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Archive for December 15th, 2012

RankinBassROTK1

By Bob Clark

The story of how J.R.R. Tolkien’s writings came to be adapted for animation is a strange one that begins from different directions, particularly different directions of American animation. While Rankin/Bass productions, even by then an institution best known for their stop-motion Christmas specials, got things rolling with a Japanese-crafted 1977 take on The Hobbit that got the essentials of the book into a slim 70 odd minutes, the first attempt of the Lord of the Rings tome proper would be begun by notorious rabble-rousing animator Ralph Bakshi. His film, covering about the first half of the trilogy, spanning Fellowship of the Ring to somewhere in the middle of The Two Towers, represented something of a transitional effort for the director, bridging his earlier efforts that concentrated on aggressively adult sex and violence (the R. Crumb adaptation of Fritz the Cat and the urban grime of Heavy Traffic and Coonskin) to increasingly lighter, more adventure-oriented fantasy works (the sci-fi Wizards, the Frank Frazetta inspired Fire and Ice) that would ultimately culminate in his return to television cartooningwith the brief Saturday Morning run of Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures (which kickstarted the careers of John Kircfalusi and Bruce Timm among others, but only before it was cancelled amid controversy for a cocaine gag).

The sheer range of Bakshi’s career demonstrates the wide attraction that Tolkien’s work can and has had on any number of filmmakers over the years (one wonders if Stanley Kubrick hadn’t decided the books were unfilmable int he 70’s whether he would’ve used those NASA lenses and recycled Napoleon material on Middle Earth instead of Barry Lyndon). In the case of Bakshi and the contrasting animation done on the Rankin/Bass Hobbit, the clash of different styles shows even further the different mixes any creative team can pull off from the same material. While Rankin and Bass’ animation mixes the best of their physical, posture-heavy stop-motion style with the expert hand-drawn artwork and economic pacing of Japanese anime (courtesy of Topcraft, the production house that would soon become Studio Ghibli), Bakshi offers a blend of heavy rotoscope and classic Americana cartooning techniques that is sometimes a surreal match for Tolkien’s text. It’s a style that he would go on to develop in his subsequent fantasy adventure films, which in some ways makes up for the fact that he didn’t get the chance to finish the story he’d started with the second half of The Lord of the Rings. In any case, it only makes the renewal of the Rankin/Bass style that much stronger and stranger when one views 1980’s The Return of the King: A Tale of the Hobbits, officially a sequel to their earlier effort and by now a de-facto climax to an unofficial trilogy.

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