Movie review: Mythology, Harryhausen and CGI

I started to enjoy mythology by watching “Jason and the Argonauts” a few years after it made its premiere in 1963. It gave me the curiosity about Homer that led to me actually enjoying his epics and all those pages. I cannot remember if the film came to television (a big event back in the day when a movie did a transition to the small screen) or if I caught it in re-release in a theater. Nevertheless, I loved it for its story, action and, most of all, the special effects. Yes, those were REALLY cool back in the day. The man responsible was Ray Harryhausen. Jump forward and he was also the special effects creator for “Clash of the Titans” nearly a generation later. Even with advances in filmmaking over those 18 years, I still prefer “Jason and the Argonauts” over the original “Clash of the Titans.” In any case, today’s CGI is great (just see the remake of “Clash of the Titans”), but you can’t beat Harryhausen for pure enjoyment.

‘Jason and the Argonauts’
(1963; 104 minutes; rated ‘approved’; directed by Don Chaffey and starring Todd Armstrong, Nancy Kovack and Gary Raymond)
‘Clash of the Titans’
(1981; 118 minutes; rated PG; directed by Desmond Davis and starring Laurence Olivier, Harry Hamlin, Maggie Smith and Ursula Andress)
‘Clash of the Titans’
(2010; 106 minutes; rated PG-13; directed by Louis Leterrier and starring Sam Worthington, Liam Neeson and Ralph Finnes)

MYTHOLOGY, THE GODS AND IN PRAISE OF RAY HARRYHAUSEN

I began writing this with just “Jason and the Argonauts” and the original “Clash of the Titans” in mind. The special effects work of Ray Harryhausen was outstanding and impressed me to no end with “Jason and the Argonauts” – especially when the hydra’s teeth grew skeleton warriors from the ground. The stop-motion animation called “Dynamation” looked really spectacular in 1963 with “Jason and the Argonauts.” So, it was nice to see his work resurface in mythology with “Clash of the Titans.”

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Of course technology as it always has would take excellent work such as Harryhauen’s creative genius and make it obsolete. Computerized graphics would become the standard because it can transport moviegoers’ experience in a way Harryhausen’s best work with animation could never achieve. Still, those skeleton warriors are great! Actually, I like “Jason and the Argonauts” better than “Clash of the Titans” and in some ways the 1981 film is less impressive than the one made 18 years earlier because at the dawn of a new age of special effects in Hollywood it came off just a bit cheesy.

You’ll never mistake Harryhausen’s work for any other because it is truly his signature. When “Neptune” comes up out of the sea in “Jason and the Argonauts,” moviegoers were seeing an effect unlike many (if any) before. For audiences used to their action being gunfights in westerns or war movies or chariot races, it was a big change.

Still, Harryhausenc wasn’t just a mythology master. One of his films was “One Million Years B.C.” that is mostly remembered for Raquel Welch and not Harry (she didn’t need his special effects; she had enough of her own) and another was “First Men in the Moon.” He also was the creative effects specialist on two “Sinbad” adventure films in the 1970s.

With the original “Clash of the Titans,” moviegoers would have one last chance to see Harryhausen’s work. As I already noted, its effects don’t stand the test of time that “Jason and the Argonauts” has managed. It doesn’t help with some of the lame acting (yes, Laurence Olivier, I mean you).

Harryhausen, who you might also remember as having worked on 1961’s “Mysterious Island,” retired after the original “Clash of the Titans” and lived in London until his death on May 7, 2013, at the age of 92. Click here for Harryhausen’s biography at Wiki.

However, surpassing both is the 2010 remake of “Clash of the Titans” not just for the special effects, which are spectacular, but also because of a tremendous effort by its entire cast with especially notable turns from Sam Worthington and Ralph Finnes. Also notable is Liam Neeson, who is better than Olivier was in the same role in the earlier film – and that’s saying something when an actor outdoes Olivier. Curiously, the remake of “Clash of the Titans” comes in third in the mythology department (which “Jason and the Argonauts” headlines) but this doesn’t detract or distract from the film.

There’s notc2 a similar comparison between “Jason and the Argonauts” and the original “Clash of the Titans” as there is between “Clash of the Titans” and its remake. They are parallel stories with “Jason and the Argonauts” about “Jason’s” quest for the golden fleece, while “Clash of the Titans” has the focus of “Perseus” saving Argos. Both sets of warriors are “Argonauts” but that’s about it. The rest spins around mythology with a smorgasbord of stories, legends and nuance.

One issue in mythology from the original “Clash of the Titans” is about releasing the “Kraken.” Even “Sheldon” in today’s TV megahit “The Big Bang Theory” mentions the “Kraken,” which plays a part in both “Clash of the Titans” films. However, the “Kraken” wasn’t from Greek or Roman mythology, but has its roots in Norse mythology – so you’ll have to let a literature professor sort that one out for you.

Jason and the Argonauts” has mostly a somewhat predictable big-screen extravaganza feel from the 1960s about it. It’s not the great realistic drama that is “Spartacus” or “Ben-Hur,” but it has breadth and scope that’s handled well. Especially neat is the scene at the statues of the deities where “Hercules” and another character steal from a treasure room and have to battle a giant bronze statue – and next to the skeletons, I like this Harryhausen sequence the best.

What “Jason and the Argonauts” does have is OK acting from its headliner, Todd Armstrong as “Jason,” and even better from noted English character actor Nigel Green as “Hercules” (he was born in South Africa and educated in England). The acting here as well as weighing the special effects for the time makes it stand head and shoulders above the original “Clash of the Titans” in my mind.

Armstrong gives something of a wooden performance (and his voice is reportedly dubbed in the film) where he took no chances as an actor, but the outcome of his and the other actors’ work elevates them all of them to at least an acceptable level. There’s some overacting, but I like the energy of the cast as a whole, especially Green. He revels in the role and is lost to going his separate way all too soon in the film.

The cast of the original “Clash of the Titans” is A-list (Oscar winner Olivier, two-time winner Maggie Smith, two-time nominee Burgess Meredith and even the original Bond girl herself: Ursula Andress, who played “Honey Ryder” in “Dr. No” with Sean Connery’s 007 the same year as “Jason and the Argonauts’” release). Toss in a young(er) Harry Hamlin and Claire Bloom and it … well, should have been much better. If it wasn’t for the love given a Harryhausen effort, the original “Clash of the Titans” would be just so much dreck.

The sparring among the gods doesn’t work well and the acting, while somewhat wooden in “Jason and the Argonauts” is just truly wooden here. At times the efforts are so bad you just want to burst out laughing with the ridiculous notion that they’re actually not doing Monty Python-esque comedy and trying to do drama.

In “Clash of the Titans,” “Perseus” is the son of Zeus who has to save the day – surviving since his birth the machinations of the gods, humans and just about everyone else. Hamlin looks a bit more like he should be preening before a mirror than starring in this epic (especially once you get Worthington’s effort in the remake). As I already wrote, Olivier isn’t good here – he tries as a legendary actor should, but he doesn’t come off well.

Smith, who plays “Thetis,” and Neil McCarthy, who plays “Calibos,” do good jobs, but the efforts (especially from McCarthy, who had to overcome a bad makeup job) are ultimately lost.

The cheesiness of the original “Clash of the Titans” becomes all the more evident when you watch the remake. The 2010 version, which pretty much parallels the original but with “Hades” a bigger character, has a wonderfully intricate plot with a wonderful screenplay; its actors hit home runs right and left; and the CGI special effects make both the original “Clash of the Titans” and “Jason and the Argonauts” pale in comparison.

Worthington as “Perseus” in the remake is somewhat of an anti-hero compared to Hamlin’s more affable persona. I believe the best word to describe Worthing’s work is stolid with a hint of greatness. But, however good Worthington, the remake of “Clash of the Titans” is Ralph Finnes’ film (although Neeson headlines over him). Finnes is just simply terrific as “Hades” and you can take an acting lesson from him on this one. Neeson’s super-solid effort as “Zeus” doesn’t get the notice it deserves because Finnes is so good.

So, in the end you’ll always enjoy “Jason and the Argonauts” … you’ll have fond memories of the original “Clash of the Titans” … and finally you’ll know that the remake of “Clash of the Titans” is a superior film.

And it’s all about mythology.

Here’s a rundown of how each of the three films fared at the box office in their respective release years:

BTW – the “acceptable” rating of “Jason and the Argonauts” is reflection of the movie rating system of the early 1960s. Back then, a film passed a censor who either deemed it “acceptable” or not on morality, etc. So, now you understand the “acceptable” rating for “Jason and the Argonauts.”

Assorted notes about the films (via IMDb.com):

  • Jason and the Argonauts’” Armstrong never became the leading man in Hollywood he might have become and was also in films such as “King Rat.” Armstrong took his own life at the age of 55 in 1992 and had only 15 acting credits in his career.
  • Jason and the Argonauts” was remade, too, with a TV movie of the same name in 2000 with Frank Langella.
  • Directly from IMDb.com: “It took Ray Harryhausen four months to produce the skeleton scene, a massive amount of time for a scene which lasts, at the most, three minutes.”
  • Hamlin and Andress were involved at the time and had a son born the year before the film’s release (and after principal photography had been completed). He is 15 years younger than Andress and she had previously been married to actor/director John Derek, who was married to sexy actress Bo “10” Derek (click here for my review of “10”) from 1976 until his death in 1998. Bo was 20 when they married; he would turn 50 two months after the wedding – and he was previously married to Linda Evans.
  • Finally and directly from IMDb.com: “The mechanical owl Bubo from Clash of the Titans (1981) has a cameo as the toy Perseus picks up before he leaves on his quest. According to the filmmakers, the cameo was widely debated as to whether to keep it in the film or not. It was eventually decided to keep it in the film to please the fans of the original film.”

© Chuck Curry and A Gator in Naples, 2015.
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