Talkin’ ‘Bout Toons

Chaos in Print

So, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King is out in theatres, bringing to a close one of the most ambitious film projects in recent history. This isn’t the first time that J.R.R. Tolkein’s trilogy has been brought to the silver screen, though. I’m sure most of us have fuzzy memories of watching the 1978 animated version, titled simply The Lord of the Rings. It’s not a true adaptation, though, as it ends about halfway through The Two Towers. But still, it seemed to ride on the wave of independent, adult-oriented animation that sprung up in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Ralph Bakshi is probably the one man responsible for this wave of adult animation. It all started with his 1971 classic Fritz the Cat, which has the distinction of being the first X-rated animated film. Some of Bakshi’s other achievements include the post-apocalyptic satire Wizards, the brief history of American music American Pop, and, of course, The Lord of the Rings. He kind of disappeared in the early-1980s and made a comeback in 1992 with the live-action/animated sex romp Cool World. When Cool World bombed he promptly disappeared again. It should also be noted that Bakshi is a fan of the animation technique known as “rotoscoping.” This is animation that is created by tracing live-action footage. In the live-action footage that Bakshi shot for his animated Lord of the Rings, famous midget actor Billy Barty played Bilbo Baggins. But I digress.

Yes, the late 1970s/early 1980s was a great time for independent, adult animation. You know, Tron originally began as an independent animated film. But, animation is costly, and as Tron director Steven Lisburger said on the Tron DVD, “Animation is a field where you have to sell out pretty quickly if you ever want to see your scripts produced.” Lisburger was lucky enough to find a buyer in Disney, and Disney was at a point where they’d let him try anything.

And let’s not forget Canada’s great contribution in this wave of adult animation: Heavy Metal. That’s a film I always seem to come in in the middle of. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it from beginning to end. It’s kind of like Fantasia, only instead of animated representations of music, it’s animated representations of good and evil archetypes. It’s very trippy stuff. And, to most young adult males, it also brings with it the realization that, yes, naked women can be animated. I simply must rent it one of these days, if only so I can say I saw it from beginning to end.

But, there is another made-in-Canada animated film from this era that I’ve always wanted to see. Has anyone out there heard of a film called Rock and Rule? Some time in the mid-80s the CBC showed it on TV, and they advertised it pretty heavily. My best friend at the time saw it and said it was a great film. I’ve never seen it on video rental shelves, though. I’ve done a little bit of research online, and apparently, it’s about an angelic pop starlet who’s seduced by an evil rock promoter into using her voice to summon forth world-ending demons. It sounds wonderfully surreal. And Susan Roman is in the voice cast!

Susan Roman is probably one of the greater Canadian voice actresses in the business. We all listened to her growing up as the voice of Melissa Racoon on The Racoons. Younger audiences are better acquainted with her as the voice of Lita/Sailor Jupiter in the North American dub of Sailor Moon. Yup, Susan Roman and Tara Strong are probably the two best Canadian voice actresses working today.

Who’s Tara Strong? Well, she’s probably the only woman who’s voice I am 100% in love with. I can’t help it! It’s the voice she does for Batgirl. She brings this wonderful playfulness to the role of Batgirl that sits on the fringes of sexy. And, since she is Canadian, you can catch her in all kinds of low-budget, made-in-Canada productions before she went to Hollywood. Her real voice is very close to her Batgirl voice. Rent a low budget comedy some time called National Lampoon’s Senior Trip. She plays a high school slut. It’s great if you want to hear Batgirl talk dirty. Perhaps, though, her most famous voice to date is Bubbles on The Powerpuff Girls. And she’s doing really great work as Raven on the new Teen Titans cartoon.

But I’m not so sure about the Teen Titans cartoon. It’s difficult to explain. I think it is the first attempt by a North American studio to flat-out rip off the anime style. But, it’s like the makers don’t understand the anime style. I mean, in anime, to show a character’s heightened emotional state, the character’s face will get exaggerated for a shot or two. But, on Teen Titans, the character’s face will get exaggerated for no reason whatsoever, and remain that way for a very long scene. If you want to watch anime, you should just go for the real thing.

There are many fine anime films coming to North America now. I’m slowly growing to love the films of Hayo Miyazaki. He is, perhaps, the greatest animator living today. The only film of his that I own is Princess Mononoke. His latest one, which won the second-ever Best Animated Film Oscar, is Spirited Away. I saw it about a year ago at my friend’s place, and the DVD is on my short-list of discs I want for Christmas. Also, around February of 2003, while I was still teaching in Japan, there was this stretch where there always seemed to be a Miyazaki film as I got home from work. I managed to catch the last halves of My Neighbour Totoro, Castle in the Sky, and Porco Rosso. I have also seen Kiki’s Delivery Service. Miyazaki’s films truly take place in a fantasy world.

But, my favourite fantasy animated film of all time has to be The Last Unicorn. I read once that there was a push on to do a live-action remake of The Last Unicorn, but now it looks like the project has fallen apart. I should dig it out and watch it. I taped it when it was on TV a few years ago. What really makes that film unique is it was made by Jules Bass and Arthur Rankin, Jr., the same folks who made all those classic Christmas specials, like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

But Christmas specials aren’t the only animated specials that Rankin and Bass are known for. Way back in 1979, Ralph Bakshi announced that he would not make The Return of the King and finish the complete animated adaptation of The Lord of the Rings. As with a lot of people, Rankin and Bass thought that was a darn shame. So, Rankin and Bass managed to procure the movie rights to The Lord of the Rings, and made The Return of the King as a TV special.

But now, Peter Jackson’s live-action version of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King is in theatres, and the entire trilogy has been adapted proper for the big screen. Amazing how these things come full circle, isn’t it?

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