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The movie that launched a thousand sweaty bad dreams

Wednesday, Jul 28 2004
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When I was young my family lived across from an elementary school, and on certain summer nights my older brother would lead me by the hand over to a cafeteria still redolent with the fragrance of school-lunch hamburgers, where we'd sit and watch old movies. Anything juvenile was fair game -- Pink Panther episodes, Disney movies, the endless chronicles of Sinbad the Sailor. But the movie that launched a thousand sweaty bad dreams was Jason and the Argonauts, an action-adventure romp reprising the Greek myth of Jason's search for the fabled golden fleece.

Despite its mythical underpinnings, Jason is hardly a highbrow example of classical lore. On a quest to regain his throne, our hero battles fantastical creatures -- from a snarling seven-headed Hydra to some pants-wettingly horrifying living skeletons. Pretty schlocky, but what elevated the film was the incredible stop-motion effects by wizard Ray Harryhausen.

Unlike today's crop of FX technicians who strive for verisimilitude, Harryhausen was more interested in concocting creatures so fanciful they can only be described as dreamlike: winged harpies, a Medusa crawling with snakes, a menacing Cyclops. Using movable metal frameworks (constructed by his dad!) covered in moldable materials like cotton wool soaked in latex, Harryhausen sculpted elaborate models of his creations, moved them millimeter by millimeter, photographed the results, and painstakingly integrated the shots with live-action footage. The resulting sequences are so potent that Harryhausen's devotees are legion even in the age of gee-whiz CGI effects.

Paying tribute to the master, the Rafael Film Center screens Jason and the Argonauts (the animator's favorite work), with commentary on Harryhausen's methods and their influence on today's films from effects artists Phil Tippett (Starship Troopers) and Craig Barron (X-Men, Independence Day). It's an unimaginable treat for animation fans -- just don't blame us if the skeletons give you nightmares. -- Joyce Slaton

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Joyce Slaton

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