Monthly Archives: January 2012

"One Does Not Simply Adapt a Modern Epic"

Per my recent re-obsession with Tolkien’s mythos/avoiding social contact with another human being, I ventured into the danker, smellier regions of the digital underworld this past week and downloaded Ralph Bakshi’s 1978 animated (and incomplete) adaptation of The Lord of the Rings.

“Incomplete” is important here, because the film actually ends halfway through the The Two Towers after the battle of Helm’s Deep.  Regardless of how many films Bakshi intended on making, the decision to end the first installment here is a curious one.  Like Peter Jackson’s adaptations, many elements of Tolkien’s story are omitted and with the Bakshi version’s runtime clocking in at 133 minutes, even less of the original arc remains intact.  When sections aren’t completely removed they’re still often breezed over, like a silent narrator skimming through instead of reading carefully.  As a result, there are very few dramatic beats that don’t feel clumsy.

What’s immediately striking about this version is the huge difference in its interpretation of the source material.  I’d like to just crack jokes, but the effect is really much more humorous when you see for yourself.

Who the Hell is Aruman?

Gandalf the Nag

Admittedly, it’s pretty hard to screw up Gandalf.  Pointy hat. Cloak.  Beard.  The problem isn’t with his appearance so much as his temperament as he tends to concern himself more with finger-pointing and lecturing than actually providing assistance.

The Nazgul

This one’s not completely ridiculous, though the extent to which the Ringwraiths are actually “animated” varies wildly.  Instead of carrying an ominous presence like their Jacksonian counterparts, these Ringwraiths slither in an unsettling manner like No Face in “Spirited Away.” Nevertheless, “cloaked in black” and “screaming” is probably enough to point them out in a police lineup.

Samwise

Sam is where we start running into discrepancies.  While I freely admit that Jackson’s might have been too forgiving and sentimental a depiction of Frodo’s gardener, Bakshi’s is egregiously simplistic in the worst way.  I cannot imagine how this gap-toothed moron, with his constant stuttering and wining, could remember which end of his pipe to light, let alone remind himself to tend to someone’s garden on a regular basis.  Fantasy indeed.

Aragorn

Blame Bakshi’s “Sicilian wrestler” interpretation on the fashion zeitgeist of the time.  I guess.  At least he’s voiced by John Hurt.

Saruman of Many Colors

Jackson’s design team copped out with Saruman and his ever-changing colors by simply dressing him in a white cloak.  Here, Bakshi chooses to call him Saruman of Many Colors (which is perfectly accurate) and dressing him in… red.

The worst part about Saruman of Many Colors (When He Feels Like It) is this “Aruman” business.  Bakshi & co. tried changing his name to “Aruman,” undoubtedly because it sounds so similar to Sauron, which wouldn’t seem so bad if the voice actors actually remembered this:

That has to be the worst wizard “battle” of all time.  Nearly limitless power at your command and how do you use it?  By putting on a Pink Floyd laser show.  This name change business makes for such a jarring experience that by the time the Fellowship left Rivendell, I paused my computer and thought I was hearing things:

“That would take the Ring too close to Isengard.  And Aruman!”

Elrond

Elrond is quite puzzling because he looks no different than Aragorn.  Nor any other man for that matter.  With that haircut you can’t even tell he’s an elf by looking at his ears.  Why’s this guy so special?  You’d think the Elves would have the foresight to boot him from Rivendell after refusing to change that damn white t-shirt.

Balrog

The Balrog is a genius combination of lion, man and condor.  In no way does it resemble some underpaid extra walking around wearing recycled Halloween costumes and cracking a whip.

Boromir

Giml– err Boromir is by far the worst interpretation here.  Forget that he looks more like a dwarf than a man; since when is the city of Gondor the fantasy equivalent of medieval Oslo?  This is how you envision an ambassador of man’s last hope?  On second thought, just give the Ring back to Sauron.

Animated Lord of the Rings?  Yeah, most of the time.

In all fairness to Ralph Bakshi, interpretation is a subjective matter of opinion and can be argued to no end.  I couldn’t say you’re in the wrong for giving the Ringwraiths weird mind control powers over horses.  Technically.  Production value on the other hand, is pretty damn cut and dry.  One might, for example, actually animate an animated film instead of filming live actors and then rotoscoping over them:

Sure, you could argue this is the result of budgetary and technological constraints.  At the same time though, this just feels like a cop out.  Why not produce the majority of the film this way?  It comes off as just plain lazy when, as with Saruman of Many Colors/Names, there is little consistency in its application.  The rotoscoped extras at The Prancing Pony are present throughout the scene, and while it’s staged less like a real pub and more like the worst football pregame ever, it looks retro in a bastardized Warhol kind of way.  But when you try to combine that same rotoscoped effect with traditional hand-drawn animation too much, the result is… awkward:

Rotoscoping the Prancing Pony’s extras worked because they were reduced to ancillary background characters, just filler and embellishment for the setting.  In the Mines of Moria, the result both sounds and looks bad.  There’s nothing wrong with cutting costs, so long as your end product doesn’t show it.  In other words, if your orcs look more like cheaply dressed cavemen and grunt like your sound design team was way too drunk and way too tapped of ideas, you’re probably pinching too hard.

It might not be fair, but the power of hindsight sure is fun!


I’d be remiss if I failed to acknowledge how much Peter Jackson owes to Ralph Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings.  The Hobbits’ first encounter with The Black Rider is a great example of this, right down to the staging and sound cues:

The task of adapting Tolkien’s mythology to film was a daunting one eleven years ago; I can’t imagine how impossible it seemed in 1978.  It’s easy to fall into the trap of constant comparison rather than taking the material at face value and accepting it for it is.  In some respects, Bakshi is actually more faithful to the mythology.  For example, he bothers to note that a considerable amount of time passes between Bilbo’s departure from the Shire and Frodo embarking on his own journey.  The problem is that an awkward montage of quickly-cut together shots draws more attention to itself than it should.  Some things just aren’t conducive to film.  I can’t fairly rip on Bakshi’s undertaking simply for how bold it must have seemed thirty some odd years ago, but I can’t give this a good grade, unless this is one of those experimental schools where you’re rewarded stickers for effort instead of quality.

Bakshi’s film has no real scale.  Rather than a growing sense of doom, The Lord of the Rings is covered in a constant fog of malaise, like a local access special re-broadcast on PBS.  It’s entirely possible that this was Bakshi’s intention.  It’s also entirely possible that this is just too damn depressing to watch in 2012.

Because I’d like to avoid rebranding this site as “One Blog to Rule Them All,” next week marks the beginning of a series of articles in which I show all the ways I rip off Cracked.com.  Cheers!

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3 Reasons Why You Were Way Off About Samwise Gamgee

While I love Tolkien’s mythology and Peter Jackson’s subsequent trilogy, one argument that’s always bothered me is how dismissive so many people are of Sam’s character.  He’s a sissy.  He’s a fruitcake.  Aragorn’s way cooler. Yeah?  Aragorn?  Picking Aragorn is like choosing Jesus as your favorite Biblical figure.  Samwise Gamgee on the other hand, is a complex, fascinating character that doesn’t get the credit he deserves.  Get ready for some learnin’, Mr. Frodo.

3. You’re really just calling yourself a cry baby



Let’s put The Lord of the Rings into proper perspective.  On its surface, it’s great fantasy fiction.  But despite how awesome it might be to watch Legolas take down an oliphant by himself (and it is awesome), the story really isn’t about that sort of thing.  It’s no mystery that Tolkien hated allegory, however that doesn’t mean that his mythology is without its own recurring themes, namely war and death. When Frodo leaves with the Elves for the Grey Havens?  That may as well be a metaphor for dying.

It’s like how Saruman is a metaphor for “douche bag.”
Where am I going with this?  In an epic story with so much death and destruction, the importance of someone like Sam is crucial for the audience because his perspective is the most relatable.  So unless you’re a war-hardened ranger or a centuries-old wizard, you really have nothing in common with Aragorn or Gandalf.  Tolkien himself favored Hobbits, despite the inclusion of men in his mythology, which allows the audience to pull back and see the flaws of human beings.  Neat, huh?
Sam as a placeholder for the audience remains true throughout the films, too, even alongside the other three Hobbit companions; Merry and Pippin are much too devil-may-care, and Frodo gradually becomes less sympathetic.  Sam, despite no wartime experience or familiarity with the outside world, is a rational-yet-naive outsider.  Just like us.  This isn’t to say that Sam doesn’t change as a character, and I’m certainly not arguing that the most relatable characters are always the best ones, but if you rip on Sam for succumbing to hopelessness or crying when his best friend abandons him, you’re really just ripping on yourself.  Or, if you’d like to get all high-minded about this, you’re insulting what it means to be human.  In the Elvish tongue I believe they call that an “asshole.”
It’s a big reason why Tolkien gives the Hobbits all the fun human qualities (smoking and drinking) and all the crappy ones to men (selfishness, weak mindedness, preserving the existence of absolute evil).  Sam allows us to step back and see those flaws.  At the same time, those flawed characters are relatable because of their weaknesses.  Faramir, Boromir, and Theoden are fascinating because of the internal conflicts they experience.  But what changes does Gandalf undergo aside from a wardrobe upgrade?
More importantly though, why is despair such a bad thing?  Any student of fiction will tell you that the conflicted characters are the most interesting ones.  Maybe Faramir and Theoden don’t kick as much ass, but they’re much more interesting than Sauron or Elrond.  Should we take all emotion out of fantasy, you robots?  We already know what happens when you do that.
In the Name of the King A Dungeon Siege Tale movie image Jason Statham
You can have Burt Reynolds, Dungeon Siege movie.  I’ll stick with Sam.
2. Sam isn’t gay.  You just have bad friends.
Even if he was gay (he isn’t) who cares?
We’ll cut this section down and ignore the glaring homophobic implications with this complaint, because “Sam is totes gay for Frodo, bro” is complete bullshit.
From what we’re shown in the movies, there are exactly two male characters who tie the knot.  The first is Aragorn, and while it’s more of an implied matrimony with Arwen, you can be sure they’re honeymooning in Rivendell when the credits roll.  The other, of course, is big flamin’ Sam:
samwise gamgee wedding movie lord of the rings
Don’t do it, Rosie!  You’re marrying a man in denial!
 
This whole “Sam is gay” thing comes from confusing two kinds of love here: There’s love and then there’s love love.  In the same way that you love your father or that I love playing Final Fantasy naked, Sam loves Frodo.  That doesn’t mean that you’d smack your dad’s rear end or try having sex with a video- err.  That doesn’t mean that you’d smack your dad’s rear end because that’s love love.  I think.  And Sam doesn’t do any of those things.  In fact, he pretty much exemplifies all the qualities one could want in a best friend:
  • Makes dinner
  • Stays true to his word
  • Fights gigantic spiders

Above all else, Sam sticks with Frodo in spite of the fact that every day Frodo becomes an even bigger dick.  So if loyalty, dedication, and blind faith are “gay,” then I wish all my friends liked taking it in the Black Gate.

1. Sauron would have won.

That’s right.  If it weren’t for Sam, the Ring probably wouldn’t have been destroyed, and instead of Return of the King’s twelve endings, we’d have gotten a sad ass montage of Hobbit slaves.  Bear in mind that I don’t subscribe to the idea that the Fellowship was a gigantic waste of time and that Elrond could have just flown into Mordor on Gwaihir the Windlord and plopped the Ring back into Mt. Doom.  To illustrate just how essential Sam is in this, here’s a quick breakdown of every instance where he bails out Frodo:

  • Fellowship of the Ring
    • Sam stops Frodo from putting on the Ring during an encounter with a Ringwraith.
  • Two Towers
    • Sam stops Frodo from putting on the Ring during an encounter with a Ringwraith.  Again.
  • Return of the King
    • Despite Frodo telling him to go home, Sam decides to go back and help his friend, even if he does ditch him in favor of following Nicole Richie to Mordor.  It’s also worth noting that if Sam hadn’t swallowed his pride, none of the following would have happened either…
    • Sam kicks Shelob’s ass, insuring that Frodo isn’t slowly eaten alive.
    • Sam rescues Frodo after he’s captured by orcs and brought to a guard tower.
    • Sam literally puts da team on his back and carries Frodo and the Ring up Mt. Doom, doo.
    • Even after Frodo’s umpteenth “fuck you” where he claims the Ring instead of destroying it, Sam saves him from meeting Gollum’s fate.

In every one of those instances, the Ring could have easily escaped and found its way into someone else’s hands.  That isn’t a ridiculous claim.  Consider how easy it was for Bilbo to find the ring in The Hobbit.  He practically tripped onto the thing.

Despite its title, I’ll go ahead and say that The Return of the King is as much Sam’s story as it is Aragorn’s.  I get that Sam likely wouldn’t have fared any better if he were in Frodo’s position, but that involves way too many hypothetical scenarios to come up with. Obviously, the climax of the story is only achieved through an ensemble effort, however there are varying degrees of contribution here.  I can only imagine that first conversation between Sam and Pippin in Rivendell:

Wow, what an adventure!  I smoked my body weight in pipe weed and hung out with some talking trees.  What’d you do?

Oh, not much.  Just saved the fucking world.

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2011: The Year in Review Pt. II

If you haven’t already, take a whiff of 2011’s smellier side.

Now, the more fragrant.

The Surprises:

 

Honorable Mention: Fright Night (Craig Gillespie)

Here’s the perfect way to turn off an audience with a trailer:

Those final 30 seconds would have you believe this is the result of some underground experiment where the surgical joining of Breaking Dawn and some shitty Amanda Seyfried caper went horribly wrong.  Complete BS.  Much in the same way Drag Me to Hell delivers exactly what it promises, Fright Night puts 110% into its premise while never taking itself too seriously.  After all, let’s face it; “Jerry” really is the worst vampire name ever.

Colin Farrell is awesome in this and not in an ironic, scenery-chewing kind of way.  Fright Night is pure fun, and I’m usually of the belief that “fun” belongs in a movie review about as much as “zesty” belongs in those douchey Olive Garden commercials.  There’s only a handful of cheap scares, and unlike what the trailer suggests, Fright Night is really more action-thriller than horror anyway.

At the very least, you can never go wrong with Hugo’s cover of “99 Problems.”

3. Cedar Rapids (Miguel Arteta)

Miguel Arteta’s expose of Midwest America’s grubby underbelly would still be a success if you only paid attention to John C. Reilly.

Fortunately, Cedar Rapids is host to a slew of performances that elevate the solid if not groundbreaking material, including Ed Helms’ naive insurance salesman, Tim Lippe, and a refreshingly-not-psychotic Anne Heche.

It’s strange that Cedar Rapids went unproduced for so long, because its material is hardly foreign territory.  At the same time, the film deserves praise for not simply becoming a comedic vehicle for a recognizable face.  While Helms’ path to re-discovery is nothing audiences haven’t seen before, the strange mixture of weirdness and whole grain goodness is what provides the spice here.

2. Rise of the Planet of the Apes (Rupert Wyatt)

Rise of the Planet of the Apes is all about bucking trends.  Of course there’s the overt revolutionary themes, and James Franco’s Will Rodman sets the course of the franchise in motion by defying corporate orders.  Rise also doesn’t care about its more lucid self-references, and it certainly doesn’t care that its most important elements aren’t even human.  Not completely anyway.

Andy Serkis’ Caesar doubly flips the bird to both modern humanity as well as our apparently outdated understanding of acting conventions.  20th Century Fox has hinted at an awards campaign for Serkis, and while selling the apes as real characters is where Rise needed to and absolutely does work, there are too many factors that interfere with a winning Oscar bid here; the most obvious asks where the performance ends and the CGI begins.

Still, Wyatt accomplishes so much more in Rise than Burton’s 2001 failed reboot ever does, despite a (relatively) smaller budget and even smaller scope.  While the apes’ rebellion is fun to watch and features several ingenious action set pieces, it’s actually the quiet, reflective moments that resonate most.  A triumphant Caesar, gazing at the San Francisco skyline from the top of a Redwood, is the focus, not the larger and more devastating effects of human error.

1. Super 8 (J.J. Abrams)

J.J. Abrams loves lens flares more than you could ever learn to love anything in your life, yet he’d still find himself on the positive end of the annual cinematic report card if he released a film every year.  His secret is simple: Don’t give the audience the slightest hint as to what you’re working on.  In fact, I suspect Abrams’ involvement as producer on 2008’s Cloverfield amounted to little more than keeping the studio’s collective mouth shut about exactly what the fuck was attacking NYC.

Needless to say, the Cloverfield monster exceeded expectations.

It can’t be too surprising that Super 8 should find its way to the top of a list about anticipation, but Abrams avoids the Shyamalan trap of becoming a cinematic punchline by crafting a story that’s more than just a monster or a twist ending.  Like the “uncanny valley” of CGI, there’s a familiar line to straddle when it comes to nostalgia.  Super 8 gracefully taps into the idyllic Spielbergian realm of Abrams’ childhood without losing its footing in the sentimental stuff.

I won’t argue Super 8 is the best 2011 had to offer, but at the very least, the film deserves credit for what it represents.  It’s a testament to the magic of cinema and the allure of the summer blockbuster.  Abrams doesn’t give a damn about catering to an audience.  No, we won’t be posting production diaries or Twitter updates.  You’ll know nothing going into this and you’ll like it.

I didn’t, and I did.

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