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Austin Gilkeson

Middle-earth’s Weirdest Movie: Rankin-Bass’ Animated The Return of the King

Watched all in a row, the animated movies The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Return of the King form their own peculiar Tolkien trilogy. Granted, they’re movies made by two different studios with two different styles, and they don’t really align storywise, and one was a feature film while the other two were TV movies. But all together, they form a vaguely coherent story of the One Ring, from its finding by Bilbo to its destruction by Frodo and Gollum. It’s almost fitting, really, given the wildly divergent versions of the Germanic myths and legends that inspired Tolkien in the first place. If The Lord of the Rings really were an ancient tale handed down over centuries, as this movie proposes in its gobsmackingly weird final moments (we’ll get to that), it would likely resemble the animated trilogy more than any other version.

That’s not to say all those versions are equally good. Rankin-Bass’s 1977 The Hobbit (previously discussed here) and Ralph Bakshi’s 1978 The Lord of the Rings (covered in Part I and Part II here) are both masterpieces. The Rankin-Bass 1980 TV movie follow-up to those movies is… not. In fairness, Rankin-Bass had a task almost as impossible as Frodo’s: How do you make a stand-alone Return of the King movie that is both a direct sequel to your own The Hobbit and an unofficial, quasi-sequel to Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings? The answer is: awkwardly.

[“Where There’s a Whip, There’s a Way!”]

Thor: Ragnarok Takes on Masculine Stereotypes and Shows Us a Better Way

Near the beginning of Avengers: Infinity War, the Guardians of the Galaxy happen across a catatonic Thor Odinson floating in space. Thor’s ship of Asgardian refugees has been decimated by Thanos and his Black Order. Thor is the lone survivor, and that but barely.

“How is this dude still alive?” Peter Quill asks after they pull Thor into their ship. “This is not a dude. You are a dude,” Drax replies, “This is a man.” This sets off a crisis of masculinity in Quill that begins with him trying to one-up the God of Thunder and ends with him inadvertently allowing Thanos to kill off half the population of the entire universe. Oops.

But perhaps Quill might have taken Drax’s jab better—and saved trillions of lives—had he known that Thor’s own journey from “dude” to “man” was pretty recent, having happened in the Marvel movie that sets up this one: Thor: Ragnarok. At heart, Ragnarok is about Thor’s arc from cocky hero to self-sacrificing leader, and his journey from trying to prevent Ragnarok to instigating it. Along the way, he comes into conflict and enters into alliances with a whole bunch of characters who have their own way of being “a man,” and none of them have anything to do with being male.

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Ralph Bakshi’s Animated The Lord of the Rings Shows the True Perils of Power

As you’ve probably heard, Amazon has announced that it’s producing a show set in Middle-earth, the world created by J.R.R. Tolkien in his landmark novels The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. With the new series reportedly headed into production in 2019, I thought it was time to revisit the various TV and big screen takes on Tolkien’s work that have appeared—with varying quality and results—over the last forty years.

Today we finish our look at Ralph Bakshi’s feature-length animated The Lord of the Rings, released in November 1978. The first half of the movie is discussed here.

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Ralph Bakshi’s The Lord of the Rings Brought Tolkien from the Counterculture to the Big Screen

As you’ve probably heard, Amazon has announced that it’s producing a show set in Middle-earth, the world created by J.R.R. Tolkien in his landmark novels The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. With the new series reportedly headed into production in 2019, I thought it was time to revisit the various TV and big screen takes on Tolkien’s work that have appeared—with varying quality and results—over the last forty years.

Today we look at the first feature film adaptation of Tolkien, Ralph Bakshi’s animated The Lord of the Rings, released in November 1978.

[Read more]

1977’s The Hobbit Showed Us the Future of Pop Culture

As you’ve probably heard, Amazon has announced that it’s producing a show set in Middle-earth, the world created by J.R.R. Tolkien in his landmark novels The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. With the new series reportedly headed into production in 2019, I thought it was time to revisit the various TV and big screen takes on Tolkien’s work that have appeared—with varying quality and results—over the last forty years.

First up, Rankin/Bass’s animated version of The Hobbit, first released as a TV movie on NBC in November, 1977.

[Read more]

Who Would Win in the Ultimate Dragon/Balrog Showdown?

No question animates the mind of a young speculative fiction fan more than “Who would win?” It’s a question that provokes our firmest cultural loyalties in the lizard part of our brain that enjoys nothing more than smashing action figures together.

One cultural phenomenon that’s largely escaped “Who Would”-ism is the legendarium of J.R.R. Tolkien. Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy gave us a few battles we didn’t know we wanted, and still don’t (Legolas vs. Bolg; Thranduil vs. The Scenery). Sure, there have been a few articles imagining Aragorn facing off against Jaime Lannister and the like, but they’re relatively rare compared to the heated “Captain America vs. Batman” or “Ninjas vs. Pirates” discussions that pop up regularly over pizza and pipe-weed.

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Gods and Spirits (….and Whatever Totoro Is): Exploring Miyazaki’s Fantasy World

There’s a moment in Hayao Miyazaki’s film My Neighbor Totoro that’s stuck with me since I first watched it a decade ago. Satsuki Kusakabe is searching for her missing sister, Mei. Looking for help, she sprints towards the huge camphor tree where the magical creature Totoro lives. She pauses for a moment at the entrance to a Shinto shrine that houses Totoro’s tree, as if considering praying there for Totoro’s help. But then she runs back to her house and finds her way to Totoro’s abode through the tunnel of bushes where Mei first encountered him. Totoro summons the Catbus, which whisks Satsuki away to where Mei is sitting, beside a lonely country road lined with small statues of Jizo, the patron bodhisattva of children.

It’s Satsuki’s hesitation in front of the shrine’s entrance that sticks with me, and what it says about the nature of spirits and religion in the film. We don’t really think of the movies of Hayao Miyazaki as religious or even spiritual, despite their abundant magic, but some of his most famous works are full of Shinto and Buddhist iconography—like those Jizo statues, or the sacred Shimenawa ropes shown tied around Totoro’s tree and marking off the river god’s bath in Spirited Away. Miyazaki is no evangelist: the gods and spirits in his movies don’t follow or abide by the rituals of religion. But the relationship between humans and gods remains paramount.

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Smaug vs. Durin’s Bane: Who Would Win in the Ultimate Dragon/Balrog Showdown?

No question animates the mind of a young speculative fiction fan more than “Who would win?” It’s a question that provokes our firmest cultural loyalties and the lizard part of our brain that enjoys nothing more than smashing action figures together. It’s a question that’s lead to untold hours of heated discussion, ruined hundreds of friendships, and earned billions of dollars at the box office with movies like Captain America: Civil War and Batman v Superman. It’s hardly a new phenomenon either: King Kong and Godzilla first faced off in 1962, and it’s easy to imagine that the earliest versions of The Iliad arose from heated debates over campfires about who’d win in a fight, Achilles or Hector.

One cultural phenomenon that’s largely escaped “Who Would”-ism is the legendarium of J.R.R. Tolkien. Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy gave us a few battles we didn’t know we wanted, and still don’t (Legolas vs. Bolg; Thranduil vs. The Scenery). Sure, there have been a few articles imagining Aragorn facing off against Jaime Lannister and the like, but they’re relatively rare compared to the heated “Captain America vs. Batman” or “Ninjas vs. Pirates” discussions that pop up regularly over pizza and pipe-weed.

[TO THE MYTHOPOEIC THUNDERDOME!]

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