Friday, January 15, 2016

The Lord of the Rings animated "trilogy"

Peter Jackson wasn't the first to put J.R.R. Tolkien's books on film. Two decades before the first of Jackson's live-action/CGI films hit theaters, three animated films were crafted in the space of three years, and by two different animators. The first two are well worth checking out but the third is not.

The Hobbit
ANIMATED
77 minutes / 1977
RATING: 7/10


The Hobbit was the first Tolkien book to be filmed, in 1977. Director Authur Rankin chose a particularly cartoonish style of drawing that made it clear from the start that this was intended as a children's film. But his work had some humor to it – just as the source material does – which makes it pleasant enough viewing for adults too.

Our hero Bilbo Baggins is a Hobbit, creatures that look much like humans, though they are half as tall and have far hairier feet. Normally Hobbits like nothing better than to stay close to home, but when the wizard Gandalf brings 12 treasure-seeking Dwarves to his doorstep Bilbo signs up for the adventure. And with the help of a magic "ring of power" Bilbo finds, he helps his new friends fight Orcs, Elves, and even a dragon.

At 77 minutes long, readers of the book may be disappointed as to just how much the film condenses the story. However, as children’s films go it is quite a nice one, and a good introduction to Middle Earth.

For a children's film there are some fairly scary bits, including attacks from Orcs, giant spiders and a "Gollum" so this isn't suitable for the very young. You can buy a copy at Amazon.com by clicking here.

The Lord of the Rings
ANIMATED
133 minutes / 1978
RATING: 7/10

A year after The Hobbit was released another animator, Ralph Bakshi, decided to try his hand at The Lord of the Rings. 

The story begins with an aging Biblo Baggins passing on his magic ring to his nephew Frodo. Shortly after the wizard Gandalf shows up to warn Frodo of the ring's danger. It turns out this ring is so powerful that whoever holds it could use it to rule the world. This is why the evil Sauron wants it, and why the good Gandalf knows that it must be destroyed – this all encompassing power is too much of a temptation for even the best of men to contend against. It is up to Frodo, who as a little Hobbit is far less tempted by the pull of power, to take the ring deep into the enemy's lands to destroy it in the lava of the mountain where it was first forged. And on the journey he has the company of hobbits, men, an elf, a dwarf, and a wizard to help him.

Animator Ralph Bakshi used a style of animation that involved filming scenes with real actors and then tracing over each frame of film to create a line drawing picture of it. This "rotoscoping" allowed Bakshi to incorporate the endless possibilities of animation with the realism of live action. The realism also meant that this is a scarier film than The Hobbit. The lurching Ringwraiths (see the picture) are freaky, and some of the combat scenes, especially at the very end, are quite bloody. Though this is animated, it is not for children.

There is one major flaw with the film: it is only the half of the story! The director planned it as the first part of a two-film treatment, but the second film was never made. So things wrap up abruptly, in mid-story. But while it lacks a proper ending, the story it does tell is intriguing.

You can buy a copy at Amazon.com by clicking here

The Return of the King
ANIMATED
97 minutes / 1979
RATING: 4/10

This is sometimes treated as a sequel to Ralph Bakshi's film, but it isn't.

Arthur Rankin directed, and he returned to the cartoonish animation style of The Hobbit. And while the events in this story do, loosely, follow after the events of the Bakshi film, Rankin seems to have been envisioning this as a sequel to The Hobbit, so he begins with an overview of everything that took place between it and The Return of the King. Or, in other words, it begins with a quick summary of two 500-page books – as you might expect this overview doesn't do justice to the contents of these enormous books, and the continuity of the story is lost. If a viewer isn't already familiar with the books he'll have no idea what's going on.

Things don't get any better once the overview is complete - there is no flow to the story. Huge plot elements are skipped over, and random bits of scenes are stitched to other scenes with stilted narration and cheesy ballads. In addition, Frodo Baggins twice calls on God to help him. Some might argue this could be an appropriate use of God's name, but in the context of a fantasy world in which God is never otherwise mentioned, this seems a misuse.

The Return of the King is, in short, a dreadful film that is not worth anyone's time.

Friday, January 1, 2016

A Lego Brickumentary

Documentary
93 minutes / 2015
RATING: 7/10

If you have kids who are too young to watch anything with tension then that limits your viewing options. Yes, there are lots of shows they can watch, but very few that mommy or daddy will want to sit through too (I can feel my brain cells dying whenever Daniel the Tiger is turned on). But here's something different: a documentary the whole family can enjoy.

The basic building blocks of the Lego story are simple. The Denmark-based company has been making these little bricks for 65+ years. They got off to a rocky start, with the first three factories getting burned down, and in the late 1990s lost their way as they started producing sets that had more and more specialized pieces and less and less actual building involved. The buying public didn't like this new direction, and sales took a plunge. But this shocked the company straight, and they returned to what made them great: selling a simple toy whose infinite combinations sparked the imagination.

The film itself is a hagiography of sorts, looking at the company with the wide-open eyes of a fan. This is sure to get your kids building, but the target audience for the film is as much adults and children. In fact, the majority of the builders we're introduced to are adults, including both the "master builders" who work for the company, and the legions of AFOLs – Adult Fans Of Lego – who craft their own creations and show them off online and at Lego conventions. These creations are astonishing, including a full-size X-wing fighter (from Star Wars) and reproductions of classic artworks like the Mona Lisa and Michelangelo's David.

CAUTIONS

The only cautions for this G-rated film I can come up with is that there are about 10 to 20 seconds of evolutionary nonsense, accompanied by a depiction of primordial life emerging from the sea and turning into man (primordial Lego life turning into a Lego man). There is also a short 5 second clip Lego mini-figure recreation of the shower murder scene from the Alfred Hitchcock film Psycho. That sounds worse than it is - in both cases my kids didn't even catch what was going on.

I'll also add that while there is a role for adults to play Lego with their kids, the obsession shown by the the AFOLs (Adult Fans of Lego) was disconcerting. Hobbies can be fun, but God calls Christians to balance, and any hobby that takes over your life is not a healthy one. Instead of encouraging our young men to hold on to their childhood we should be preparing them to put off childish things (1 Cor. 13:11). So Mom or Dad might want to raise the issues of balance and maturity after watching this.

CONCLUSION

A Lego Brickumentary is a fun film for the whole family. I liked it because I could watch something entertaining and kind of educational without worry about my children being traumatized. Our kids liked it because it was inspiring and the host, a Lego mini-figure, is charming and often funny. So far we've watched it twice, and I could see us watching it again, so if you can get it for a good price, this might be a documentary worth owning.

You can buy a copy at Amazon.com by clicking here, and you can watch the trailer below.