A stiff 'Jason,' gentle 'Geppetto'

Jason and the Argonauts" used to be standard adolescent literature. The Greek heroes were so flawed, yet so brave and cunning, that boys and girls loved to hear of their excellent adventures. And while the story may not be as popular today for teaching the classics to young folks, it's worth hearing.

Which is the best one can say for NBC's Jason and the Argonauts (May 7 and 8, 9-11 p.m.) - that it reminds us how this grand story is still enticingly rich. But in the attempt to make it "relevant" to a contemporary audience, the filmmakers banalize the story with shallow sentiments and dialogue. Then, too, they chose some of their actors unwisely, and others too well - it's an odd mix.

Jason London, in the title role, may be a charming young man, but his balsa performance cannot hold the screen with such experienced actors as Derek Jacobi, David Calder, or Frank Langella.

Then there's the problem of making all the heroes a little too sympathetic - too human. The Argonauts were meant to be larger than life, and a lot more eccentric than they appear here.

And Jason wasn't nearly such a nice guy. In fact, his wife Medea (Jolene Blalock) saved his bacon several times, and years later after they had two children, he deserted her for a younger woman. The cad. (Of course, Medea turned out to be rather wicked herself. But Jason and Medea's marital problems fall outside the scope of the film.)

In the movie, young Prince Jason is rescued by the captain of his father's guard after his father, King Aeson (Ciaran Hind), is murdered by his brother, Pelias (Dennis Hopper). Raised by centaurs, Jason learns he is the rightful king of Iolcus and that his mother is still alive.

So he returns to his native city-state, but has to save himself from execution at the hands of Uncle Pelias by promising to find the Golden Fleece. Pelias wants the fleece because he believes its magic confers eternal existence.

A man named Argus builds a special ship, called the Argo, and thus those who sail her are the Argonauts. The motley crew is made up of men with special gifts (in the original story they are heroes and demigods). Among them are Hercules and Orpheus, the musician whose harp can soothe the savage breasts of monsters and sirens.

There's a marvelous sequence when the Argonauts find the blind seer Phineas, who is plagued by harpies (female monsters with razor-sharp teeth), and liberate him from that terrible curse.

As the seer, Sir Derek Jacobi's few minutes on screen are memorable - he can make the most ordinary dialogue sound eloquent.

The filmmakers took plenty of "poetic license" with the story, so they should have given the minor characters more amusing dialogue as well. The only funny bits concern Hercules boring his shipmates with old war stories, and the gods Zeus and Hera duking it out verbally in one marital squabble after another.

And yet, the film is still worth a look. Jason's journey is, after all, full of daring and intelligence.

Outwitting kings, gods, and harpies is worthy of a hero's efforts.

'Jason and the Argonauts" may be meant for adolescents and adults (there are quite a few battles), but the whole family can enjoy the quirky musical based on the Pinocchio story, Geppetto (ABC's Wonderful World of Disney, May 7, 7-9 p.m.), starring Drew Carey.

Mr. Carey can carry a tune after four months of voice training - even if he can't reach the high notes and his voice quavers on the long ones.

But as it turns out, that doesn't matter much.

There's something about his comic persona - the usual tinge of smart-aleck cynicism is all but absent - that works for this particular script. He's likable in the role of a toymaker who fashions himself a little son out of wood.

As the title suggests, this story focuses on the trials and tribulations of the dad in this father-son relationship. Having his wish granted by the Blue Fairy (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) doesn't mean instant happiness.

Geppetto discovers to his chagrin that little boys have minds of their own.

Having never learned, Pinocchio doesn't know how to behave, gets into mischief, and decides he wants to be a train engineer, not a toymaker like his dad.

Well, if Pinocchio doesn't know how to be a boy, Geppetto doesn't know how to be a father, either, scolding when he should teach.

So when Pinocchio runs away, Geppetto pursues him and learns from others he meets on his journey toward parenthood. Brent Spiner ("Star Trek: Next Generation") is unrecognizable and hilarious as the villain Stromboli, and Louis-Dreyfus's over-the-top fairy adds a dash of screwball whimsy.

Musicals may not be as big as they used to be, but TV could bring them back if it can corner composers like three-time Academy Award-winner Stephen Schwartz (two times for "Pocahontas" and once for "Prince of Egypt") for the purpose. His bright comic songs will delight the younger set and entertain their parents, too. And there's always a touch of good sense hidden in the lyrics.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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