doesn't it look quaint?”), this is the very thing that started the revolution in the minds of those celluloid wunderkinds who regularly splash magic across the big screen today. And there is more flair, more personality, more class and more sheer imagination and awe in this than in a dozen-or-so big budget offerings from the last decade. And it's got those skeletons!
A legendary story. A legendary film.
Ray Harryhausen is a legend and you owe it to him to bring this treasure home.
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