#125 : The Hobbit

hobbit_1“Hello, what’s this?” One often finds unexpected treasures on unplanned journeys that alter the course of destiny. Or maybe it was all preordained? Enter the rich and full harmonics of John Huston’s voice… “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”… now thus this classic journey begins yet again. Long before Peter Jackson’s film adaptations and well before I knew the name J.R.R. Tolkien had any meaning, I enjoyed a cartoon produced by Rankin/Bass and animated by a Japanese studio named Topcraft. It is simply named The Hobbit, just like the original book, and what a grand adventure it was and still is.

hobbit_2“The greatest adventure is what lies ahead…”, or perhaps it is also what has gone before. I have always found animation when done properly, can become the modern mythology that we all need as a society. At least in my case, many of the central core myths and legends are these moving drawn pictures which have shaped my reality, philosophies and life. When animation meets a literary mythical giant, then you have the opportunity for something really special. The Hobbit is an excellent piece of evidence towards this hypothesis. As a kid I had no notion of Tolkien’s legend or reputation and even still I am not the biggest fan, but I do know when a story is more than just an ephemeral experience.

hobbit_3The Hobbit is a classic Joseph Campbell styled ‘Hero’s Journey’ were one leaves a comfortable life of safety and routine to become transformed through an unexpected event, meeting, or situation. Bilbo Baggins is a metaphor for you, or me, and his joining up with Gandalf and the company of dwarves through his adventures of Middle Earth could be yours as well, though maybe not as fantastical. What’s your favorite part of Bilbo’s journey? Meeting Elrond, Bard, or even Smaug? Perhaps the run in and troubles with trolls, or goblins? My favorite, and perhaps for you as well, was the meeting of Gollum and Bilbo’s subsequent finding a shiny ring… my precious. But not just any ring. This ring is the legendary ring of power in the forthcoming Lord of the Rings. Gollum’s voice actor in this version sets a standard in my book for being so odd, eerie, corrupt and psychotic. A brilliant performance that sends shivers down the spine and also makes one want to imitate each intonation out of respect.

hobbit_4The artwork has a storybook quality almost like when you are a kid and each page unfolds with a new image that brings surprise. Or perhaps, an unfolding medieval scroll that has the grit and organic quality that feeds into the imagination. The designs are a combination of Tolkien standard illustrations and the odd character designs that are attributed to much or Rankin/Bass’ output from the late 70s/early 80s. Think The Last Unicorn, Flight of Dragons, or The Wind in the Willows. Almost a hybrid of western and Japanese sensibilities that are grotesque, but appealing in a way. No one looks heroic or fashionable and this again gives the story a little more of a grounded appeal. Almost as if this production did come out of the dirt and rocks of a landscape, very natural.

The grunt of the animation and drawing was accomplished by a studio named Topcraft, which evolved eventually into a fairly well known studio known as Ghibli. Heard of that one, it’s fairly famous and popular? After all, Topcraft was the group that Hayao Miyazaki worked with on Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. However, Rankin/Bass had been a client of Topcraft during the 1970s and 1980s and this version of The Hobbit is a prime example of that partnership. Nice work everyone!

Short (as compared to an elongated live action movie trilogy), concise, well animated and with some sing along songs that add charm, the Rankin/Bass versioning of The Hobbit is still a standard go to for many of us. For me it is an early treasure, or perhaps a discovery, from my youth that still holds value into the current day. The Hobbit is one movie that I consider as ‘precious’, yet it does not corrupt like a particular ring. It instead enriches the soul.

#41 : The Wizard of Oz

Alright now… how many of you have seen the movie The Wizard of Oz? WHOA, lots of hands as I expected as this is a cornerstone for a lot of us who grew up since it’s release on 1939. Now I got one for you… how many have seen an anime version of The Wizard of Oz? Oh yes they exist and from the looks of it I see a couple hands, OK. This interpretation I will be looking at was something I saw way back when I was a little munchkin. And I from what I remember my mom taped it off TV for my sister and I to watch and to be honest I am sure mom wanted to see it too. This is the theatrical version (an alternate TV series was made later) of that little book written by L Frank Baum.

wooz_1Oddly this was released here in the west before Japan, kind of like the original Transformers: The Movie. I wonder if this was a production that was made for us over here first and eventually Japan pulled it off the shelf to give it a go in their market? I can’t say for sure as that is not my area of expertise. What I do know is that it is a product of it’s time, particularly the dub which features Aileen Quinn (remember Annie?) as Dorothy and long time Hollywood alum Lorne Greene (Bonanza and Battlestar Galactica) as the Wizard. Both are well known names of the time, but today… anyone remember these two? And yes this dub is cheesy, like melted cheddar, maybe limburger, ok actually Velveeta, but you know what… who cares.

wooz_2As for the Japanese version I have never seen it. And with something this odd finding the original track in this section of the globe could be a little close to improbable. I don’t say impossible, because in many ways the impossible has proven to be possible in regards to coming across classic anime. In time all things come to your collection, you have to work for it a little more. And from a little research it seems Jo Hisaishi did the music in that version (the English track I doubt is his music as it does not sound like Jo, or it could be a redo on the lyrics?). And I forgot to mention the animation was done by that little studio called Topcraft. You know they did Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and Miyazaki hired up a bunch of their best talent to make Studio Ghibli. This was also the studio that made many classic Rankin Bass cartoons like The Last Unicorn, The Hobbit and Flight of Dragons amongst others.

wooz_3Now… I am sure you know this story… Kansas girl with her puppy gets swept up by a tornado in her house and lands in a strange land. And she gets some fancy shoes by killing an evil witch with this house and she has to walk a yellow bricked road to meet The Wizard of Oz himself to get her back home. Kind of like Escaflowne, Rayearth, or Leda: Fantastic Adventure of Yohko, except this story goes way back to the early 20th century and our heroine gets those fancy shoes. Ruby slippers that seem to fit her perfectly like she hit the clearance rack and struck gold finding a pair of designer brand pumps for next to nothing. What a vacation find! And of course Miss Dorothy has golden locks instead of the familiar brown of the Hollywood classic. Some sources say the original is blonde, but I leave that up to you.

wooz_4As a movie I liked it then and I still like it now… with some caveats. Could be nostalgia, but it is simple and charming. And also far from perfect. But it works and that’s all that matters. But what about a younger generation’s opinion of this 1982 version? I have shown it to my niece and she liked it though she is not the big anime fan except for Pokemon… but then again Pokemon is beyond anime itself. But someday… I will some how, some way, get her to love anime as well. It all comes down to finding the right show or movie. But if you have children yourself or work with children I would say give this one a chance as an alternate because the work needs to watch more animation… PERIOD!

In the end we have a cheesy rendition of a classic western tale, mixed with a little singing, decent character designs and one scary Wicked Witch of the West. So toast up some bread, melt that cheese, eat that grilled cheese sandwich and have a “Wizard of a day…”.