The Lord of the Rings Animated Trilogy

Rankin/Bass cartoons were a staple of the late ’70s an early ’80s from whence I sprang. Ranging from the classic The Last Unicorn to the hilariously bad The Flight of Dragons, they dominated the animated TV movie landscape. One of their beloved creations was the first film adaptation of The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, with its stylized look and memorable theme tune- “The Greatest Adventure,” by Glenn Yarborough- was even worthy of inspiring the hilarious South Park parody “Lemmiwinks,” but it has many other charms. Sadly the attempts at the Lord of the Rings, by Ralph Bakshi and then Rankin & Bass after he fucked it up so badly- are best viewed with copious amounts of alcohol or other substances.

The Hobbit was written as a bedtime tale for Tolkien’s children, and the movie wastes little time with Tolkien’s famous tangents and history. We meet Bilbo Baggins, a member of the race of hobbits- homely short folk fond of food and cozy life- and not long after, the greybearded wizard Gandalf is introducing him to a gaggle of thirteen dwarves with rhyming names. Thorin, Boring and Moron, and so on. The dwarves need a “burglar” for their quest to steal their ancestors’ shit back from Smaug the dragon, and without much explanation, Bilbo is chosen by old Gandalf the Grey to join the band, if only because 13 is an unlucky number.

The greatest adventure is what lies ahead…

It’s a charming children’s adaptation of what is a children’s book, with some changes but otherwise enjoyable and intact in simplified form. Its version of Gollum is quite memorable and definitely influenced Peter Jackson and Andy Serkis. He’s a bit more froglike here, like a bipedal pollywog, but his voice by comedian Brother Theodore is perfect. “What has it got in its pocketses?!” Until Serkis came along, this was still quite good. From the quest to Lonely Mountain, battles with spiders and escaping from elves, to the Battle of the Five Armies, it keeps all the best stuff and only fudges a little when they meet trolls. Instead of talking until the sun comes up, Gandalf makes the sun rise- though I suppose they had to do something to show off Gandalf’s power, which rarely surfaces in these tales.
The film’s visual style is unique and enjoyable, looking like Tarot cards from the ’70s. and the film is a great introduction to the story. The songs by Glenn Yarborough are thoroughly dated but endearing: “The Greatest Adventure,” will have you looking around for “Lemmiwinks.” The Goblin song is great too: “Down, down to Goblin town!” and they manage to make a nearly bloodless story quite engaging, and just scary enough to ensure that little kids will be rooted to the screen but not up all night with nightmares.

Yo ho, my lads!

The voice casting is inspired: Otto Preminger as the king of the wood elves? Sure he looks more like a grey alien than an elf, but so what? Nostalgia be damned, this is still good. And if you’ve read the book, like me you’ll wonder how Guillermo del Toro is going to remain faithful in his adaptation; it’s a lot lighter than you may remember. Pan’s Labyrinth it ain’t. Will he keep the songs? Many of the songs from Tolkien’s book are adapted here, and they manage to make them work, but I doubt modern audiences are going to tolerate it. But I can’t wait to see what he does with it.

One of Bakshi’s most colossal failures, this trainwreck of a film encapsulates The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers, and then ends abruptly. There’s a lot of fluff and a lot of important stuff left out, as if they had 5 hours of storyboards and just plucked sequences randomly. It’s bizarre to watch, changes visual style and tone, and never really gets engaging at all. Like Bakshi’s other films like Coonskin, he puts cartoony characters on top of realistic, psychedelic, rotoscoped, and stock footage backgrounds. While experimental, it never really works- definitely not as well as in his Tolkien & Vaughan Bode ripoff Wizards.
The character designs are boring, and there is no sense of pacing. Everything is rotoscoped, and while this gives the orcs a creepy look, it makes the men look like old western footage- which I would not be surprised if he used! Saruman is named Ariman, probably so he’s not confused with Sauron- and every scene feels interminably long, and without purpose. Some scenes work: when we meet the first ringwraith on the road, it is almost exactly like Jackson’s later incarnation; Boromir’s failure and redemption is very emotional and probably the best part of the film. The scenes in Moria also work very well, and stick more closely to the book. The Balrog scene is quite engaging, and they stick close to the book in Pippin’s idle pebble-tossing scene.

Samwise is played by Lou Costello.

The Two Towers section is incredibly boring, and because they ran out of money, the movie just ends like an audio book. “Their adventures continue in Return of the King! The End.” Other scenes, like the battle with the Nazgul outside Rivendell, are excruciatingly long and overwrought, confusing and boring. The ringwraiths surround Frodo, and his friends suddenly disappear; for about five minutes their horses face off, we have no idea why they don’t just walk over and stab him. And we wish they would, to make the scene end.

We’re wizards, dammit. We’re not supposed to just stand in front of light and shit!

Gimli just looks like a guy with a beard, but Legolas is well done; John Hurt voices Aragorn, and does a passable job with a miscast part. I like John Hurt, but his voice isn’t what you’d expect from Aragorn. Another hilariously bad scene is the fight between Saruman Ariman and Gandalf, which looks like two old guys with sticks wobbling in front of a tie dye shirt on a clothesline. Best viewed with a lot of illegal substances, and I didn’t have any. It’s a shame, because some of what is here is quite good, and definitely influenced Peter Jackson. Even Gollum- who is rather disturbing, like a cross between a junkie and a concentration camp victim- gets an appropriately tragic depiction.

After the success of The Hobbit, I had high hopes for this attempt to tack an ending on Bakshi’s failure. But Rankin/Bass’s The Return of the King is even more confused. It chops the story up and rearranges everything without purpose, cuts essential parts like Shelob the spider, and tells us the ending before beginning. Sam’s internal monologue drones on endlessly as he explains every item and gives backstory; Gollum doesn’t show up until one hour in; the Fellowship is completely ignored and Gimli & Legolas are nowhere to be found. With so much cut out and the rest explained in voiceover, it’s nearly intolerable.
Its one saving grace is the song “Where there’s a whip, there’s a way,” which sticks out as creepy in an otherwise bloodless film. Even when Eowyn kills the Witch King of Angstrom, she can’t cut the drake; light flashes from her blade. And the Witch-King sounds like Skeletor. His death is the most memorable battle, and when Aragorn comes out of nowhere, we’re wondering what the hell is going on. They spend so much time trying to explain what’s so bad about the ring, that a simple montage and voiceover- one of the few good parts of Bakshi’s version- would have been lovely. What’s bizarre is that Glenn Yarborough is back, as a bard telling the tale to old Bilbo- a strange framing device, with forgettable songs.

Where there’s a whip, there’s a way.

Some of the choices are just awful; Casey Kasem voicing Merry is terribly grating. Especially since we barely know who Merry and Pippin are. The film’s tone varies and the final fate of the ring, with Gollum drawn and voiced the same way as in The Hobbit, is the only engaging scene. I was so relieved by the 1 hour mark when Brother Theodore’s Gollum returned that I actually began to think it was a good film. Which it is not. Utterly horrible, from a studio that has done much better. It’s forgivable, since they were handed a hot handful of shit to start with, but stick with The Hobbit.

Legolas from Bakshi’s version

8. Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark

Schlocktoberfest #8: Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark
I’m watching this movie because Brian the Friendly Irish Giant said it scared the bejeezus out of him as a child, and I want to make fun of him. Back in the ’70s we had some good TV movies, and this was one of them. Made in a 2 week rush after a writer’s strike, it stars Kim Darby (the crazy mom from Better Off Dead) as a housewife tormented by little creatures living in the walls of her house. Of course, her husband doesn’t believe what she sees out of the corners of her eyes, but we know he’s full of shit when he tells her: don’t be afraid of the dark.

creeepy house…

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is also in the news because Guillermo del Toro wants to remake it. It’s a classic tale, and could use his creepy touch. For an old TV movie with horrible special effects, it is quite effective. When we meet the Farnhams they are moving in to a Spanish mansion, and are confused as to why the huge fireplace is bricked up. The handyman associated with the house- Mr. Harris (old hand William Demarest) tells them that it can’t be unbricked, that the previous owner- Mrs. Farnham’s grandmother- had him do it with steel rebars and so many layers of brick that you’d have to tear the house apart to do it. When she asks why, he adds ominously, “some things are better left as they are.”

Uncle Charley from “My Three Sons” colludes with the underworld…

Now of course, Sally can’t leave it alone. It niggles at the back of her mind, and she finds a way to pick at the cinder trap with a wrench to sate her ravenous curiosity. She peers inside the flue and sees nothing but a seemingly endless crawlspace going off into the depths of the house’s innards. Well, that was anticlimactic, right? But once that grate has been unlocked, strange things start happening. She hears little whispers in the dark. Scuttling footsteps in the corners, like little rat claws scrabbling at the walls. She starts seeing faces in the dark corners, most notably under the table at their housewarming party. She screams and no one else can see it, so her mental state comes into question.

Do they want to give her a demonic abortion?

Back in the ’70s, Women’s Lib be damned, it was still okay to portray women as hysterical creatures incapable of resisting the slightest abnormality. If they weren’t tripping on those high heels during ’50s monster flicks, their inherently fragile nature was shattering at the merest suggestion of terror in these ’70s and ’60s horror films. It’s hard to blame her when the lights go out as she showers, and she finds her husband’s straight razor on the floor! Soon we get hints of the house’s dark secret- little clawed hands are reaching out from cabinets to turn off light switches. Little misshapen heads huddle together and whisper “free, free!” and “I want to hurt her!”

Yer grandad put a cask of Amontillado in there…

Poor Sally manages to hold it together, and agrees with her husband to sell the house, despite it being a family estate. When they ask Mr. Harris to do some more work before sale, he refuses; he knows something, but he’s keeping his lip zipped. As he retrieves his toolbox from the dark and dusty basement, little voices threaten him: “You told! You know what happens to people who tell…” and he barely manages to escape the clutches of the unseen critters. Well, they’re not exactly unseen- we’ve seen little bits and pieces- a wizened face here, a hairy limb there. Just the kind of thing you don’t want squirming between the joists in your drywall, and poking its face out of a duct.

come live with us Sally… and bring moisturizer…

Their reign of terror begins as soon as hubbie leaves on a business trip. When the critters make their first attempt, they get the interior decorator instead. He takes a dive down the stairs, and they chatter “It’s your spirit we need, Sally! One of us! Live with us!” When the police come to get the body, she tells them he fell. Nobody suggests putting a fucking light on. This is the darkest house I’ve ever seen. A guy just fell to his death in your dark-ass house! The little demons must exert a form of suggestion, because everyone seems turned against her. The doctor is incredulous that she’s upset over someone dying in her home; her friend demands that she wait for her husband to get home when she wants to flee.

In the ’70s we had an energy crisis but didn’t live like mole people.

When hubby gets home, he listens to their story and goes to confront Mr. Harris, leaving the two women alone. The little creatures make their next move and cut the power, hacking at the lines in the walls, making the place even darker. This is where the story gets most effective, because the tiny beasts- which are just people in costumes, shot at angles to look small- are much creepier by candlelight. The little buggers want to tie Sally up and drag her down the chimney to their lair, where we learn that her grandfather was taken before her…

“I did this in a men’s bathroom to get through college.”

So is it worth watching? For its age, it is surprisingly effective. Somewhere between the camp of Trilogy of Terror and the psychological horror of 1963’s The Haunting, you have this bleak tale of a house whose secret is never fully explained. It was obviously influential- the ironic title comes about because the house’s little terrors can’t stand the light, and that may have been part of the inspiration for Gremlins, also about tiny malicious critters. It suffers only because its miniscule budget; the house itself is quite creepy, but the monster suits are pretty pathetic if you see them for more than a split second. They’re similar to the little demons from The Gate, but look even more dated. In a dark room on a quiet night, it will definitely give you the heebie-jeebies, and if your cat jumps on you at the wrong time, you may need a change of underwear. Recommended. If del Toro remakes it, I guarantee it will be amazing; it’s a good story that deserves a better telling.