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The Rankin Bass Hobbit: Holiday Retrospectives Part 5

You know, most of the time when I hear objections raised against an adapted work, like the Lord of the Rings, it usually takes the form of ‘it’s not enough like the book.’

Yet, strangely, I usually find that following the book too closely isn’t a good idea. David Lynch’s adaptation of Dune or the Harry Potter movies often recreate scenes word for word from the books, and the result ends up as a disjointed, inelegant crush. Whereas the ones that are a bit more liberal, like Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, which aren’t all that wayward anyway, capture the magic in a way that makes the most of the change of format.

Still, I did argue earlier this week that the new Hobbit movies are straying somewhat further than is reasonable. So for those who want to see their beloved childhood favourite rendered faithfully, not merely spectacularly, then there is another option: the 1977 animated rendition of the Hobbit by Rankin Bass studios.

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People around my age have all experienced this production, often at school during study of the book. And if you ask about it, the opinion is almost certainly that it’s terrible.

And frankly, I find this statement somewhat puzzling. Possibly a lot of people conflate it with Ralph Bakshi’s visually artistic but otherwise dreadful rendition of about two-thirds of the Lord of the Rings, which was guilty of the same erratically stitched-together compression used in the other poorer adaptations listed earlier. Rankin Bass did make a campy and quite sloppy adaptaion of Return of the King, handy since Bakshi never got around to it, which probably is best forgotten.

I suppose part of it is the animation, which is a Japanese rendition of fairy-tale style figures that make all the characters look about 95 years old – for some reason, Thorin’s enormous nose is always my first thought in this direction. The New York Times described the goblins as looking like Maurice Sendak’s doing. And in an act I normally regard as unforgivable, several of the characters – Bilbo, Gandalf, Bard and Smaug among them – are voiced by American actors instead of British ones. Amusing side effects include Gandalf pronouncing treasure “tray-sure” and Smaug’s name being (rather aptly, you have to admit) pronounced “smog” instead of “smowg”

The animation is also rather stylized – several of the animators went on to work for Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli. The Great Goblin and the spiders’ deaths end with them spinning out and vanishing. Bilbo’s invisibility when he puts on the Ring is denoted by his becoming semi-transparent. And for some reason, the Mirkwood elves are blue and rather ugly, like Smurf gorillas, and have German accents. Possibly the creators used folkloric images of elves and other Fair Folk and missed the memo on Tolkien’s ideas of elves. Plus Elrond has a beard, Gandalf has a tall pointed hood instead of his signature hat, and Gollum looks more like a gargoyle frog than anything that could once have been a hobbit. On the plus side, the design of Smaug, or at least his face, is unlike the standard issue dragon in most European illustrations and cartoons. He looks almost fox-like. In point of fact, he looks like a Japanese dragon, a novelty that, despite Weta Workshop and Tolkien’s own illustration and all the rest of Western artwork, has become fixed in my mind as the ideal dragon.

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And then there’s the music. The 70s-American-folk melodies do use a lot of Tolkien’s lyrics, including the same ones used for “Misty Mountains Cold” in Jackson’s Unexpected Journey. They have a charm and memorable ear worm quality to them which, while stylistically a bit odd, are quite a lot of fun to listen to.

The plot is truncated to fit into the 77 minute runtime: many scenes are a lot briefer, just long enough to get the job done. If nothing else the plot moves quite briskly, while maintaining cohesion. Some changes are a little strange: Gandalf seems to make the sun rise early to trap the trolls, rather than distracting them until it rises on its own; Beorn is absent, joining Bombadil in narrative extraneousness; the Arkenstone and the drama around it is omitted; most bizarrely, in the runup to the Battle of the Five Armies, Thorin seems happy and willing to march into battle with just his thirteen companions (though Bilbo repeatedly points out that this is insane), and treats the arrival of his allies from the Iron Hills as merely a bonus; and while only three of the thirteen dwarves die in the book, seven of them fall in the movie. Bombur and Thorin are the only ones named specifically, with no concern with who the others are.

I re-read the Hobbit in anticipation of Jackson’s movies coming out. And I watched the Rankin Bass version so many times as a kid I fairly memorized it. That being the case, I discovered that the Rankin Bass version oftentimes follows the book word-for-word, or near enough to it. In particular the scene between Bilbo and Smaug is almost dead on the money, as is the scene with Gollum. However abridged, the whole of the basic story is in here. It’s been cut down without turning it into the disconnected mess of cool scenes that many such adaptations end up as. Thorin is also middle-aged or older, as he is in the book.

And thematically it holds up well: Bilbo gains gumption and courage in his adventures, enough to call out Thorin on his greed and bravado by the end, and their reconciliation is quite touching. After all that, Bilbo takes a tiny fraction of his share and goes home to write his memoirs and get as far away from such grand matters as possible.

While I normally cringe at hearing American voices in what is fundmentally a British story, the particular voices involved – veteran actors from the 1950s like Orson Bean and John Huston (also the director of the Maltese Falcon) – have a great deal of character that makes up the difference.

If you can, get the version with the old hi-fi audio, like the VHS edition, since many sound effects are unaccountably missing from the DVD release, and enjoy it. The target audience is younger than the book’s, that much is clear. But it actually is a pretty grounded and precise adaptation of the Hobbit, with none of the excesses the Jackson version has been exhibiting. Equally, it lacks the sense of depth Tolkien imbued his work with. But it’s much better, I think, than it’s given credit for. People who insist that adaptations aren’t any good because they aren’t close to the book really have no right to complain about it. If you like Studio Ghibli movies, the style will be familiar, and the music is a lot of fun.

“You’re a very fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I’m very fond of you. But you’re only quite a little fellow, in a big world after all.”
“Uh, thank goodness.”

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Posted by on December 18, 2013 in Holiday Retrospectives, Movie

 

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Desolation of Smaug: Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

Deciding whether a movie lives up to your expectations is a little like interpreting a prophecy: you pick apart the smallest detail, bending, twisting and occasionally outright coiffing your thinking to make it make sense, or fail to if you expected the worst…

It’s a natural product of nerdiness, and probably not really a healthy one, but it’s accursedly difficult to avoid, especially with something as hotly anticipated, and with such a literary and filmmaking pedigree as the Hobbit: the Desolation of Smaug, the second part of Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of the forebearer of the Lord of the Rings.

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In this instalment, Bilbo, Thorin and the rest of the company are on the run from orcs, and are forced to head into the dark and sinister Mirkwood forest, rasping against the pride of elf-King Thranduil, and ending up in the politically tense Laketown, near the Lonely Mountain itself. Winning over the people (and particularly the town’s venal ‘Master’) with promises of a new golden age, they embark for the secret entrance, leaving only a wounded Kili and some others behind. A good thing too, since the orcs are closing in, seeking to stop Thorin, and endangering Laketown.

Not that Thorin, Bilbo and co. are in much better shape, because Bilbo the burglar rouses the sleeping dragon, while Bard, a descendant of the Lord of Dale, readies to face Smaug’s return with the help of the remaining dwarves, and some civic-minded and thoroughly badass elves, including the son of Thranduil, one Legolas.

Meanwhile, Gandalf, having left the company at Mirkwood, confirms his suspicions that the increasing orc activity is directed by the Necromancer of Dol Goldur, and that the Necromancer is what they’d most feared: the Lord of the Rings himself.

I will say that I liked this movie better than the first one, and I liked Unexpected Journey quite well. The action’s better paced and more exciting and tightly bound to the story (the barrel-chase was particularly excellent), if still a little excessive; they might have gone further in recreating the game of wits that defines Bilbo’s interaction with Smaug, and had less of the protracted runaround it becomes. Thorin’s character arc is progressing on an even keel consistent with the book. Bard has been expanded into a conflicted character who is quite interesting to watch, and Bilbo is as great as ever. I was pleasantly surprised by the design and rendering of Smaug. He’s just different enough not to be ‘just another dragon,’ resembling a lizard with wings on his forelegs, as opposed to a six-limbed dinosaur. Add to that the voicework of Benedict Cumberbatch and he’s no end of memorable.

The inclusion of Beorn was also a nice touch. He’s in a better place narratively than was Tom Bombadil, as a chance for the characters to catch their breath before things really get going.

As I’d hoped, the one big problem I had with Unexpected Journey is rendered moot: the sense that Azog was a tacked-on extra, since he’s one of the Necromancer’s reserve officers. Pertinently, the Enemy’s strategy of keeping Smaug as an ace up his sleeve is heavily implied throughout.

It bears repeating: the Sauron-in-Mirkwood thing isn’t in the novel proper, but it is part of the mythology. In the book, Gandalf organized the quest to happen specifically when the elves were going to attack the Necromancer so that Smaug wouldn’t answer any call for backup from Dol Goldur. In the movie, Gandalf seems motivated more by general dislike of letting the dragon stay there unchallenged, and the strategic aspects are discovered within the movie. It’s awkward, but the alternative would have been even more flashback sequences than we already had.

In the Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens exercised good judgement about when to change things, to heighten the drama, to allude to the larger mythos, or to keep the narrative focused. Some such choices here, such as the poltical conflict between the Master of Laketown and Bard, are basically versions of that kind of thinking.

A similar series of little touches are put in to tie the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings trilogies together – funnily enough, Tolkien himself only worked the Hobbit into his Legendarium when he started on Lord of the Rings. In particular, Bilbo is already feeling the influence of the Ring. He realizes, for example, that he enjoyed killing the Mirkwood spiders a little too much. It’s really well-acted and compelling; I have modest misgivings that it’s happening a little too fast. After all, remember, it took sixty years for Gandalf to even suspect who the original owner of that Ring was!

Some of them are a little silly, a nudge and wink at the fans and nobody else at all. When the elves catch the dwarves and search them, Legolas, leading the elvish party, sneers at Gloin’s picture of his son. Who is Gimli. Who becomes Legolas’s pal in LOTR. Eh? Eh? *nudge nudge*

But, just as Azog finds his niche in the narrative, a new extraneous element swans in. And I am genuinely sorrowful to announce that it is Legolas himself.

Look, I was thrilled when learning that Legolas was going to be in the Hobbit. I don’t like when creators pander to fans, because it’s basically bribing them to like the movie. But there’s no call for being wantonly unkind either by refusing to put him in. But I figured Legolas’ role, vis a vis the dwarves at least, would end with their escape from Mirkwood. He’s obliged by the story to be a bit of an anti-dwarf jerk. Indeed, the whole movie does a good job at showing ordinary, non-magical, and working-class elves, and I like that.

And then we have Tauriel, Thranduil’s Captain of the Guard, played by Evangeline Lily. She represents an attempt to get a female character or two into this movie, Tolkien being notoriously short on those. There’s a massive amount of talk to be had over tokenism, female representation and the limits of how far you should bend an source work in adaptation. More than I have space for. Giving the elves some distinct characters to focus on for the next movie seems perfectly reasonable to me though, and why not throw in a heroine since you’re doing so?

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All perfectly fine. Where I, and, seemingly, Jackson and his team, lose the plot is that, just when I want to be experiencing the climax of Smaug and Sauron’s plotting, I find myself watching the Orlando and Evangeline Variety Hour. Tauriel is Legolas’ and Thranduil’s foil, trying to get through to them that the larger picture and the people in it are important. So she drags Legolas to Laketown and they run into the Orcs and proceed to kick ass with standard elvish aplomb.

Meanwhile, Kili, left behind with some of the other dwarves after being wounded (and also to have some of our heroes on the ground for this front in the fight) is tended by Tauriel, with whom he seems to have a bit of chemistry. She gets hold of our favourite healing herb, kingsfoil, says some words over him in Elvish, and pulls him back from the brink.

And here, to my perplexity, we seem to have Jackson et al undermining elements they captured so well from Tolkien in LOTR. As speculated by a neighbouring blog, the uniqueness of the interracial friendship between Legolas and Gimili just lost a lot of its punch. Also, I’m 95% certain that the spell/prayer Tauriel says over Kili is the same one Elrond says over Frodo when he’s similarly injured in Fellowship of the Ring. So suddenly this military officer has the same skill as the greatest loremaster in Middle Earth? Admittedly, she sounds like she’s doing it in a ‘what the hell, I’ll try’ kind of way but she’s in critical danger of entering ‘Mary Sue’ territory.

I assumed that she’d be the one to persuade Legolas and Thranduil to go take on Dol Goldur, having been impressed by the dwarves and their place in the bigger picture. Instead the main story of the Hobbit gets usurped by the two of them. It’s jolly cool and exciting, but not what I signed up for.

Look, the movie is really good. It’s just tackier than it deserves to be. The Rings fanservice is laid on a little too thick. The acting is superb, funny, intense, and wilfully over-the-top, the action much better-paced and exciting, and the cliffhanger ending is first-rate. When the writing sticks close to the book, it’s really good. Actually, when it doesn’t it’s still really good anyway, the problem is the deviations are going a little too far now, to the point that it’s almost two distinct movies towards the end. And it breaks my heart to say it, but the soundtrack is just not up to snuff this time. The ending song in particular sounds…wrong somehow. Not like a song somebody in Middle Earth might sing. But then I didn’t like the end song of Two Towers either so maybe I just have a problem with middle-chapter end credits or something.

Lord of the Rings was a once-in-a-lifetime High Fantasy Epic film experience. The Hobbit, thus far, is a Fun Movie. A very Fun Movie, as only Sir Peter Jackson can make, but still lower-grade than Rings, and the same was true of the book, albeit for different reasons. My advice is to kick back and enjoy it for what it is, not torture yourself with what you imagined it might be.

And, of course, stay tuned for the next one!

 

 
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Posted by on December 17, 2013 in Movie

 

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ElfQuest: My First Step into Comics

I’ve been trying on and off for years to break into reading comics. Apart from some of the isolated volumes of note, like Watchmen and the Dark Knight Returns, I haven’t had much success. When I was growing up the comics world was going through a phase of gritty, dark, violent and salacious themes and stories, the period now called the Dark Age of Comic Books, making them inaccessible, as well as undesirable, to a straight-laced and stiff-necked pre-adolescent.

I enjoyed the spinoff cartoons and films, but actually accessing the source material is very challenging because you’re talking about entering an entire medium separate from novels, television shows or movies, and that has had a parallel existence as old as, and more prolific than any of those.

That said, a stroke of luck a few years back led me to stumble upon one of the long-running comic arcs that I actually have managed to experience in its majority.

Available online, ElfQuest by Wendy and Richard Pini began in 1977. Independent from the big labels like DC and Marvel, it stood out in an era filled with caped superheroes, hardboiled detectives, and constant action. Into the midst of this, the Pinis brought forth a character-driven sword-and-sorcery series that owes a good deal, visually, to the then-obscure Japanese manga.

ElfQuest takes place in an alternate world, usually referred to as the World of Two Moons for its most unique feature, and centres around a tribe of small, pointy-eared primitive forest-dwellers named the Wolfriders. Living alongside their wolf companions, these elves are persistently hunted and tormented by their stone-age-level, religious fanatic human neighbours. They claim descent from ancient otherworldly beings called the High Ones, but have dedicated their tiny culture to living in the nocturnal wilderness and the ‘Now of Wolf-Thought.’

 When their obsession with destroying the elves drives the humans to burn down the forest, Cutter, Chief of the Wolfriders, leads his people on a desperate search through the desert for a new home. They find another community of elves living in a settled, agricultural society in an oasis. After nearly breaking out into open warfare with each other, the two cultures begin to face challenges of re-integration; both elf cultures thought themselves to be the only elves in the world. Their complex relationship centres around the ‘Recognition’ of Cutter with Leetah, magic healer and de facto princess of the Sun Folk. Recognition is an effect of the elves’ telepathy, where two people with fundamental compatibility become psychically linked and caught up in a drive to mate and have children. If you’re a Trekkie, then this is a situational version of Vulcan pon farr. Outside of Recognition, it’s almost impossible for elves to get pregnant, and so this is usually considered a joyous occasion. It does eventually drive the reconciliation of the two cultures.

Eventually, with the threat of humans looming again, Cutter, his friends and young family lead a quest to find out if any other elf tribes split off from the ancient High Ones, with the aspiration of reuniting elfkind and reclaiming their shared heritage.

There are limits on how much more I can say because I don’t want to spoil too much and because there’s several decades of work to cover. In short, the Wolfriders and Sunfolk begin to make themselves part of the greater world, confronting the dark side of their own people, the complexity of humans, and the ancient grudges that stem from their origins.

On the face of it, ElfQuest is hard to take seriously. The title is corny, no doubt. The Wolfriders all have names like ‘Treestump,’ ‘One-Eye,’ ‘Dewshine,’ and most egregiously ‘Strongbow’ that ring pretty ridiculous. The art style, while lavish, comes across, at first impression, as an unsettling blend of a Saturday morning cartoon with the campy musculature and cleavage of a Conan the Barbarian illustration. Think He-Man and the Masters of the Universe and you have the general picture.

Having said that, the writing, while quite pedantic at times, is, I would argue, the positive, emotionally satisfying kind of camp, if camp it is. The stories overall are well-constructed, although the archetypes driving them are pretty straightforward and flat. The Quest, obviously, is one. Harmony in difference, traditions vs. progress, and the importance of the ‘little picture’ not getting lost in the ‘big picture’ are some of the most obvious. Really, ElfQuest is a tale of adventure, grandiose heroism and melodrama, and is not pretending to be anything else. As far as that goes, it’s fun but perhaps a bit shallow.

The world-building is really nice. There is here a nice marriage between science fiction and fantasy, or perhaps a case of putting a fantasy paint job on a science fiction premise. Ancient aliens leading directly into sword-and-sorcery works surprisingly well. The Pinis also took the concept of elves in fiction in a different enough direction to avoid looking like a Tolkien clone. The elves aren’t much more advanced than humans, they aren’t esoteric nature-communers, not all of them are absolutely good, and only a few are absolutely evil. The dark side of the proud, haughty elf is made very clear, and, most strikingly, they’re actually about the size of Hobbits!

Character is where the series shines. Wendy Pini put an astonishing amount of effort into making every character, main or secondary, very visually distinctive and their basic personalities are also well-established, so that secondary characters remain very tantalizing to hear from when you get the chance. Character development and drama drive a lot of the story, especially in later arcs like Kings of the Broken Wheel, my personal favourite. The Pinis also did an absolutely superb job of putting male and female characters on equal footing.

The best illustration is the Wolfriders’ B-couple, Redlance and Nightfall. Redlance is quite a buff fellow, though his wife would be called Amazonian if she weren’t three feet tall, but she’s shown as being the dominant, more outspoken one of the pair, and this is done without the slightest implication that Redlance is stifled or emasculated by her in any way. Indeed, one of the early B-plots shows just how much they adore one another. Neither they nor anyone else is uncomfortable with Redlance being the more passive half of the relationship.

Which brings me neatly to the subject of sex. One is inclined to roll one’s eyes and dismiss sex in comics as pornography for underage boys. Indeed, this is a brush I myself once used to deride the entire medium. Sex is in no small quantity in ElfQuest; apart from the story’s many happy couples, the Elves have open relationships and engage in sex for pleasure with their friends, regardless of gender (although this is just implied; this was the 70s after all), and forming three-way relationships is considered a perfectly acceptable way to deal with Recognition-induced love triangles. Toward the end of the first ElfQuest arc, an orgy is even used as a character-building set piece.

Cynic that I am, my first instinct is to write this off as pandering to the lowest impulses of readers. However, one of few things I’d be willing to assert with absolute certainty is that if you find this content low, gross or exploitative, then you’re the one bringing those hangups to the table because the Pinis definitely don’t see it that way. It’s definitely erotic, mind you. That plus the bloody and costly battles might make it unsuitable for the under-twelves. If your kids are reading this, even if it is under the cover of night and possibly one-handed, then they are reading about sexual relationships that, while unconventional, are totally consensual, mutually satisfying and affectionate even when they aren’t flat-out romantic. They aren’t fetishized, excessive or degrading to any of the participants.  Recognition does on at least two occasions force a bond between unwilling persons, but in those cases, it’s treated as a crisis, a tragedy, and part of the dilemma of the elves’ precarious existence. Furthermore, the participants may need to consummate the bond, but they are never treated as having any obligation to one another afterwards.

ElfQuest is one of those things I feel embarrassed telling people I like. The title itself is so cliché that makes you feel silly to say it. For all that, however, it is fun. The art style is vibrant and beautiful, even if it is pretty retro. The emotional arcs of the stories hit just the right notes for me. The characters are really fascinating people and there are enough of them that you can probably find at least one to root for especially, and the powerful, deep and sex-positive nature of their relationships give their story a lot of punch. There’s enough of the franchise itself that if grand quests, fantasy lands, high romance and adventure are your cup of tea, then there should be at least something in here for you. It’s kind of campy, but that’s not a sin, and there are plenty of nitpicks to make, although you’d have to go arc-by-arc to analyse them. Best advice I can give is to give it a try and see what happens.

 
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Posted by on August 29, 2012 in Comic

 

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