essays

Dec 1, 1978

On View: “Ships” up–“Rings” Watered Down

“The world of Middle Earth enjoys peace and liberty until an evil despot named Sauron arises in the East and re-establishes his kingdom in the land of Mordor.”

AN ARGUMENT, HOWEVER flimsy, can probably be made in favor of animation as the ideal form for peddling a political point of view at the movies. Polemicizing is somehow more tolerable to most when mouthed by the likes of Elmer Fudd or Daffy Duck. The satirical genius of Jonathan Swift was made acceptable to a much larger public by animated hordes of miniscule Lilliputians climbing all over poor Gulliver. Disney’s Bambi may have been the film that got such a hammerlock on the psyches of pre-pubescent environmentalists that it ultimately spawned the Sierra Clubs of the world. Many have argued that Lewis Carroll’s Alice and her hallucinogenic adventures in Wonderland, once they appeared on the screen, had a profound influence on the nation’s youth, even contributing to traffic in “dangerous drugs.” If so, then most of today’s FAA and CAB regulations can unquestionably be traced to the erratic flight patterns of Dumbo. And anyone so dense as to miss the conspicuous parallel between Watergate and Pinocchio is due for a cartoon feature refresher course: The Three Little Pigs made a strong statement in favor of the “work ethic”;Tramp and his Lady made a pitch for egalitarianism; Papa Bear was a confirmed fascist; Snow White and Cinderella were sexists;…. and all’s up to date, if not “well” with the world.

The above inventory of absolute nonsense, seems, unfortunately, to have some subscribers, and this eagerness on the part of animated movie audiences to con themselves, may, in part, explain the current renaissance of animation in films, and the coincidental, but not accidental, release of two of them, almost simultaneously.

The evolution has been an odd one. Uncomplicated animated features were once created to entertain kids (and adults with equally uncomplicated tastes). But as animation grew progressively more expensive to produce, its audience grew smaller; and eventually animated features virtually disappeared from the screen. Then a new generation rediscovered the old stuff, yanked it out of the archives and re-released it. “Get stoned and see Fantasia” practically became a rallying cry. All the spastic little animals and dwarves were exhumed, and their escapades were endowed with new meaning. Suddenly there was again a market for tiny, prancing fantasy figures. If movie goers were prepared to fall in love with 30 year old Disney pictures, and to bestow on them a social significance they were never meant to possess, then there were bound to be aspiring new film animators hovering in the wings, ready to crank out batches of contemporary, colorful, and often “offcolor,” animated facsimiles laden with the kind of superficial social commentary that seemed to be so much in demand. Ralph Bakshi got the trend rolling about 6 years ago with the first of his “X” and “R” rated Fritz the Cat series, and now he has, at last, worked his way to the “big-time” with a high-budget spectacular—an epic version of selected segments from J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic trilogy, The Lord Of The Rings.m1

Bakshi has, for the first time, been forced to finally deal with source material which actually has something to say, but he and his collaborators apparently became so engrossed in pioneering revolutionary new animation technology, combining live-action and art work, that they lost sight of their objectives. (Actually the technology itself is not revolutionary, but at least forty years old; what Bakshi pioneers is its use. He uses his old techniques more elaborately and more extensively than ever before, and the result is a motion picture unlike any which has preceded it.) In Lord Of The Rings we are bewildered by flashy sight and sound and left in a state of confusion.

And this is unfortunate, because Tolkien’s original story, though complex in the number of characters and the intricacies of its plot, is essentially simple: The world of Middle Earth enjoys peace and liberty until an evil despot named Sauron arises in the East and re-establishes his kingdom in the land of Mordor. an almost uninhabitable waste ringed by volcanoes. The only thing which prevents Sauron from extending his dominion over all of Middle Earth is the absence from his realm of the Ring of Power, which he lost during an earlier war with the forces of good. Through a complicated chain of circumstances, this Ring comes into the possession of Frodo Baggins, a Hobbit (which means, roughly, a little man with furry feet who lives in a hole in the ground) from a part of Middle Earth called the Shire (which strongly resembles a sentimental, pastoral portrait of England). Frodo sets out, with a band of companions—hobbits, elves, dwarves, men, and a wizard named Gandalf—to save Middle Earth by destroying the Ring in the only way possible: by returning it to the volcanic fire in which it was originally forged. Sauron, of course, seeks to abort this mission. He dispatches his agents—ores, Black Riders, and an evil wizard named Saruman—to intercept Frodo and his friends and retrieve the Ring.

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“Unlike The Lord of the Rings, Watership Down survives beautifully the transition from printed page to film.”

Tolkien stretched this story over three hefty volumes (four if you count The Hobbit, whose story is retold in four pages of the prologue to the first volume of The Lord of the Rings). Bakshi calls his animated adaptation “Part I” (everywhere but in the advertising), but he leaves out much from the first volume of the trilogy, and includes much from the second volume, like the oldest living things in Middle Earth, the slowmoving rootless treefolk called the Ents. The Great War of the Ring is recreated on film in all its bloody majesty. The Ring itself still provides mastery over all living things, but its evil inevitably corrupts all who attempt to use it. The analogies which have enthralled readers of every political persuasion remain as ominous as ever, but in the picture, become obfuscated by the fancy footwork of Bakshi’s startling animation techniques. Commentary on the corruption of power becomes secondary, and at times vanishes entirely, in a garish cinematic “light-show.”

The filmmakers do manage at times to inspire fear for the safety of hapless little Frodo and his comrades. We hope their quest will prove successful, and that the magic ring with the spell will be returned to the fire from whence it came. We root for the spunky little fellows who are pursued by all manner of diabolical forces trying to “do them in” It’s exactly the kind of menace Ralph Bakshi is best at creating. But even in the original novel form, Lord of the Rings wasn’t the easiest story to follow. Now, on the screen, the Tolkien adventures in Middle Earth have been transformed into a convoluted, disjointed, incomprehensible mish-mosh. The movie, while technically impressive, is, sadly, devoid of all the whimsy, charm and character that has, for decades, endeared the “Fellowship” tales to millions of readers.

The other anthropomorphic fiction to make its way to the screen for the holidays is far and away the better of the two. Like Lord of the Rings, Richard Adams’s allegorical tale of migrating bunny rabbits, Watership Down, chronicles an epic journey. But, unlike Rings, Watership survives beautifully the transition from printed page to film.

Less dramatic in scope and visual razzle-dazzle, Watership Down has the good sense to concentrate on fundamentals such as character development, story line, structure, talented voices to speak the roles—all those things that, ideally, go unnoticed, but if handled properly, do what is most important: sustain an audience’s interest. And, if there happens to be (as there is in this case) the collateral advantage of making us think, then so much the better.

Should anyone past the age of 12 be unfamiliar with Watership Down, the story is another simple one, about a warren of British rabbits driven from their cozy holes in the ground by the encroachment of man and his bulldozing onslaught of housing developments. Watership is a tale of flight, dignity, violence and serenity—at once pastoral and frightening.

And the odyssey of Adams’s bunnies gets its points across, all of them “Progress and survival are constantly in conflict” That’s one of them. “Independence and The Free Spirit’, by definition, demand courage and acts of heroism to endure.” That’s another. Watership Down preaches a philosophy of survival, not so much of the “fittest”, as of the “noblest”

There is a marvelous irony to this holiday season box-office battle of the animators. The Lord Of The Rings strives hardest and succeeds only in visually overwhelming its viewers. Watership Down gently tells its story, and not only succeeds, but inspires. The powerful imagery of Lord Of The Rings on the screen is humbled by the simple enthusiasm, sincerity and lovability of those furry little creatures from Watership Down.

In this animated contest of the Hobbits versus the rabbits, the rabbits definitely habit.

Chuck Walsh is film critic for KHJ-TV and KABC Radio in Los Angeles. His ten years in Hollywood have also included stints as film and theatre critic for KNBC-TV and KFWB Radio, and freelance assignments as film critic and film industry commentator for a number of periodicals, including Los Angeles magazine and Variety.