Animated Fantasy Films

Hey, Larry here with another exciting edition of “Nerd With Girlfriend.”

I realize the last article I wrote about fan films came off as being a bit harsh and I truly didn’t mean for it to. I stand by what I wrote, but I don’t want to sound like a know-it-all because I most certainly am not one (or if I am, I’m not man enough to admit it).

I’m going to lighten things up a bit for this article and I’m going to focus on something that I am very much a fan of, though it seems like it’s never done quite right. I’m going to discuss animated fantasy films.

Let me clarify. While movies like “Up” or “The Incredibles” are technically in the fantasy genre, I mean “fantasy” as in “Dragons, wizards, etc”. It is so rarely done anymore. Of course, “How To Train Your Dragon” is about to be released and I’m sure I’ll be taking our kids to see it, but there was a time when these films were more than just generic routines. Every animated film these days is the same old routine: “Something cute learns a lesson.” I want to take you back to a time before that unspoken rule had gone into effect.

The 70’s and 80’s in particular were good times to be fans of the animated fantasy film. Ralph Bakshi is arguably the king of the genre, having created the animated epic “Lord of the Rings”, which was pretty much despised by a large majority of the audience, as well as the futuristic epic “Wizards”, which might just be the greatest animated fantasy of all time.

Bakshi’s “Lord of the Rings” used a lot of the technique known as roto-scoping, which saw scenes being acted out by real actors before animators went back and basically “animated” over top of the live-action. It gives the characters a realistic look and feel, but it sort of pulls you out of the fantasy world and feels a bit bizarre and as if you’re watching actors on a stage in a play. It’s somewhere between animated and live-action and you can’t really connect to either universe. We all know the story of the Fellowship of the Ring by now, and if you don’t you probably shouldn’t be on this website. However, the story is muddled here and often lacking any real heart. It can be argued that Tolkien’s writing often suffers from the same issues. Let’s face it, he had a brilliant imagination and a very boring way of delivering it. To get back on point, Bakshi’s “Lord of the Rings” took us all the way to the end of the Battle at Helm’s Deep, which is two-thirds of the way through the entire story. He would not, however, be asked to finish the series. I love Ralph Bakshi’s work. I’m a huge fan…but in all honesty and fairness I cannot recommend this film.

Rewind one year. A made-for-TV animated film known as “The Hobbit” had been released. Obviously the story followed young Bilbo Baggins on his journey with the dwarves and in particular, on his encounter with Gollum. This movie is pretty fun to watch but a little dry at times as again, much of Tolkien’s works can be. It is aesthetically much easier to look at than Bakshi’s take on Middle-Earth, and it’s definiely worth looking for and even buying.

A year after Bakshi’s somewhat disastrous run on “Lord of the Rings”, he did not return to finish the series. Instead, much of the same crew from “The Hobbit” gave the series an unofficial continuation of both their own film and Bakshi’s film with “Return of the King”. The film picks up around the time of Helm’s Deep and when it starts, Frodo and Sam are already trekking toward Mount Doom with the One Ring. Again, it’s beautiful to look at, as was “The Hobbit”, and the series holds more themes and substance than said film. Of course, the Lord of the Rings books in general seem to carry more weight and subtle meaning than does the solo Bilbo adventure, which is still fun in it’s own right. With “The Return of the King”, the series is closed in a satisfactory way. I would definitely recommend checking this one out.

Bakshi also created a cult classic known as “Fire and Ice” using the same technique he did with “Lord of the Rings”. It’s a pretty simple story pitting a warrior and his mysterious friend against an evil wizard (think “Conan”) but it’s cool in it’s own right if you can handle the roto-scoping visuals.

Finally, Bakshi’s animated fantasy masterpiece “Wizards” is not only worth looking up, but worth buying and showing everybody you know. In a futuristic world, an aging, depressed wizard known as Avatar must destroy his evil brother Blackwulf before Blackwulf and his demons control the entire world. Sounds pretty cliche, huh? Well, get this: Blackwulf’s demons and mutants have recently uncovered great historical weapons and archives. They are digging up Adolph Hitler’s propaganda tools, old film reels, guns, tanks, and everything else the Nazis used. The powerful sight of the single swastika unites the evil clans and gives them a feeling of unity and power. The powerful tanks, planes, and guns make the demons perfectly capable of steamrolling over the good humans, elves, dwarves, and otherwise without much of a fight. It’s a beautiful film mixing past and present that deals with morality, betrayal, and a realistic viewpoint of heroes and villains… and the very thin line between them. It’s definitely not for kids but “Wizards” is great. Buy it. Share it. Help support this type of art and get it seen.

Okay, moving on beyond the realm of Bakshi already…

I recently viewed the 80’s epic “The Last Unicorn”. Now, the name of this film tells you immediately that it’s for little girls… and it is. I think. See, the opening scene is a unicorn in a forest talking to a singing butterfly. It doesn’t get much lamer than that. Now fast forward twenty minutes. An evil witch has kidnapped the unicorn to use her as a sideshow freak along with a few other animals she’s magically disguised as mythical creatures and an honest-to-God immortal harpy. The witch explains that she knows the evil harpy will eventually escape and murder her, but that it will forever know her as the one mortal who was able to hold it – thus giving the witch a sense of immortality in her own right. What the hell? Wasn’t a unicorn just talking to a singing butterfly twenty minutes ago? This just got dark. I love it. A few minutes later, the unicorn escapes with the help of a friend and sets the animals – and the harpy – free. The harpy dives at the witch, who laughs and accepts her death with arms wide open, before tearing her to shreds. It’s done off camera, with shots of the heroes cringing. What the hell is going on here?! It’s amazingly dark and scary. It helps provide the once innocent unicorn a glimpse of how dark the world outside her forest is. I really like this movie. It’s filled with some really lame songs by the band “America” and some cringe-inducing girly parts, but it’s pretty awesome anyway. It goes so close to being great but constantly yanks itself back five steps time and time again. Still, look it up. Your girlfriend, wife, or kids will love it… and you’ll be able to watch it without wanting to punch somebody.

Another animated epic fantasy was the made-for-TV film “Flight of Dragons”. It stars John Ritter as a man of science who is sucked into a fantasy world by a wizard in need of his help. Ritter is accidentally merged with the friendly dragon “Gorbash” and the two become one. The theme of the film is that too much science is killing our belief in magic. The fantasy world is crumbling and the wizards who rule it are forced to create a small bubble of land (think a retirement home for dragons, warriors, etc) that cannot be tampered with by our world. The movie has everything a fantasy movie should have, from warriors to dragons to giant worms and evil wizards… but it has the absolute worst pacing of all the films in this article. The first half of the film is nothing but the heroes standing around talking. Just as you’re about to give up, the quest begins and we’re treated to some pretty cool battle sequences. It’s dry in parts, but the cool sequences make up for it. This is worth looking up, but it’s nowhere near perfect. Made-for-TV films always seem to be lacking balls and this is no different.

Now, I wanted to steer clear of the anime genre on this list, but there’s one title I have to recommend. “Record of Lodoss War” is an animated epic series with the greatest characters, plot, and character development of maybe any fantasy movie I’ve ever seen. It’s that good. It starts off with Parn, a young warrior with potential but very little skill, who goes on a quest with, you got it – an elf, a dwarf, a mage, a healer, and a thief. That’s where the predictability ends. Some die. Some live. Some turn evil. It’s beautiful, thought-provoking, and absolutely amazing. Like “Wizards”, you must see this.

There are, of course, other animated fantasies out there but there really aren’t all that many. It’s a genre that seems ripe for the picking. The cut scenes in our video games are so incredibly beautiful and real now that it seems like a crime not to go deeper and just make a movie with that technology. Of course, some have “tried”. The “Final Fantasy” movie was okay, but it wasn’t what people wanted. Fantasy characters and magical creatures were replaced by scientists fighting ghosts. When somebody does venture into the animated epic world, it’s always so dumbed down. That “Final Fantasy: Advent Children” was a moronic trainwreck that was more music video than story. Horrible.

With mainstream animated epics nowadays, there’s always a wise-cracking sidekick and a hero you can’t possibly care about who’s having a constant verbal joust with a love interest you’ve seen a million times before. Where’s the heart?! Where’s the passion on the part of the creators?! Hell, even Disney seems like it had something special in it’s films up until right after “Lion King”, when they just stopped caring. There aren’t many frontiers left, but with all of these generic 3D movies (not all 3D films are generic, mind you), this is just begging to be done right. When somebody finally gives us a balls-to-the-wall, Dungeons and Dragons-style epic where heroes might die and villains might see the error of their ways, and where there’s no time to make a joke in the middle of a battle… when they stop treating the audience like morons and give us something our imaginations can feast on… that’s the day the young male demographic is going to pour into the theatres in droves and say “F*CKING FINALLY”. It’s how I felt when I first saw Peter Jackson’s live-action “Fellowship of the Ring”.

FINALLY, somebody got it right. It’s the kind of epic that’s worth going to the movie theatre 3 times for.

We need that again.

Til next time, Nerds.

As much as I’m a fan of nerd stuff…I just had to make fun of DnD here:

  • Another great article, Larry. I’ve never seen Bakshi’s ‘Wizards’, I got to check it out now. Also a good fantasy anime out there is ‘Berserk’.

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  • Nice article – only one I haven’t seen is the anime one.

    I have to disagree with you about Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings. May not be your style but a lot of folks also find the animated The Hobbit revolting. I actually love both films and they’re some of the few films I can watch over and over again.

    To me, the animation and character voices in LOTR are breathtaking, enchanting and stunning. No other film accomplishes what this animated one does in terms of epic animated fantasy with rotoscoping. The atmosphere is very unique and dark. I wish the live action LOTR movies, as nice as they are, would have been much darker.

  • PS

    Did you hear that Fire and Ice is officially going to be made into a live action movie? Google it!

  • Starlight

    Excellent article, thank you for the Wizards tip 🙂

    Like you, I think this is an underserved market – it is hard to make fantasy work as live action (notable exception being the Jackson LotR movies of course) so you’d think more people would have tried to make animated fantasy movies or tv series of late.

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