A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

The Return of the King (1980)

September 24, 2011

The Return of the King (1980)

How can such a short movie seem so interminable?

After Ralph Bakshi’s strange rotoscoped Lord of the Rings movie ends abruptly after the battle at Helm’s Deep there was a need for a conclusion to the series. This movie, produced by Rankin and Bass like the Hobbit made for TV movie that came before it, is that conclusion. What’s bizarre about this movie is that it tries to follow up on the Bakshi movie, but it is also a sort of sequel to the Rankin/Bass Hobbit. It might have made more sense if they had re-made the first two books in the style of the Hobbit before moving on to this one, but I suppose there were rights issues, and it had only been a couple years since the theatrical animated Lord of the Rings film. So this movie attempts to be a sequel to the Hobbit that assumes knowledge at least of the happenings in the first two Lord of the Rings books but does not directly follow on to the Bakshi film.

The result of this odd choice is that this movie has to spend a LOT of time explaining what’s going on. We’re eased into the action by a lengthy prologue that takes place in the house of Elrond after all the events of the great war of the ring. The movie is told in flashback as the story of how Frodo lost his finger and the one ring as related to Bilbo. I suppose that from a story-telling perspective it’s slightly preferable to just a lengthy voice-over (although there are plenty of those later on) but it does somewhat eliminate any tension in the story since we know at the start how things are going to end up.

This movie also suffers from the problem the Hobbit film had, which is that the action scenes are necessarily truncated by budgetary restrictions. It’s not nearly as pronounced here as in the Hobbit, but it is still clear that the large epic battle at Minas Tirith cannot be fully realized in animated form. Oh, there are a lot of scenes of battle and carnage, but they all feel.. somewhat elided. We get to see little highlights of the battle, but for the blow-by-blow we must rely on the narration provided by Gandalf, who explains most of what’s going on.

All this narration and the prologue, and the internal monologues of the characters combine to make this a dreadfully exposition filled movie. I’d say there’s probably more exposition than actual dialog, which makes the movie rather tedious to watch. It is the ultimate example of telling instead of showing.

Then there are the songs. The songs in the animated Hobbit movie, constant as they are, at least for the most part use Tolkien’s words. These songs were written by producer Jules Bass, and they are not very well written at that. The male chorus constantly singing about the ring bearer/the ring wearer are just another form of exposition, really, in an already exposition heavy movie. This is the movie that has the song about “Frodo of the Nine Fingers” and the famous “Where there’s a Whip There is a Way” song. The incessant singing is irritating and insipid.

I will say that the animation in this movie is significantly better, in my opinion, than that in yesterday’s film. It shows its Japanese anime roots rather more than the Hobbit did, (Such as the glowing hero pose that Sam strikes while bearing the ring) but it’s a significant step up from that film. I enjoyed seeing the character design from the Hobbit movie brought over to this deeper, more expansive story. As a movie, however, this leaves much to be desired. Amanda commented as we watched it that it felt like an abridged book on tape of the Return of the King with some animation added in. I’m very glad that Peter Jackson gifted the world with his absolutely stellar live action trilogy based on the same books, because as soon as we were done watching this we put his Fellowship of the Ring in to fulfill our Lord of the Rings needs. For decades this interminable and plodding adaptation was all that Lord of the Rings fans had, and that’s a kind of sad thing.

September 24, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

The Hobbit (1977)

September 22, 2011

The Hobbit

To celebrate Hobbit Day this year we’ve chosen to start watching the three animated Tolkien movies we have in our collection. Tonight is the Rankin/Bass Hobbit. Both Amanda and I have fond memories of our fathers reading to us from The Hobbit as children. This tale of a simple Hobbit plucked from the comfort of his hole for a grand adventure is one of those iconic stories that defines my childhood. Here, as illustration, is a picture of me dressed as Thorin Okenshield for Halloween in 1979:

Andy as Thorin

So naturally this movie is a thing of great nostalgia for me. More for the story than for the film itself.

I will say that as we watched tonight it struck me how rapidly the story of the Hobbit was told here. The way this book is put together is very episodic – each chapter is its own quick adventure. This works wonderfully for a bedtime story if you’re hearing a chapter or two each night, but compressed into the timeline of a TV movie it felt rushed to me. Each episode was compressed into just a couple of minutes: the dinner, the trolls, Elrond, the storm in the mountains, fleeing from the trolls and being rescued by the eagles, Mirkwood and the spiders, the elves and escaping by river… it is almost overwhelming. The movie does slow down and allow a couple scenes to play out at length, and I feel like those are its strongest moments.

The first time the movie pauses is for the Riddles in the Dark chapter with Bilbo and Gollum. It allows most of the riddles to be told in full (although one is presented as a song – which is in keeping with the rest of this movie but seems a little strange and the one about the thirty-two white horses is missing.) I like having a little bit of a breather there before it’s back into the rapidfire attempt to fit more bits of the book into a very short space. Then the film pauses again for the interaction between Bilbo and Smaug, which is also a lot of fun.

Part of the reason that things feel so disjointed and hurried I think is that the animation budget for the film really didn’t include enough to have actual action scenes. It’s very strange. There are a couple places which clearly call for action, but instead involve flashy light-show overlays while still pictures spin around. I think this contributes to the jumpy nature of the film because you want there to be some action to provide resolution to the events of a particular chapter, but instead there’s a strange interlude, and then the movie dives directly into a completely different scene.

It has been many years since I last watched this adaptation, but it’s a film with a very distinctive style that sticks with you. The design of the characters can be largely summed up in a single word: noses. Seriously – these characters are all gigantic schnozes with faces tucked in somewhere behind them. I suppose it works for the most part, and it allows the characters to be distinctively non-human. It also fits the artistic style of the film. The gorgeous water color backgrounds that portray the world of Middle Earth really need a strong feel for the characters that will inhabit it, and the movie delivers on that very well.

The other lasting impression of this movie comes from the many, many songs. From “we must away ‘ere break of day” when the dwarfs meet Bilbo to the “greatest adventure” over the opening credits this movie sets the stage for there to be a song of some sort over just about every scene. Most of them come from the poems Tolkien littered the book with, so I suppose they’re faithful to the source material.

Anyhow, this is a distinctive and memorable adaptation of a little piece of my childhood – even if it does feel badly rushed a lot of the time. I was interested to note that the movie does a lot of setting up for the Lord of the Rings right at the end, particularly in light of the fact that Rankin/Bass did not actually end up making the animated Lord of the Rings movie that we are going to watch tomorrow – although they did get to do the conclusion to the series.

September 22, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

July 20, 2011

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

I’m not quite sure how to start out this review. This movie is one that leaves a lasting impression – I’d even say that it is a major accomplishment in film making – but it feels uneven and disjointed. I’ve never been sure if that’s an intentional choice or if it is an inevitable result of attempting to adapt this source material. I mean, did Gilliam make a disjointed film deliberately because that was his vision or did his adherence to the book force him to make a film that didn’t flow in the way most of his movies do? I suppose it doesn’t make much difference.

I’m a huge fan of Terry Gilliam, as anybody who’s been reading this blog could easily tell, and Johnny Depp is astonishing in this as he is in everything he does, but this isn’t their movie, really. This is Hunter’s movie through and through. It’s a movie full of great quotable voice-overs, but they’re all quotes from the book. Depp’s amazing performance channels the mad energy of the famous gonzo reporter as he brings to life this tale of a drug addled rebel assigned to report on a motorcycle race in the Nevada desert outside of Las Vegas.

I enjoy this movie, in spite of its episodic and uneven feel, but it’s difficult to review it for a couple reasons. For one, this is a movie that is all about dealing with a chemically altered perception of the world. In the story Hunter S. Thompson’s mis-adventures in Las Vegas there is a truly implausible amount of drug use. Acid, cocaine, ether, marijuana, mescaline… just about every hallucinogen known to man and some not invented yet is consumed in mass quantities by Hunter and his lawyer Dr. Gonzo. I wouldn’t say that the movie glorifies drug use, but it attempts to show how deranged a man can become if drug use becomes commonplace. My personal experience with illegal narcotics is virtually non-existent, so although I’m fascinated by the twisted world depicted here I don’t have anything to really compare it to in my own life.

My other problem in writing this review is that although I’ve read excepts from the book this movie is based on (most of which are quoted word for word here) I haven’t read the whole thing. That makes it really hard to talk about the things I’d really like to explore. I’m curious about how accurately Gilliam captures the book, and about how much of the movie is directly from the page, but I don’t really have any answers there.

What I can say is that this movie has a wistful, desperate, slightly sad quality to it. My favorite parts of the movie are the more introspective bits where Depp-as-Thompson reflects on the sad fate of the naive movement of the sixties and the ultimate futility of the San Francisco drug culture. That’s part of the problem with the movie, really. It has this this really touching moment about two thirds of the way through the film that feels like it should be the climax, but then Hunter finds himself returning to Las Vegas to cover a district attorney conference on narcotics and the movie limps on for another drug addled forty five minutes or so. Not only does it feel somewhat repetitive, with Hunter trashing another car and hotel room, but it loses that introspective air and gets more and more crazy and desperate. Much of the final act is told in flashback as Thompson attempts to piece together scattered memories of the past weekend, and it just doesn’t feel as honest as the first half of the movie. I strongly suspect that this is exactly the nature of the source material – but I have no way to tell until I’ve read the book itself.

Johnny Depp as Hunter (as Raoul Duke) is absolutely spellbinding. He’s all profound wisdom and spastic insanity and drug fueled paranoia. I love the way that Hunter has written himself into the story as a character in his own drama. (It makes me want to watch Adaptation.) I suspect that there is probably some root of truth in much of this tale but that it is heavily exaggerated for effect, but that’s part of the fun of it. Gilliam does a great job giving life to the ravings of a drug addled mind. There are only a couple actual special effects shots done in post-production as almost all the madness is captured life and in camera. That’s very Gilliam. Then there’s Benicio Del Torro as the nefarious Dr. Gonzo. His performance is even more impressive than Depp’s in many ways because his character is so much less sympathetic. Dr. Gonzo is an instigator, a trouble maker, given to violence and rudeness. Del Torro commits himself to this character with unreserved dedication and provides most of the fuel that drives the plot, such as it is. He works absolutely perfectly with Depp to bring these characters to life.

There is so much about this movie that I really enjoy. It’s a brave film that does a good job of making something unflattering and pretty scary feel real and important. It’s full of wit and dry humor as well as laugh out loud moments. Even so, it is such an uneven and oddly paced movie that it doesn’t completely work for me. I’m going to try reading the book now to see if it helps me to appreciate this movie more.

July 20, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment