Tools of the Imagination — The Hobbit

The Hobbit
screenplay by Romeo Muller, directed and produced by Jules Bass and Arthur Rankin Jr

The Original Animated Masterpiece

Originally published in 1937, the Hobbit has been a classic of children’s literature for generations.  A funny little tale about a strange creature named Bilbo, who goes on a quest with dwarves and a wizard to slay a dragon, it’s enchanted fans for decades.  On it’s fortieth anniversary, animation underdog Rankin & Bass studios decided to bring the tale to life.

Rankin & Bass, much like Jay Ward Productions, is an oft-forgotten chapter in animation history.  Few people outside animation fandom know the name, but everybody knows their work.  Rankin & Bass studios were the ones responsible for just about every stop-motion Christmas movie you love (yes, including the Rudolf movies), many of the animated Christmas movies (including Frosty the Snowman), some of the most iconic fantasy cartoons of all time (namely The Last Unicorn and the Flight of Dragons), as well as perinnel 1980s classic, Thundercats.

But in the 1970s, Rankin & Bass was still primarily known for making holiday films.  Undertaking a non-holiday project was unexpected, and taking on a beloved classic such as the Hobbit was considered monumental.  To everyone’s amazement, they would knock it out of the park.

Story – 5 out of 5
Just about anyone who has ever read probably knows the story of the Hobbit, if for no other reason than the Peter Jackson incarnations currently appearing in theaters.  This critique then is more about the screenplay of the movie itself, which is expertly done.  Great pains were gone to in order to add nothing that wasn’t already in the source material, and very little was cut (Beorn and the Arkenstone being among the few things that got the axe).  The pacing is perfect, upbeat and constantly moving but still giving the impression of a long and winding adventure.  Purists of the Hobbit may likely enjoy this outing more than the Jacksonian films for the efforts to change as little as possible.

Art – 5 out of 5
Simply put; gorgeous.  Arthur Rackham’s art is rich and textured but not unwieldy.  The subdued earth tones of the dwarves and the hobbits are countered with the celestial imagery of the elves and the monstrous depictions of the goblins.  Everything looks appropriately fantastic and the image of Smaug is quite simply the definitive dragon for an entire generation of fantasy fans.

Animation – 4 out of 5
The animation is quite good, but not overwhelming.  There’s a lot of adventure in the movie, but few ‘action’ scenes.  Violence is handled very tastefully, meant to shock and scare little kids without outright traumatizing them (see the Death of the Goblin King).  Overall, it supports the beautiful artwork masterfully.

Characters – 3 out of 5
There’s really only one ‘character’ in this depiction of the Hobbit and that’s Bilbo.  Thorin, Gandalf, and others aren’t given much of the way of motivations or personality.  The other dwarves, especially, are little more than just there.  Bilbo, standing front and center, however, vividly but subtly shows the transformation the quest puts him through.

Acting – 5 out of 5
Orson Bean’s depiction of Bilbo Baggins is excellent.  He brings the character beautifully to life, but without overpowering the narrative itself.  Hans Conreid and John Huston are perfect as the gruff Thorin and the mysterious Gandalf respectively.  Otto Preminger adds a very unique but distinctive touch to the unnamed elf king.  Cyril Ritchard as Elrond is appropriately warm yet haunting, while Brother Theodore is perfect as the creepy Gollum.  But the crowning achievement is Richard Boone as Smaug in one of the greatest voice acting performances of all time.

Overall – 5 out of 5
This is one of those legendary films that somehow manages to fall to the wayside for no really identifiable reason.  Only Disney was making anything even remotely comparable to a film of this majesty (it would be almost a decade before Don Bluth films would release An American Tale).  This is visually gorgeous and would be the definitive animated fantasy movie for ages.  I wouldn’t go so far as to say Rankin & Bass’ Hobbit is the greatest animated movie of all time, but I would assert that it has a strong case to be in the Top Ten.

Rhest For The Wicked is Here!

RHEST FOR THE WICKED - Cover

It is with great delight that I announce my first book in seven years; Rhest For The Wicked, published by Haven Publishing.

This book has been almost a year in coming, and it’s been a fight to get it out.  There’s a lot that goes on in publishing that few outside the boardrooms ever get to see, and by signing with a start-up publisher, I got to see a lot of that.  It’s been a trial, no doubt, but it’s finally here.

Currently available is the ebook, with the print edition coming shortly (print editions take longer to push through the databases for reasons that can only be described as hocus-pocus).

Please take a look at Rhest for the Wicked.  It’s just a fun, simple cyberpunk haunted house story.  🙂

A Silent Voice

On March 7th, voice actor Hal Douglas died of pancreatic cancer.  If you watch television or movies, you are familiar with at least some of his work.  Probably one of the most amusing segments he has ever performed is this trailer for the Comedian, a rare instance where Hal Douglas got to show his face.

Hal Douglas didn’t have the most diverse voice-acting skills.  He wasn’t Seth MacFarlane, Frank Welker, or Mel Blanc.  In fact, he did very little voice acting and instead did primarily voice-over work, only occasional providing narration to a film or TV show itself.  Rarely was he a cast member within a tale itself.  He was a niche performer that provided a key element to the success of films and television shows for years.  And he’ll be missed.

As a fan of film and television, the passing of someone like Hal Douglas underlines the small but critical roles the ‘rest of the cast’ plays in the success of films.  We think of the headlining actors, the directors.  They define a movie.  When people talk about the Rock, they may refer to it as ‘a Jerry Bruckheimer movie’ or ‘one of Michael Bay’s movies’ or it starring ‘Sean Connery and Nichols Cage’.  And yet, it is one of Hal Douglas’ most iconic voice-over roles.  His dramatic narration in the trailer helped to redefine trailers in the 1990s.  Perhaps not the biggest accomplishment in the grand scheme of things, but trailers are an art unto themselves.  And to be trailblazer in any art form is something to stop and take notice of, and to respect.

Movies used to be made by dozens of people.  Now, they’re made by thousands of people.  Each one, an artist.  Each one hoping to put his or her stamp of creativity into the final product.  Each one doing their part to help bring to life a work of artistic majesty.  Next time you watch a movie, sit through the credits.  Read the names of everyone you can.  If you were Best Boy Grip or 2nd Unit Carpenter, you’d want your name read.

Think about your favorite movie trailers, and consider what it is about them that make them good.  The framing, the pacing, the shot selection.  The voice-over work.
And the next time you see the trailer for a movie, think about how many people went into the creation of that mini-film, whose sole existence is just to psyche you up for the film itself.

As an anime fan, I admire the work of voice actors and voice-over artists, perhaps more than most.  As a fan of trailers, that admiration is only compounded.  The loss of such a distinct voice like Hal Douglas is a loss to the art form.

Tools of the Imagination – Beyond the Boundary

Beyond The Boundary
written by Taichi Ishidate, directed by Jukki Hanada, produced by Kyoto Animation, available on Crunchyroll

Supernatural horror meets teen life

To describe an anime series as ‘a supernatural high school drama’ is sort of like saying ‘the one with the catgirl’ or ‘the one with the robots’.  A whole lot of the medium falls into that very vague category.  And that seems particularly appropriate to describe Beyond the Boundary because, on the surface, nothing about this show is outstanding.  Nothing is particularly original.  In so many ways, this is a rudimentary, plain-face, by-the-numbers anime.  And that’s part of why it’s so good.

Art goes in cycles.  And it always returns to its most lucent core.  In rock & roll, that’s simple garage-band rock.  MC5’s Kick Out the Jams was followed a decade later by What I Like About You by the Romantics, followed a decade later by Smells Like Teen Spirit by Nirvana, followed a decade later by Are You Gonna Be My Girl by Jet, and so on.  In the intervening years, a lot of genres and styles come and go, but rock always comes back to simple guitar-drums-vocals.

Anime is the same way.  There are a handful of anime stories are simple, direct, easy, and entertaining.  Boy-finds-mecha is one, but the nigh-superheroic magical protagonist dealing with day-to-day life set against the backdrop of a growing supernatural threat, is just as common.  In the wake of the anime industries struggles at the dawn of the new millennium, it’s no surprise that many studios are returning to classic form to rediscover themselves.  And if Beyond the Boundary is any indication, they’re in good shape.

 

Story – 3 out of 5
Akihito Kanbara, the head of the Literary Club at school, is half-youmu (reflection of human fear, jealousy, greed, blah blah, you get the idea).  Mirai Kuriyama is a shy socially-awkward Spirit Warrior from a cursed and outcast clan.  Mirai attacks the immoral Akihito daily, but that doesn’t stop him for falling for the bespectacled beauty, thanks in part to his glasses fetish.  They call a truce and Akihito walks the seemingly-inept (but powerful) Mirai through life as a Spirit Warrior, including attempts to bring down some youmu that haunt their city.  This leads into a larger plot involving several different super-powerful youmu and the complex inner workings of the Spirit Warrior Society.

There’s really nothing here that will surprise even a casual viewer of anime.  The plot is exceptionally by-the-numbers, down to the episode where the heroes have to form an impromptu pop band and sing a rooftop concert.  But while there are no surprises, it lets the show focus on executing the elements really well.  So while there are no surprises, there is a lot of entertainment and creativity in the otherwise run-of-the-mill story.

Art – 4 out of 5
While the story is by-the-numbers, the art is a cut above.  The characters are all very believable and well-drawn, with more realistic proportions and designs than seen in other anime.  There are no ‘super-deformed, chibi’ comedic breaks and while there’s a lot of humor, it’s in the banter and dialogue, not the imagery.  The backgrounds are gorgeous and, again, the character designs are understated by excellently done.

Animation – 4 out of 5
Like the art, the animation is a cut above the rest.  The movements are smooth, the deceptively-numberous action sequences are very fluid, and the cinematography is well-planned and laid-out.  It’s not truly outstanding, but it’s better-than-average and far above ‘merely adequate’.

Characters – 4 out of 5
Much like the plot, the art, and the animation, the characters aren’t particularly brilliant or innovative, but they are just very well executed.  Akihito is a legitimately and demonstratively nice guy (unlike many anime we’re the protagonist is just referred to as ‘nice’), but isn’t an out-and-out saint.  He gets frustrated with friends, even Mirai who he adorably has a crush on.  Mirai is socially awkward, but has a blog where she gripes about every little thing.  The idiosyncrasies of the characters are all classic anime stuff, but are just executed endearingly and very well.

Acting – 4 out of 5
Based off the Japanese voice cast, the acting is very solid.  There’s very little ‘characterization’ in the voices, meaning the voice actors don’t seem to be striving to create some dynamic and unique sound for the characters.  Instead, the characters sound like normal people, with normal voices, and express their emotions with normal inflections.  There’s no effort to be dynamic and memorable, merely really good.  And the performances are just that: really good.

 

Overall – 4 out of 5
This show is a good example of what trying to be good, rather than great, can result in.  It’s a solid anime offering that delivers in every aspect.  It isn’t a GREAT anime, but it’s just a really solid and entertaining one that pretty much anyone can enjoy.  Recent anime have tried too hard (see: Kill la Kill) or have gone out of their way to be different for the sake of being different.  Here’s a good example of getting back to basics and delivering a solid hit.

Bullet Points

I really hate Daylight Savings Time.  It’s an antiquated idea, one that not only has run it’s course, but is legitimately dangerous (skip ahead to about 3:25).  Worse, it’s just inconvenient.  So, with that in mind, I figured I’d save us all a little bit of trouble and just hit a few issues that have been rattling around.

– When will the next episode of New Phase go live?
On Friday, my first serialized story in over a year went live (you can read it on the Serials Page).  The next episode will go live the first Friday of April (the 4th), and so on for the run of the serial.  Yes, I know a month between episodes is a lot but A) they’re free, so hush and B) I plan to shorten that time with subsequent serials.  Writing a serial is a lot of work, in some ways more work than writing a novel (which I’m also doing).  As such, I want to make sure that I can maintain this production rate.

– Speaking of books, where’s Rhest for the Wicked?
If you were at RoFCon, you know that my publisher Haven is having a devil of a time getting Rhest through the assorted online databases.  As a small publishing house, it’s an uphill battle to get anything done when being crowded by the Big Five publishers, and sorting through the million things that can hang up a book’s listing is a daunting task.  That being said, Rhest for the Wicked WILL be available by summer.  Hopefully much sooner.
If you want more information, please swing by Haven’s brand-spanking-new website.

– Most of your toy reviews are Transformers; what did you think of the trailer for Transformers 4?
I am cautiously optimistic.  I didn’t hate the first three live-action movies – I by and large enjoyed them, believe it or not – but they were very far from flawless.  The new movie looks from the trailer to be a step in the right direction, with streamlined robot designs, a smaller cast, and a more personal story.  That being said, the same was true for the first movie and we had three different plots running simultaneously that pretty much never merged, and two of which were not resolved.  So while I am a little more hopeful, I’m not out-and-out excited yet.

– What did you watch the Academy Awards?
I didn’t watch them.  For starters, I find the show pretty boring and I often didn’t see many of the films nominated.  While I don’t think awards should be popularity contests, when many of the nominated films are often obscure, I start to suspect ulterior motives.  Secondly, many very deserving categories simply do not exist.  For starters, there is no category for genre films (science fiction, fantasy, etc).  Such movies usually get sluffed off into the ‘special effects’ categories, and then still end up losing to a period piece (see Benjamin Button beating Transformers 2).  Likewise, there are no categories for Best Trailer (which is an art unto itself and well deserving of recognition), Best Stunt Performance, Best Voice Acting, and so on.  When you add into the track record of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences history of turning a blind eye to the abuses of the film industry (check out Life After Pi, how the special effects studio responsible for one of the most visually gorgeous films ever filed for bankruptcy because the film studio paid them a pittance for the masterpiece), I find the AMPAS and by extension the Academy Awards undeserving of attention.