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Tuesday, September 27, 2016

A Revisionist Lord of the Rings?

OK, so we talked about 1977's Rankin/Bass Hobbit and reviewed it favorably against the recent debacle movies.  But it occurred to me that as much as I loved that particular version, especially when compared to Jackson's efforts, it really only succeeds by itself and not as part of the actual trilogy that followed it... 

And so this week's post is about how the Rankin/Bass Hobbit fails, but also how their attempt to take on its sequel was actually pretty good as a REVISIONIST version of the tale!

So to be clear, I hadn't read the hobbit until after I saw the televised version, and put off reading Lord of the Rings until even later, being distracted by the stuff of childhood and a brand new diversion called Dungeons & Dragons that left me, at least for awhile, more interested in gaming rulebooks than inspirational works of 20th century literature!  Such were my priorities then...   

But sometime in-between, I imagined all manner of continuing adventures for Bilbo and his magic ring, including several attempts by the evil Gollum to get it back!  This was pre-internet fan fiction, and pretty fun even if it was pointless.  I mean, I knew there was a sequel out there, and one much darker than my own rather straightforward and morally clear-cut storylines.

Of course, Ralph Bakshi was releasing his own Lord of the Rings animated feature, and its evocative and colorful visuals filled the pages of Famous Monsters of Filmland.  So I patiently awaited its release and watched, transfixed, its rotoscoped orcs and epic battle scenes spawned by that little ring of Bilbo's.

This was a pretty straight rendition of the story, deviating only where the necessity of editing and omission required, meaning no new characters to compensate for what amounted to a sausage party of a book, minus Galadriel and some lady hobbits.  But it was also a very incomplete release, because it stopped at The Two Towers!

The Rankin/Bass Return of the King
was a surprisingly dark and mature offering...

It was Lord of the Rings, alright.  But given how the Rankin/Bass Hobbit had been my introduction to Tolkien's universe, Bakshi's film felt alien (despite being more authentic), both in style and tone, and I found myself longing for something closer to the imaginary fan fiction I had spent the previous year dreaming up.

Fortunately, Rankin/Bass had a Return of the King in the works, closing out this patchwork animated trilogy by returning to the look and feel of their animated Hobbit.  This ran in 1980, just in time for me to start growing up and begin thinking I was too old for this sort of thing (I've long since come to my senses, luckily)...

The story begins with the hobbits and Galdalf at Rivendell to celebrate Bilbo's birthday, when Bilbo notices that Frodo is missing one of his fingers!  Of course, this demands an explanation, and Gandalf spends the rest of the program telling it.  So the mission to destroy the One Ring is cleverly told in flashback, making it easier to gloss over the first two books of the trilogy!

Nice!  But it's a bit confusing having Sam, Merry, and Pippin suddenly inserted, although real efforts are made to flesh out these characters, and it mostly works.  Aragorn and Denethor are nicely brought into the story as the narrative unfolds, noting that while this approach technically succeeds (mostly), it also points to major shortcomings when compared to the Hobbit offering...  

Aragorn is both elevated and diminished minus his humanizing backstory, and the complex historical (and political) situation that required Gondor to even NEED a steward is pretty much overlooked, making major events feel random instead of the culmination of many disparate events.  Now, while this shouldn't be a requirement of something ostensibly meant for children, the program is remarkably dark and intense at times, making it feel pretty conflicted.

In general, everyone who ISN'T Gandalf or a hobbit is reduced to mere window dressing.  A necessary backdrop.  And the overall feeling is that of a historical narrative with many important events inserted Cliff Notes style in top-down fashion...

Legolas was a wood elf, and here,
Bakshi's (right) clearly did a better job!

In short, characters are introduced suddenly and with little real context if they aren't just taken at face value, and important events occur in rapid-fire succession that feels frenetic, although the producers appear to recognize this and exploit it to create a sense of urgency.  Oh, and the Witch King sounded for all the world like Skeletor, which I'm divided on!

But the program succeeds on many levels as well.  Visually, it matches the Hobbit, but that's not all.  Despite the much-vaunted realism of Bakshi's effort, the Rankin/Bass version feels more energetic and choreographs its many battle sequences far better than rotoscope could pull off.  The orcish ram, Grond (an interesting inclusion), had more action, grit, and realism than anything Bakshi managed to pull off, perhaps because the animation was freer.

Frodo and Samwise are reasonably well developed in their journey through Mordor, and the production team seemed to realize that Sam was the REAL hero of the story.  Merry and Pippin are similarly developed, along with the wizard Gandalf, via two encounters with the Witch King and an exchange with Denethor that is actually quite chilling and captures the latter's madness well. 

Indeed, this compact version carefully and thoughtfully chose the right scenes for maximum story advancement as well as character development, and the fact that it's really hobbit-centric works on several levels.  Now the songs aren't as good, with the possible exception of the great "Where There's a Whip There's a Way", which addresses the goblin's own feelings about going to war.

Indeed, there's this sequence where human and orcish soldiers are arguing over access to a road that touches on the subject of racial relations between Sauron's various servitors.  This is something generally overlooked, and it adds a layer of thoughtful nuance to an otherwise straightforward take on good and evil...

The Rankin/Bass version of The
Hobbit and Return of the King succeeds
as its own thing and quite well...

And so the ring is destroyed and the world saved, and at the end it's revealed that the elves would depart and the Age of Men begin, and that the hobbits would steadily grow in size(!) and gradually merge into the human population.  This is an original concept and at odds with Tolkien, but it speaks to a charming REINTERPRETATION of the story that's utterly fascinating in its implications.

Years later, I think I've worked these things out...

The Rankin/Bass Hobbit FAILS as a prelude to the REAL trilogy primarily due to its visual representation of elves.  It's hard to imagine Legolas as a green troll or Aragorn falling in love with someone having a literal ring of stars circling around their heads, although Captain Kirk was none too particular.

And it FAILS as a prelude to Bakshi's film because the style and overall tone are off (Bakshi was doubtless more true to the visual style Tolkien had in mind, even if his Balrog was boring).  

But then again, Bakshi's film FAILS as a prelude to the Rankin/Bass version (on similar grounds) of Return of the King.

But when you take the Rankin/Bass Hobbit and Return of the King together, minus all that other stuff, you get a coherent and internally consistent REVISIONIST retelling of the trilogy, one that doesn't require Galadriel or Tom Bombadil to succeed, because the emphasis is on the hobbits.  Indeed, you get the feeling of a wider world mostly beyond these simple little people, who struggle just to find their own place in it, and it WORKS on this level.

Upon closer examination, Tolkien's original trilogy was to the Rankin/Bass animated version analogous to what 1st Edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons was to the simpler Dungeons & Dragons ruleset that ran alongside it through much of the 1980s and 90s, which is a fitting comparison given how much all of them figured into my own evolution as a gamer and fantasy enthusiast.  It's ALL good...


  1. A few years back "wherethere a whip ther'es a way" came up at the weekly game session and all the 40 somethings in the room burst out in chorus singing the song leaving all the youngsters baffled and surprised.