Blog Directory CineVerse: Tolkien 'toons

Tolkien 'toons

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

by Erik J. Martin

Hard to believe that the “The Fellowship of the Ring,” the first installment of director Peter Jackson’s FX epic trilogy “The Lord of the Rings, ” first rolled into theaters 10 years ago this December.

But Jackson’s live action effort isn’t the first time a work of J.R.R. Tolkien has been feted onscreen. The English author’s Middle Earth stories and characters enjoyed quite a resurgence in the ’70s and ’80s, a la animated adaptations—some more worthy than others of being revisited.

In 1978, “The Hobbit” became the first animated version of a Tolkien work, based on the book of the same name (Tolkien’s “prequel” to the Ring trilogy). This was produced as a made-for-TV children’s special by family-friendly animation mavens Arthur Rankin, Jr., and Jules Bass. Featured are the voices of Orson Bean as Bilbo Baggins, the esteemed film director John Huston as the wizard Gandalf, and yet another director from Hollywood’s golden age, Otto Preminger, as the Elvenking. The animation’s a bit crude and dated (in the corner-cutting Pokemon style), the simplified story isn’t very faithful to the book, and the folksy guitar-accompanied soundtrack songs wear on the nerves, but the movie has an all-ages charm to it that makes it an ideal introduction for kids to Tolkien’s works.

In 1978, edgy artist Ralph Bashki—who made waves with his 1972 “adult” cartoon Fritz the Cat—realized his lofty ambitions for a bigscreen project when his animated “The Lord of the Rings” was released in theaters. Bashki pulled out all the stops to create a dark, brooding adaptation that stayed faithful to Tolkien'’ trilogy. Innovative for its use of Bashki’s live action animation via rotoscoping and silhouette effects, the film nonetheless lacks in personality and fails to flesh out its characters enough for us to care. While visually stunning, it ultimately disappoints in that it ends abruptly at the halfway point of the second book—The Two Towers—because its director ran out of money. Sadly, Bashki never came back to finish the story with a sequel.

In 1980, “The Return of the King” aired: another Rankin/Bass G-rated made-for-TV cartoon that depicts the final book in Tolkien’s Ring trilogy. Skimpy on the animation and heavy on the same style of preachy narrative songs that made 1978’s The Hobbit irritating, many fans called this and its animated predecessor a major hatchet job. Yes, that voice you hear actually is Casey Kasem as Cousin Merry the hobbit, trying hard not to sound like Scoobie Doo’s beatnik sidekick Shaggy.

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