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Monsters, Reviews, and Short Fiction by TyrantisTerror

Between Logic and Enchantment: The Black Cauldron

The Black Cauldron may as well be called “The Black Sheep,” as there are few movies in Disney’s canon of animated films that are treated with as much disdain by the famous House of Mouse.  Given the company’s fame for creating iconic takes on fairy tales, you’d think a fantasy epic from Disney would be a pretty solid success – they’ve been tiptoeing next to the concept since Snow White, so it would just take a little push to go full fantasy.  Since Fantasy films were fairly common and popular in the 80’s, it makes sense that the company would finally take the plunge and try their hand at adapting a Fantasy film of their own.

So they did, and it failed.  It failed pretty hard.  It failed so hard that the only Disney movie that is even more hated by the company is the one about a black plantation worker who just loves working for white folks in the Reconstruction era.

But why did it fail?

The popular theory/excuse is that The Black Cauldron was too dark for a children’s film.  People expected a happy musical adventure, and what they got was a dark, moody fantasy story with a skeletal villain who screams “KILL!” a lot.  There were plenty of “dark” fantasy stories in the 80’s though – The Never-Ending Story has a horse who commits suicide in, like, the first act, and the Rankin Bass movies coming out around this same time were just as dark, if not more so.  A “dark” fantasy story wasn’t a death sentence then, so why would it kill The Black Cauldron?

There are a lot of other external reasons for this failure we could discuss– reasons that other people can discuss far better than I can, as I discovered during my reading.  So I want to focus on what The Black Cauldron is on its own merits.  I’ll summarize its plot first (since there’s a good chance many of you have not seen it), then discuss its pros and cons like in The Hobbit (1977) review, before finally reaching a conclusion as to what The Black Cauldron is.  Is this a good movie released at the wrong time?  A hidden gem that needed some more polish?  Or is it a flawed and sadly doomed result of a story that was just wrong for its studio?

Spoilers: it’s that last one.

Also I should probably note here that The Black Cauldron is based on two books in a series of Fantasy books that I have not read.  I have no idea how faithful it is as an adaptation, but given that Disney made it, I imagine the answer to that question is “not very.”

The Plot

Our film opens with Gandalf (ok it’s actually just the voice actor who played Gandalf in The Hobbit, but let me dream!) giving exposition about the titular Black Cauldron, which was made from the soul of an evil king as a prison for that same evil king, but also makes deathless warriors, because fuck you that’s why.  Fantasy McGuffins don’t have to make sense all the time, ok?  Right off the bat you’ll notice this movie is very exposition heavy, as Gandalf’s blurb at the start is immediately followed with Generic Disney Old Man Design ™ muttering to himself about the Horned King and the black cauldron.

Generic Disney Old Man.png
“Which Disney movie is this again?  The Aristocats?  I got to be a bad guy in The Arisocats.  Most of the time I just putter around though.”

His apprentice, a whiny young boy named Taran, has to bring food to Generic Disney Old Man’s pig.  While doing so, Taran goes into a fantasy about being a hero in which he beats a real life goat with a stick.  Truly he is a lovable protagonist, this boy.

The pig, Henwen, freaks out during her feeding (unrelated to Taran beating the goat, mind you), and it turns out she has visions of the Horned King searching for the black cauldron, which Generic Disney Old Man says is bad.  It then turns out the Horned King is searching for Henwen since her visions can find the cauldron, and tells Taran to take the pig to the hidden cottage beyond the forbidden forest, which seems to be, like, a ten minute walk away apparently.

The Horned King
Sends shivers down my spine.

The movie cuts to the Horned King and he’s fucking awesome.  John Hurt’s voice acting oozes menace, and the character design is simple yet effectively creepy.  He tells a bunch of corpses how he will make them “cauldron born”, which the earlier exposition assures us is a bad thing.  Then the scene ends, being sort of a microcosm of the Horned King as a character: a lot of great build up and potential despite not getting to do much of anything.

Taran tells Generic Disney Old Man he won’t fail him, then promptly fails because he’s too busy daydreaming about being interesting to watch over a goddamn pig.  To his credit, he goes off in search of Henwen as soon as he realizes she left, but sadly he discovers…

The Suffering of Mankind

Gurgi.

Gurgi is like Gollum, but without the charm and good looks.  We’re supposed to find him cute, but I mostly find him in need of a beating.  He is one of many characters whose design is too Disney Cute ™ for my tastes, and in his case it borders on the obscene.  He couples his Disney Cute ™ design with a lovable rascal habit of stealing food and justifying it with passive aggression.  Gurgi fucking sucks is my point.

Thankfully, Gurgi leaves as soon as some WICKED SWEET DRAGONS kidnap Henwen, allowing me to enjoy these GNARLY AWESOME HELL DRAGONS in peace.  They also kick the crap out of Taran for good measure.  I give these dragons an 8/10 – they’d rate higher if the movie used them more.

Dragon1

Dragon2

Dragon3
Did these guys warrant more than one screencap?  No.  Did I need to screencap them as much as possible for my own happiness?  Yes, absolutely yes.

Sadly, Gurgi comes back, and Taran tells him he’s a piece of shit before giving him an apple and heading off to the Horned King’s castle.  I will say this – Taran is much more likable when Gurgi is next to him, especially when he tells Gurgi he’s awful.   If the movie was nothing but a 90 minute scene of Taran dragging Gurgi for how much he sucks, I might think better of Taran as a character.

It turns out the Horned King’s Castle is also a twenty minute walk away from Taran’s house, and a fairly uneventful one, as Taran sneaks into it pretty quickly and easily.  The Horned King’s minions are, save for the two gnarly dragons, primarily comical in design and performance.  Most of them don’t wear pants, which is a weird fashion trend in 70’s and 80’s fantasy cartoons (see the Ralph Bakshi Lord of the Rings for another example – or rather don’t because it’s terrible).  There’s nothing wrong with having silly, laughable forces of evil, but these guys feel really ill-suited to a villain as menacing as the Horned King.

Creeper
“Wait sire, don’t lump poor Creeper with the rest of the rabble!”

Ok, MOST of them seem ill suited.  Creeper, a little goblin minion, feels exactly on the mark – just the right mix of comic and, well, creepy.  He’s like a PG rated Cryptkeeper.  The other henchmen are just buffoonish, and not in a way that works for the movie’s overall tone.  These clods should be serving Captain Hook, not John Hurt’s devil lich.

When Taran stumbles into the main feast hall in search of Henwen, the Horned King politely asks him to make the pig show where the black cauldron is.  It’s polite the way Darth Vader is polite, of course – in that the Horned King doesn’t even need to imply a threat, as his presence is enough to tell you what will happen if you refuse.  Taran refuses, of course, and the Horned King simply says, “Very well, then the pig is no use for me,” prompting his men to cut Henwen’s head off.  Taran stops them from doing so and rescues the pig.

During Taran and Henwen’s daring escape, Creeper calls Taran “Pig Boy”, which is a moniker others in the movie catch on to.  It is also how I will refer to Pig Boy from here on out.  Pig Boy helps Henwen escape but is caught in the process, and is thrown into the dungeon by the Horned King’s troops.  It’s harsh, but to be fair they could have just as easily cut his head off.  Pig Boy mopes in the dungeon, thinking about how he’s promised a lot to a lot of people and failed pretty much entirely.

Eilonwy
“What’s that magic light ball the movie sometimes forgets about?  I should be the protagonist?  Well, I won’t argue with you on that, but we’re in the tale we’re in, now aren’t we?

Then Eilonwy shows up and things get better.  Eilonwy, unlike Pig Boy, is an unlikely hero who’s actually capable of heroics.  She pops into Pig Boy’s cell as part of her own daring escape, and asks him if he’s a great warrior.  When he tells her he’s a pig keeper, she responds, “Oh, how disappointing,” and while that’s a little dickish, to be fair, Pig Boy will live up to that disappointment.  Eilonwy is clever, brave, and selfless – even though Pig Boy doesn’t have much to offer her, she invites him to join her on her escape anyway.  She’s genuinely heroic and, oh, what’s the word… likable!  Yes, you can like her.  That’s nice in a protagonist.

Pig Boy steals a dead man’s sword, and while Eilonwy expresses disgust, he tells her that “[the dead guy]’s not going to use it.”  I’d criticize him, but to be fair, that’s standard adventuring behavior.  I can’t blame him when I gleefully loot every carcass I come across/create in Dragon Age after all.  Then we meet a bard whose harp snaps a string whenever he lies.  He proceeds to do almost nothing of importance throughout the story, and could be cut out of the plot to almost no consequence.  I cannot remember what his name is, nor do I want to look it up.

Pig Boy gets separated from Eilonwy as they escape because his dumb ass dropped his sword, and in the process he learns his sword is magic.  The sword proceeds to kick all sorts of ass while Pig Boy waves it around with glee, happy to know what competence feels like for the first time in his life.  No matter how stupid he acts with the sword, like in one scene where he’s just stabbing wine barrels, its magic makes things turn up ok for him.  Layer, when they get cornered, Pig Boy lets the enemies throw weapons at him until Eilonwy reminds him to use the sword.  Pig Boy is the kind of guy who would get the invincibility star in Super Mario and still manage to die.

Following Pig Boy’s frankly miraculous escape, Creeper has to tell the Horned King the bad news, and we get a lot of nice characterization of him as a minion.  We see that, despite his sycophancy, Creeper is keenly aware that the Horned King is abusing him, and that his bootlicking nature as an evil minion is as much motivated by fear as it is by cruelty.  Creeper’s horror at his master’s temper also shows that the Horned King is a bit more than a cool voice and a wicked design – an important thing to note since the movie doesn’t actually let the Horned King do much of anything.  Luckily for Creeper, the Horned King is actually happy that Pig Boy escaped, as Pig Boy will go after Henwen, which means the Horned King’s minions only have to follow Pig Boy to get the pig.

Meanwhile, Eilonwy sews up the… harp… guy’s breeches while asking harp guy whether he was scared.  Pig Boy chimes in saying he wasn’t scared at all, to which Eilonwy says, “Not afraid?  Why, we were running for our lives!”  This shows that Eilonwy is the kind of hero who, y’know, actually acknowledges that heroism is difficult and dangerous.  Pig Boy ignores this and continues his masculine bravado, saying, “Well I got us out of the castle didn’t I?” Eilonwy accurately notes that the sword got them out of the castle, to which Pig Boy notes that only a “great warrior” could handle a sword like this, which is definitely not true.  Rather than point that out, Eilonwy says, “But still, it is a magic sword,” gently reminding Pig Boy that he can’t claim full responsibility for their escape, which is unequivocally true.  Lacking any argument, Pig Boy insults Eilonwy’s gender, at which point she chews him out and runs off in a huff.

Pig Boy fucking sucks.

Later Pig Boy sees Eilonwy crying by herself.  She notices him and starts the conversation, saying they have to work together, at which point Pig Boy finally thanks her for helping him out of the dungeon.  She acknowledges that they couldn’t have escaped without him either, and overall is pretty generous about this reconciliation.  Eillonwy is a gem, while Pig Boy did, I dunno, the bare minimum.  Fucker doesn’t even apologize but whatever let’s get this show on the road already.

Sadly, a great misfortune befalls us after this sweet moment: Gurgi returns.  He’s a bit useful this time, as Gurgi saw Henwen’s tracks, so kudos for that I suppose.  Eilonwy, a character whose major flaw is giving useless tools the benefit of the doubt, encourages the others to follow Gurgi, and thankfully for once Gurgi isn’t being a lying piece of shit.  That’s not just my irrational hatred, either – he literally says, “Gurgi isn’t lying… this time.”

child eating fairies
These creatures steal and eat children.  The movie doesn’t tell us this, and that is irresponsible.

Our heroes then meet some super cutesie fairies that talk in lispy children voices, and all my cynical ass can think of when seeing these Disney Cute ™ pixies is how certain I am that they’re the kind of fairies that steal human babies so they can eat them.  I have never been more certain of anything in my life than this fact.  While The Black Cauldron doesn’t show them eating human children, I know in my heart that as soon as they got off screen those fairies proceeded to devour a human babe down to the bone like cartoon piranhas.

It turns out these child eating fairies also have Henwen, and their King tells a grumpy fairy to get the pig so the humans will leave before they find out the rest of the fairies are eating a human child (that last part is subtext).  The fairies tell our heroes – or, rather, Eilonwy and her useless hangers on – that the Black Cauldron is in Morva, which is, like, another ten minute walk away probably.  They also take Henwen back home for our heroes while sending the grumpy fairies to guide them, which kind of makes Henwen’s role in the story seem a little pointless, but the plot’s progressing so we can’t complain.

Our heroes find the pawn shop of Morva, which is run by three witches.  Pig Boy lets all the witches’ frogs out, and the grumpy fairy informs him that those frogs were people.  The witches arrive and are somewhat rightfully pissed that Pig Boy stole their frogs (to be fair, it’s less that he stole them and more that he released them, but semantics).

Witches
This shot is actually from later in the movie, but it’s the best one of ’em I got because they move freakin’ quick.

I cannot stress how fun these witches are – they are some of the best characters in the movie.  They’ve each got unique and big personalities, and the movie is a lot more fun when they’re on screen.  Design-wise they could do with being a little creepier, but they make up for it by being very expressive and, well, animated.

Pig Boy asks for the black cauldron, and then his sword starts cutting up the witches’ pottery on its own, making the head witch desire that sword intensely.  The witches scheme to trade the black cauldron for the sword, since the black cauldron is kind of useless as far as they’re concerned.  More to the point, they think it will be useless to the heroes, and thus they can eventually take it back at no cost since the heroes will inevitably abandon it.  Pig Boy, to his credit, sacrifices the sword for the cauldron.

The cauldron emerges from the earth, and the head witch tells them how a living being must climb into the cauldron of their own free will to end its evil power – and they will die if they do so.  Or, as the wackiest witch puts it: “Of course we said you could have the cauldron – we never said you could do anything with it!”  Upon realizing their quest kinda ended in a big fart, the group sulks while the grumpy fairy leaves, never developing a personality beyond “is inexplicably angry forever.”  He will be missed.  Pig Boy tries to rouse everyone’s spirits with a speech, but they get captured by the Horned King’s men while Gurgi slinks away, because Gurgi is a piece of shit.

Back at the Horned King’s place, the Horned King taunts our heroes before raising an army of the dead in a pretty badass scene, especially for a Disney film.  It’s like a miniature recreation of “Night on Bald Mountain” from Fantasia.  The stupid buffoonish henchmen run away as the skeletons rise up to replace them.  Overall, things look PRETTY BAD for our heroes.

Army of the Dead
The blur effect is actually in the movie, not from my bad screencapping.  Ok, not JUST from my bad screencapping.

Sadly, Gurgi shows up and saves Pig Boy, and Pig Boy decides to stop the cauldron.  Gurgi denies us that satisfaction, but, to make up for it, he throws himself in the cauldron instead, so all in all it kind of evens out.  Gurgi’s death unfortunately kills all the cool skeleton warriors, and the Horned King fumes at the fact that he hasn’t been allowed to do anything this entire goddamn movie.

Horned King with Eyes
Also it turns out he’s had eyes this whole time and he looks FREAKIN’ RAD with em!  I usually prefer my skeletons eye-less, but holy shit I wish we saw more of those peepers because they are RAD AS HELL.

He then goes off to see what’s up with his cauldron, and runs into Pig Boy.  The Horned King tries to kill Pig Boy, but Pig Boy manages to feebly kick him, which is apparently enough to knock the Horned King into the path of the cauldron.  The Horned King gets sucked in and dies a pretty gruesome death, which almost makes up for the fact that he didn’t get to do anything this whole damn movie.

Pretty Gnarly
If your kids are scared by this, just tell them that rotting flesh is delicious chocolate pudding instead!

Creeper realizes his boss’s death means an end to his perpetual abuse, and flies away on one of those wicked sweet dragons.  Our heroes escape, and for some reason Eilonwy has lost the spunk and gumption she had in earlier scenes, letting Pig Boy take the lead in finding an escape route for them.  And by “for some reason” I mean “so Pig Boy can look heroic.”  I dislike this.  I dislike that Eilonwy is made useless in the escape so Pig Boy can be useful.  This is bad and I don’t care for it.

The witches return to gloat, saying that Pig Boy worked so hard to get the cauldron only to find out it was useless to him.  Harp guy finally does something noteworthy by demanding payment for the cauldron.  The witches offer the sword back, but Pig Boy instead asks for Gurgi, because he’s realized “I’m not a warrior, I’m a pig boy.”  The witches reluctantly bring the great evil back into the world, and the audience is reminded that no struggle comes without a price and that wickedness shall never truly die as Gurgi returns to life.

Our heroes then walk off into the sunset, ready to start the thirty minute walk back to Pig Boy’s house – and, had this movie not tanked, perhaps more short, uneventful walks to other locations.

Pros

Pros
I just wanted to see my lovely children one last time.
  • Eilonwy is an excellent heroine. She could have easily been a damsel in distress to be saved, or the equally stereotypical subversion of a tomboy princess who hates dresses and don’t need no man to save her (until the final act when she does).  Instead, she’s a more subtle and nuanced subversion of the Princess stereotype – capable and independent without being stubborn or foolhardy.  I wish she was the main character.  Can you imagine a version of this movie where she got the sword?  I can and I want it.  I want that movie.
  • The Witches are excellent minor antagonists, and one of the better takes on the Trickster archetype I’ve seen in a Western animated film. I love tricksters, so they were very welcome.  They liven up every scene they’re in, and you can tell the animators loved bringing them to life.  I wish there was more of them, but I’m glad what we got of them was so good.
  • The Horned King’s character design and voice acting is magnificent. John Hurt brings a lot of subtlety and nuance to the character, taking lines that other actors would boom and shout and instead saying them with a quiet intensity.  He booms when he needs to, of course, and it’s excellent when he does, but he dials it back so those loud moments are all the more effective.  Between the voice and the design, the Horned King is a villain with great potential.
  • Creeper is an excellent villainous lackey. His design is the right mix of lovably pathetic and creepy monster, allowing him to move from nasty to sympathetic at a drop of a hat.  His dynamic with the Horned King does wonders for both their characterizations, and both his voice actor and the animators seemed to be giving 110% when bringing him to life.
  • Those gnarly sweet sick nasty dragons! I love them!  They’re like little Maleficent jr.s!  I wish they were in more of the movie!
  • The backgrounds for the movie are lovely, giving it an enchanted atmosphere. When it needs to be spooky, it’s spooky.  When it needs to be whimsical, it’s whimsical.  As far as set design goes, this movie is pretty good.
  • Since this movie was made by the ever affluent House of Mouse, the animation is better than probably any other 1980’s Western animated Fantasy film. While I vastly prefer the efforts of Rankin Bass, I have to admit that this is animated better. I mean, it’s got Disney money, not made-for-tv money, so that’s kind of a given.
  • The music for this film is great. There’s some typical whimsical fantasy tunes that you’d expect, but also some great spooky “oooOooooOOOOOoooo” type music.  If I knew music better I could probably describe that in a way that seems less childish, but you’ll get what I’m saying if you watch the movie yourself.
  • A lot of people call the whiny boy protagonist “pig boy,” and that makes me happy.
  • I also like that this story ends with Pig Boy admitting he’s not a hero, but that’s ultimately a small conciliation for the stuff we had to suffer through for him to have that revelation.

Cons

The Bad
“Nnngggnnnh, why doesn’t everyone see how awesome I am?”
  • Taran, AKA Pig Boy. As you may have gleaned, I do not like Pig Boy.  To be most accurate, though, what I really don’t like is the archetype Pig Boy’s following.  Pig Boy is the “whiny boy adventurer,” a petulant little twerp who shows up in far too many sci-fi and fantasy stories to count.  The Whiny Boy Adventurer expects adventure to find him, and begins the story angry that his adventure hasn’t started yet.  He feels that people should already see him as an epic hero, that he should be respected and feared and admired even though he’s just a (insert humble backstory here).  The Whiny Boy Adventurer doesn’t really want to save the world – he wants glory.  He feels entitled to a marvelous life of daring do and fame, and doesn’t realize that the adventure he covets involves a lot of other people’s suffering until it’s too late.  The Whiny Boy Adventurer differs from other Joseph Campbell Hero’s Journey-style protagonists in that his motives are primarily and often exclusively selfish, and while sometimes a story will humble the Whiny Boy Adventurer a bit, he ultimately always becomes the hero he felt entitled to be – his selfishness is rewarded.
    I call this trop the Whiny Boy Adventurer for a reason, as this fantasy is almost exclusively a male one.  Fiction expects little boys to be selfish dicks who don’t care about others’ feelings – this shit goes all the way back to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, if not earlier.  We encourage this behavior in young boys, and while there are some stories of Whiny Girl Adventurers, they aren’t nearly as prominent.  As a person who was a young boy and thus was the target audience of these movies, I have hated this trop since I was very young.  I hate that my childhood ideal of heroism was expected to be so self-serving.  I hate that the likes of Pig Boy were the role models I was expected to look up to.  Child me would have much rather followed someone like Eilonwy, who’s a good example of how you do the “young person who loves adventure” trope without making the child in question a selfish asshole.
    To Pig Boy’s credit, he is humbled more than most, and he ends the story realizing he’s not really meant to be a hero.  He goes back to being a pig farmer.  That’s a better message than most Whiny Boy Adventurer stories have, but at the end of the day we still had to sit through a whole story of some selfish dick learning that he was a selfish dick, while a much more interesting hero sat in his backseat, never getting to take the reins.
  • I also hate Gurgi. Like Pig Boy, I understand that this is an irrational hate, and more a case of me hating an archetype than just the character itself.  Gurgi is so odious in how blatantly he’s designed to be “lovable.”  Haha, what a scamp he is, stealing food and running off when trouble rears its head!  Aw, how cute he is, with his weird dog face and ape body and hair that makes him look sort of like a tiny little old man as he crawls around this preteen’s body searching his crevices!  What a delight it is to watch this lovable rascal scamper about talking in the third person and occasionally rhyming words!  Gurgi is a fucking Hallmark card, a calculated ploy to manipulate our feelings on a shallow level, designed by people who have never genuinely felt warmth or laughter in their cold, calculated lives.  Gurgi sucks.
  • A lot of the characters in this movie have nothing to do. It’s not a case of there being too many characters, mind you – it’s more that there’s not enough plot to go around.  The story is “boy takes pig into woods, loses pig, finds pig, loses pig again, escapes castle, finds pig, sends pig off, goes to pawn shop, gets taken back to castle, escapes castle.”  Some of the other characters are involved in those scenes, but overall there’s not much going on.  Harp Guy does nothing of note till the last minute.  Gurgi does little of note except for finding pig tracks one time and sacrificing himself for the greater good.  Even Eilonwy – sweet, wonderful Eilonwy – is robbed of anything to do once they get out of the castle, and doesn’t get much more to do than be around while Pig Boy stumbles into more shenanigans.  There was a fairy who did nothing more than announce a scene transition before taking off because he felt the story was pointless.  Worst of all, though, is our poor antagonist, who for all his wicked design and excellent voice acting has little more to do than sit in a chair and watch stuff happen around him.  If Creeper wasn’t around for the Horned King to strangle occasionally, his villainy would be entirely something we are told rather than shown.  Speaking of…
  • This movie violates the “Show, Don’t Tell” rule of storytelling, and it violates it bad. Why is the Horned King a Villain?  Well, because everyone says he is.  Why is his scheme bad?  Well, because we told you he’s bad, obviously.  What’s he gonna do with those skeleton warriors?  Bad things, you can imagine I’m sure.  I kept making jokes about how things were only a brisk walk away because the movie never really takes the time to show the scale of Pig Boy’s journey, and as a result it really feels like he’s taking at most an hour’s walk from his house.  The scale of the setting and the conflict is never really established.  It’s never felt.  The Horned King looks scary, but he doesn’t do much, so he’s really not that frightening in the end.  The scenes we see are lovely, but they don’t feel like they have weight.  We’re told what we’re witnessing is important and dangerous and fantastical, but rarely if ever are we shown it.  The witches, for all their goofiness, are more established as a source of conflict and intrigue than our villain, and they’re minor characters!
  • Compounding this issue, much of what we’re shown doesn’t fit what we’re told, specifically when it comes to character design. The Horned King looks the part he’s playing – he’s the Sauron of our story, and he looks like the kind of villain who would scare the world.  His minions, though?  Well, Creeper gets a pass because of the archetype he’s playing, and the dragons are excellent, but the rest of the Horned King’s army are as threatening as a wet paper towel.  They’re the bad guys heroes would meet early on in the story, trounce easily, and never think of again, except here they hang on till the climax as the Horned King’s most powerful henchmen.  They’re too silly and goofy for their roles, and while that kind of explains why the Horned King wants to replace them with skeletons, it still leaves us with a main threat that’s way too comic for the dire stakes the story claims to possess.  Contrast them with the goblins of Rankin Bass, who, while comical at times, are still intensely threatening, even when they’re singing!  Similarly, while I love the witches in this, I feel like their deisgns could have been so much more interesting if they had been allowed to get a little creepier – once more I wonder what it would have been like if Rankin Bass had done the character design instead.  For all the claims that this movie was “too dark,” it really needed to go darker.  It needed to embrace its creepiness, and instead it dials it back.
  • A lot of the other character designs just feel so… stock. I swear Pig Boy’s mentor has been in at least a dozen other Disney movies – he’s, like, their standard Old Man design.  Harp guy even uses basically the same design, except slightly ganglier and with a slightly rounder face.  There’s a cat early on in the film that I had trouble realizing was a cat until it meowed because it just had, like, the stock “fuzzy fat cute animal” body, with, like, a short bushy squirrel tail?  Pig Boy, Eilonwy, the Horned King, and Creeper are the only characters whose designs really feel like they fit what the characters were going for, rather than repurposing some stock Disney character design tropes that kinda sorta not really fit.  Well, ok, we’ll add the dragons to that list too if we count them as characters.  And, yes, technically Gurgi’s design fits his character too, but Gurgi is an awful, wretched, treaclely sort of character, so I refuse to award points for that.

So Is It Good?

So Was It Good

I want to say yes.  I want to say this is an underrated classic, a tragic tale of a story that was good but was released at a bad time by producers who didn’t know what to do with it.  I want to say it’s another The Nightmare Before Christmas or The Iron Giant, and that history will vindicate it.  I want to be on this movie’s side.

But it’s not.  Sadly, it’s not.

There are a lot of faults in Disney’s approach to animated films, but to give credit where it’s due, they’re very good at telling tightly written fairy tales with light comedic tones, genuine intrigue, and moments of real emotion.  When they do that well, they do it better than almost any other animation studio.  The Black Cauldron is darker than what they normally handle, but it’s not the only animated Disney film that went dark.  Two of my favorite Disney movies, The Nightmare Before Christmas and The Great Mouse Detective, are at least equally dark as this film.  While both of those weren’t huge successes when they premiered, they’ve become beloved cult classics, and there’s a reason for that: they’re good stories.  While they had darker tones than other Disney cartoons, they kept up the well written characters, the tight storytelling, and the sense of scale and grandeur.  They’re both stories where every hero, antagonist, and supporting characters gets to do something, where every scene has a purpose and builds a sense of a grand adventure.  They’re well told stories.

The Black Cauldron isn’t well told.  The scope of the conflict is never really felt, most of the named cast members don’t actually effect the plot that much if at all, and the protagonist is kind of insufferable (that last bit may be my bias, admittedly).  I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s bad – you won’t come away from it feeling you wasted your time, or angry that someone forced you to see this garbage.  But it’s not good.  It’s good enough where you can see the story it could have been, and flawed enough to make you furious that it isn’t that better story instead.  The real tragedy of The Black Cauldron is that it could have been better than it is, but it never reached that lofty goal.  I don’t know if that explains its failure, but it does justify it – I can see why few people went to bat for this.  It’s not worth hating, but most of what you can defend about it lies in its potential, rather than the story it actually is.

I’ve read that the movie was edited quite a bit – that test audiences hated the rough cut, and that it might even have gotten an R rating for its gruesome imagery.  Maybe this was a movie that was killed in the editing room.  Maybe there was at one point a version of this story that could live up to its underdog status – a cut that was the hidden gem that Disney just didn’t understand.  But that’s definitely not the cut we got.

I know this review is ending on a rather negative note, but I would like to say that this movie is worth checking out.  If you ever watched a Rankin Bass fantasy movie and wondered what it might look like with, y’know, a decent budget, parts of this movie will feel a bit like wish fulfilment.  It will also give you an idea of the movie it could have been, and that idea is a pretty good one.  Finally, it has Princess Eilonwy, Creeper, the Horned King, and those wicked sweet dragons.  They deserved a better story than they got – don’t add to their indignity by forgetting them.

Between Logic and Enchantment: The Hobbit (1977)

I know this is only the second entry of Between Logic and Enchantment, but I want to shake things up a bit anyway.  Instead of the typical “break down the story plot point by plot point with analysis and light snark,” we’re going to jump around a bit while discussing one of my SECOND favorite Rankin Bass animated Fantasy film: their 1977 adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit.  Why such an unconventional approach, you ask?  Well, first, let’s all be honest – does anyone who’s a fantasy fan really need to be told the plot of The Hobbit?  Tolkien’s works are so influential on the Fantasy genre that they’re looked upon with disdain by many who want more variety in their tales of sword and sorcery – in fact, many Fantasy writers nowadays are defined as good because of how they break from Tolkien’s mold.  If you are one of the few who need a summary of the book, do yourself a favor and read it – it’s a wonderful book in my opinion (and may warrant a review of its own further down the road), and even if it’s not your cup of tea, it’s good reading just for the sake of seeing how it set up trends that have continued long after its publication.

If you really, REALLY need a summary of it by me, here you go: there’s a hobbit named Bilbo Baggins.  He is convinced by a wizad into going on a quest with some dwarves to their old home in the Lonely Mountain.  He goes there and comes back again, facing challenges, making and losing friends along the way, and learning lessons about life and about himself.  There ya go, that’s The Hobbit.  From here on out, this review assumes you have some familiarity with the story.

Secondly, a subject as well known and influential as this allows us to look as a particularly pressing issue with Fantasy fiction in film: the pros and cons of adaptation.  With a story as iconic and influential as The Hobbit, you’d have no doubt that people would try to adapt it to different mediums to make money.  However, as many a Fantasy fan will tell you, adaptations of Fantasy stories tend to be less than faithful.  Of course, a certain level of change is required to adapt a story from one medium to another – that’s kind of what the word “adaptation” means.  Some adaptations fail because they don’t change enough, but if you ask most fans, the vast majority fail because they change too much.

So for this entry in Between Logic and Enchantment, and perhaps a few future ones as well, we’re going to be considering our topic less as its own story and more on how it works as an adaptation.  What does it change?  What does it keep true to?  What works and what doesn’t?  Without further ado, let’s dig into the 1977 animated adaptation of The Hobbit.

This adaptation has a less than stellar reputation nowadays, with many considering it “cheesey” – the adjective we ascribe to stories whose flaws are being old and heartfelt.  The recent development of three shiny, new, and ridiculously expensive movies supposedly based on the same novel has not helped it in this regard – why would anyone give this dusty old made for TV movie the time of day when we have a star studded live action trilogy filled with the most costly CGI spectacles that busloads of money can buy?  How can its folksy charms compare to the supposed acting talent of Bandersnatch Cranglesmith?

Well, let me count the ways.

1: Character Design

Tolkien’s novels have a lot of great visualization in them. Dude knows how to paint an image in his writing, even if he sometimes drags on a bit. He also put so much detail into his world building that you kind of need a meticulous eye for detail to capture the best aspects of his writing. This is something I think the 77 Hobbit movie does really well, even when they sometimes have to change or add things that weren’t in the original text to aid in the transition to film.

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The dwarves are one of the most problematic elements of the original novel when it comes to adapting it into a visual medium. In the book, they’re mostly interchangeable, with the exception of Thorin (i.e. the one who is a character) and Bombur (the one who is a fat joke). This is one of several instances of whimsy in the original novel, and it works there because saying “13 dwarves ran about doing shit” allows the audience to immediately get a nice image of what’s going on while they read. Giving them all really similar names also allows the scenes where you do identify them individually to feel silly and light-hearted. It makes for some fun jokes and visuals when written down, but when you can actually see all those dwarves, well, there’s a bit of a problem.

The 77 Hobbit movie deals with this fairly well. It takes all the dwarves that have similar sounding names – Dori, Ori, and Nori, Balin and Dwalin, etc. – and gives them similar designs. You can pick out the groups well enough (those super old looking ones? Balin and Dwalin. The young happy ones? Kili and Fili.), but there’s still a little whimsical confusion over which one in which group is which. It also helps stress the familial ties beneath those similar names. The whimsy is preserved ALONG with the idea of family units involved on an adventure, something that is key not only in Tolkien’s writing, but in the medieval tales he was inspired by (and imitating).

I’d also like to note how the dwarves, Bilbo, and Gandalf all look humanoid, yet not quite human. All three technically aren’t humans, so making the physical difference starker than just height and pointy ears is, well, logical. It’s something that’s obviously easier to do in animation than in live action, but still a point I’d like to make in this movie’s favor.

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The Hobbit also has some really creepy takes on standard fantasy monsters. We’ll just focus on the trolls for now – with their weird fleshy snouts, scraggly hair, and tusks, they take some of the more often forgotten traits of folkloric trolls and bring them to the forefront to make a truly weird and unnerving monster that oozes with personality. These creatures don’t just look like generic, pale cretinous ogres, but something you could see getting into an argument with goats while lurking under a bridge.

Part 2: Music

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“There’s a magic in that music.” ~ Gandalf

One of the jokes people make about Tolkien’s literature is its use of songs. There’s a case to be made against them – “Tra La La Lalley” is one of the reasons I fuckin’ hate the goddamn fuckin’ elves with a fiery passion – but a lot of his music serves a purpose beyond just paying homage to the musical nature of medieval tales (most Arthurian myths are ballads). Many of them advance the plot in a unique and beautiful way, giving the audience exposition on the setting, conflict, and characters in a way modern fiction rarely attempts.

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Perhaps the most notable song in The Hobbit – both the book and this adaptation – is “Misty Mountains Cold.”  In addition to being a haunting piece of poetry, it effectively conveys the backstory of the dwarves in a fashion that is much more interesting than, say, just having some asshole tell it to you in a fifteen minute long speech. Conveying this information in song has an inherently mythical and enchanting tone to it- it’s not just history, it’s lore. Music, as Gandalf notes, is magical.  The 77 movie exploits this to its full extent, creating a stylized montage of the dwarf history that the song relates to us.  It matches the poetry perfectly and helps translate the mythic feel of the text to a dreamlike and powerfully emotional animated sequence.

I mean, seriously, how clever is that? You have this beautiful, haunting, enchanting, and utterly iconic song, and it just so happens to also give some well needed exposition in a way no other story does. You’d have to be a fucking moron NOT to use it for that purpose.

The music in this special sets the mood really well, and while some of it is a little corny (particularly that goddamn “Tra La La Lalley”), a lot of it contributes to the story in a very unique way that could not be done with any other method. There are plenty of fantasy cartoons out there, but none feel quite like this special – none have that Tolkien touch on their soundtrack.

Part 3: Goblins!

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MOTHER
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FUCKING
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GOBLINS

Yeah, since what makes these guys so badass is the way they mix excellent character design AND excellent music, I decided to give them their own section.  They are quite possibly all this movie’s strengths distilled.

“Goblin” is a wastebucket genus in both mythology and Fantasy fiction – it can mean practically any type of monster you can think of.  However, if I had to describe in detail what the quintessential goblin was WITHOUT being  lazy and saying “a green guy with pointy ears,” this would not be far off from what I come up with. That mishmash of frog, cat, boar, whatever those antlers come from, and… I dunno, just raw childhood nightmares I guess?  It screams goblin.

Design alone isn’t their strength, though, as these guys are just as much “goblin” in personality as they are in looks, which is to say they’re a bunch of nasty, brutal, and utterly vicious little fuckers.  The goblins in this special are introduced with one of the most menacing and bombastic villain songs I can recall as they declare just how FUCKED our heroes are.  They don’t fuck around while they’re singing, either: they spend every verse chaining up our poor, meek heroes with ease and (it is suggested) eating their ponies off screen. Even with the movie’s occasionally less than stellar voice acting, these guys never let up on nightmarish imagery and utter brutality, establishing their malice with every scene they’re in.

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Jesus Christ, Peter Jackson, quit putting the eye of Sauron into every bad guy and HOLY SHIT WHY DOES IT HAVE TWO THROATS

The goblin king stands out in my memory as being particularly nightmarish, despite his admittedly kind of weak vocal performance.  Did you know that in Tolkien’s book he was described as being big enough to swallow a man whole? Now, while some might read that description and think, “Let’s make an ogre with a giant scrotum-shaped tumor on its chin,” this special went a different route.

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The results are in and, yep, that’s just big enough to swallow a man whole. Also, this imagery will recur throughout my childhood nightmares, so thanks for that.

Oh, and going off our little bit about the power of music in Tolkien’s story…

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You can stick as much metal in their skin as you like, replace their hands with crude hooks, or have them be riddled with various nasty diseases, but nothing will make the goblins more hardcore fucking terrifying than having them sing about burning our heroes alive in grisly detail WHILE DOING THE DEED IN THE PROCESS. I mean, the dwarves survive and all, but the goblins got pretty close to watching their beards blaze, eyes glaze, hairs swell, skins crack, fat melt and bones black.

This 1977 cartoon realized that not a lot needed to change or be added to make Tolkien’s goblins scary.  They’re horrible monster men who live in caves, eat people, and gleefully sing gruesomely detailed songs about how they’re going to torture, mutilate, and violently kill their victims.  Cutting elements of that formula – like, say, those lovely, carnage-filled songs – would be a bad move, and it is thankfully a move this film did not make.

Part 4: Gandalf and the Whimsy of Wizards

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Y’know that whole “A wizard is never late, nor early” bit in The Fellowship of the Ring? It’s actually a consistent part of Gandalf’s characterization in the books, and one of the subtler ways he is made magical and unearthly. Gandalf seems to show up almost at random – there are some moments he arrives in the nick of time, some where he leaves just before the trouble starts, and some where he is gone when you think he would be needed most. He doesn’t make excuses about it in the movie – he just tells our heroes that, frankly, he has a lot of irons in the fire and they can politely get off his ass about it.

There are a lot of good Gandalf moments in the many various adaptations of Tolkien’s writing, but one of the most iconic to me occurs here, where Gandalf appears out of nowhere just as the armies of humanity, dwarves, and elves are about to fight over something stupid. After being insulted by them before they recognize who he is, Gandalf reveals that an actual threat is coming that will destroy all three armies unless they join forces. They didn’t even know they needed Gandalf, and yet here he is, interrupting their big “war” with news about an actually important problem.  It makes Gandalf feel like he’s on a higher plane of existence, beyond the petty concerns of mortals but willing to help them in true times of peril.

Part 5: A Different Flavor of Gollum

 

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I know we’re all fond of Andy Serkis, but the actor voicing Gollum here has the creepiest German accent since Peter Lorre.

The Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings movies have made what is probably the definitive visual interpretation of Gollum, perhaps rightfully so. It gets straight to the point and is an iconic performance – one that was literally a game changer for the special effects industry and, if I may be so bold in saying what others have said a thousand times over, film itself as a medium. It is rightfully praised.  However, it isn’t necessarily the only valid visual interpretation of the character, and the 77 Hobbit film offers a very different but incredibly intriguing alternative.

Uber nerds Tolkien fans may note that orcs and goblins in this universe are technically descended from elves, having been mutated and reshaped into something monstrous by the dark magic of Morgoth (Sauron’s boss, for those not up to the sizable challenge of reading and understanding the medieval style text of The Silmarillion). Is it that far of a stretch, then, that a Hobbit could have been turned into this?

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Holy shit can you imagine Gollum voiced by Peter Lorre though?  Goddamn that would be excellent.

I mean, it has some resemblance to the movie’s hobbit designs, with the big ears, the massive eyes, and even the proportions of its limbs. Its mutations make it seem well suited for a life in the dark and diseased corners of the earth – just like goblins and trolls. It’s not as obvious as, say, a thinner, sicklier looking human, but it does in its own way look pathetic and corrupted – something that could have been cute in a straight forward way, but was twisted to being cute in a creepy way instead. I’m not saying it’s better than the live action version, it’s just different and more, well, creative. A valid alternate take.

Part 6: Bilbo and Thorin’s Character Dynamic

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Bilbo and Thorin have an important character dynamic in the story, as Thorin plays an important role as Bilbo’s foil. At first Thorin seems perfect for the role of adventuring party leader – he’s a king (leadership), a warrior (knows how to fight the many monsters they face), and he’s personally invested in the quest. In short, Thorin is everything the standard hero of a Medieval myth – and, let’s be honest, also most Fantasy stories – would be.  However, he’s also a short sighted, self centered jackass who blunders into things without guile or forethought. By contrast, Bilbo is a sheltered, peaceful, relaxed guy who doesn’t want treasure or glory – just a few comforts and, perhaps, a little more knowledge of the world. When it comes to being the standard Fantasy protagonist, Bilbo falls short of almost every mark.  However, he’s also incredibly clever, and far better at negotiating and putting others’ needs before his own. Bilbo is selfless and smart, and both these traits prove far more valuable than being able to kill things and proclaim yourself king over the corpses.

The Hobbit has no delusions about Thorin being the protagonist, even if Thorin himself does. This is Bilbo’s story, and Thorin is just there to make us see all the clearer that Bilbo is the true hero.  That’s what foils are for, rather than, say, stealing the focus of two out of three movies in the trilogy to the point where people wonder why the titular hobbit is even there.

Part 7: Bilbo’s Character Arc

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The moment where Bilbo goes from “naive newcomer” to “party leader” happens when the group encounters the spiders. Before this, all the dwarves have spent most of their interactions telling Bilbo he’s a coward and a weakling (even though neither of those are true). They never outright say it, but you can tell that the dwarves think he’s not really suited for adventuring, and Bilbo fears they’re correct on several occasions.

Then they’re all caught by spiders, and that’s where Bilbo shows his quality. Alone and outnumbered, Bilbo takes out his sword and magic ring and proceeds to put the fear of Eru (Lord of the Rings God) into these arachnids. After a daring rescue and more than a few spider slayings, Bilbo’s role and reputation in the group is irrevocably altered.  From here on out he is basically their leader in all but name, much to the consternation of Thorin. It’s a critical moment of Bilbo’s character development in the book, and it’s replicated exactly as it should be in the film – y’know, as if Bilbo is the main character or something.

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The climax of Bilbo’s journey, both in the book and the 77 film, is the conversation with Smaug – a scene so well written and iconic that its chapter has been published independently of the novel itself, appearing in at least one anthology of Dragon stories.  Few chapters of any novel can make that claim.  The 77 movie’s adaptation of this scene is, well, mostly perfect (which is to say slightly not perfect as well). I have some minor quibbles with the voice acting of and design for the dragon, but the writing of the scene is just as it should be, which is to say it preserves the dialogue, character dynamic, and story purpose that the scene is supposed to have. This scene is meant to be a battle of wits, testing all the guile and courage Bilbo has honed over the course of his journey against a foe who cannot be defeated with brawn alone.  The scene works because Smaug is actually interested in what Bilbo has to say, playing along with the conversation instead of just issuing threats and trying to eat him. There’s even some of the dragon’s wit and sarcasm here – “Lovely titles!” he says as Bilbo lists off his made up names for himself.

(Also, no one butchers Smaug’s iconic speech and replaces it with lines like “My armor is iron!” and “I am fire! I am death!”, so that’s nice.)

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As much as I love to ramble on about Smaug, though, he isn’t the true star of that conversation. It’s really about Bilbo besting the dragon – the dragon’s development is just there to make Bilbo’s victory all the more meaningful. And the movie knows this, because they emphasize the hell out of it. “To take those steps… that would be the bravest of all moments,” Bilbo thinks to himself outside the dragon’s room, “Whatever happens afterwards that would be nothing. Yes, here is where you fight your real battle Mr. Baggins.”  Bilbo’s riddles to the wyrm are well crafted, and throughout the entire conversation he has the upper hand. He even tricks Smaug into revealing his weak spot, rather than having it, say, told to him before the conversation in a piece of needless exposition back in Laketown.  This is, without a doubt, the story’s climax, and the one where Bilbo proves himself as worthy a hero as any other. This 77 cartoon understands this and gets it exactly right, rather than rewriting it so to make the dragon more concerned with Bilbo’s foil, Thorin.  You wouldn’t think that’d be hard, would you?

Part 8: Preservation of the Nature Theme

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The importance of living in harmony with the natural world is a huge theme in Tolkien’s work. While it’s probably best showcased by the ent subplot in The Lord of the Rings, it’s still present in The Hobbit. With its lush watercolor backgrounds, the 77 film makes nature look every bit as wild and lovely as Tolkien describes it. One of the less talked about important moments in the novel, where Bilbo climbs to the top of Mirkwood forest and is awestruck at its beauty as he sees large black butterflies unlike any he has ever seen before flying across the treetops, is presented here with a flourish of music and a long, thoughtful pause in a movie that is otherwise almost breathless in its quick pace. The film knows we have to stop and appreciate the beauty in Bilbo’s journey as much as we experience the terror and excitement of fighting goblins and trolls.

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Sup it’s me, king of the eagles.  I hear you guys said I could solve every problem in this series if I just acted like a taxi instead of a living being with needs and shit. Wanna fight about it?

Going off this idea: letting the eagles and the thrush talk like they do in the book is a great way of turning the benevolent forces of nature into characters instead of just a deus ex machina. It also answers that obnoxious “why not just use the EAAAAAAAAGLES” question every pretentious fucker brings up as a “plothole” in the series.  When the eagles can, y’know, speak, it becomes clear that they’ve got their own lives and problems, which might explain why they can be used as transportation whenever the heroes feel like it. The King of Eagles saved Gandalf here as a favor, but he has a whole nation of his own to take care of. He can’t just screw around with these asshole dwarves – hell, even the other dwarf nations won’t do that! Dude’s got eagle business to attend to. Nature is a beautiful thing, sure, and one these stories thinks we should protect and that will protect us in turn, but it’s not our servant. It’s a king in its own right.

Part 9: The Greedy Idiocy of War

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These blue skinned nightmare elves?  Yeah, that’s Legolas’ family.

One of the things that kinda bugs me in the book is that the Mirkwood elves are total dicks to the dwarves, but the book still acts like they deserve some of Smaug’s treasure anyway. The 77 film makes it a bit more explicit why they have a point: Thorin and his group snuck into his territory and refuse to tell him why they’re there, specifically because they want the treasure all for themselves. As Bilbo points out, their greed made them lose a valuable potential ally – the elves would have been really useful backup.  This moment then turns from one that kinda irks me into one that foreshadows the battle of five armies in a clever way. It’s a very pragmatic way to adapt the story without needing to change its content all that much.

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The movie goes out of its way to paint war as something stupid and petty – and something people like Thorin bring upon themselves because of their selfishness. Bilbo, as a voice of reason, frequently points out that the conflict is ENTIRELY avoidable. There are enough resources to satisfy them all, but it’s Thorin’s “principles” (i.e. selfishness) that drive the dwarf to ignore that fact and make two potential allies friends. Only the threat of a FOURTH army coming in for the treasure makes these selfish idiots put aside their stupid grudge, settling on the exact solution Bilbo suggested in the first place.

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When the battle is over, Thorin straight up admits to Bilbo that the hobbit is right – and this is on Thorin’s death bed, BTW. Dude straight fucked up by causing these war shenanigans. The theme of the book is preserved: war is hell, and like hell it is entirely avoidable if you’re selfless and have a little common sense.  Or, to put it another way: “If more of us valued [Bilbo’s] ways – food and cheer above hoarded gold – it would be a merrier world.”

Part 10: Smart Changes

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In the book Bilbo tries to fight (in the battle he thinks is stupid and pointless, ‘cause it is) and gets knocked out, missing most of the action. The 77 film has him instead just sneak out like a teen at a pep rally and go do something better with his time, because seriously this shit is ridiculous and he has better things to do than watch some assholes fuck around. Though a little morally dubious, this is actually MORE in character for him than what he does in the books, and furthers the theme that abstaining from violence is almost always smarter than partaking in it. It’s a smart change.

They also increase the number of dwarves killed in the fray from three to seven, making the loss caused by Thorin’s path of war and self interest all the more stark: he lost half of his followers in addition to his own life. That is some stark shit right there – war is good for absolutely nothing.

Part 11: Pace

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This special is just shy of 78 minutes long – not even and hour and a half. While it does cut or shorten some sections of the book, it nonetheless hits every important moment in the story, and there isn’t a single scene that is wasted. Every scene advances the plot, the characters’ development, and the world building of the story. Every scene has a purpose, and everything that needed to happen happens. Most importantly, the character arc of Bilbo Baggins, the titular hobbit, is presented in its entirety and kept in focus, which is more than we can say for other adaptations.  Everything charming, touching, and thought provoking about the original book is kept alive and in focus, rather than twisted, smothered, or cut and replaced with meaningless spectacle.  It is a story that leaves you wanting more, rather than much, much less.

It’s a good Hobbit movie. Not the best we could make, but I argue it’s the best we’ve got.

Between Logic and Enchantment: The Flight of Dragons (1982)

While Horror Flora is monster concerned with, y’know, horror, by now the site has established that horror isn’t its sole genre of focus.  It is still my main love as far as fiction goes, of course, but it admittedly wasn’t my first.  No, my first love was Horror’s close cousin, Fantasy, and while Horror has overwhelmingly consumed the bulk of my interest over the years, Fantasy is a strong if somewhat distant number two.    My expertise in Fantasy is not nearly as robust as my expertise in Horror, but my passion for the two is nearly equal, and so I decided to start a new essay segment here on the site: Between Logic and Enchantment, a critical yet sentimental look at Fantasy stories of great note.  We start off this segment with the movie that defined my love of the Fantasy genre: the 1982 Rankin Bass animated classic, The Flight of Dragons.

I saw this movie when I was very young, to the point where it’s one of my earliest memories.  Upon revisiting it a few years ago, I realized how profound of an effect it had upon me, both as a consumer of stories and as a storyteller myself.  Since one of the projects I’m starting now, The Midgaheim Bestiary, is particularly inspired by it, I feel it’s probably the best movie to start off this column.  It may not be the objectively best movie this column reviews, but I don’t think any other movie is quite so personally dear to me, and that matters a lot for a passion project such as this.

The movie opens with a sight straight out of a Metal album cover: a wizard standing on top of a mountain in the light of the rising sun as he calls a massive dragon to his side.  Said wizard is named Carolinus, and proceeds to lay out the film’s setting and core conflict with a brief but, in my opinion, rather beautiful monologue.

“There was a time between the waning age of enchantment and the dawning age of logic when dragons flew the skies, free and unencumbered.”  While the world of the movie is filled with dragons, wizards, and other fantastical beasts, it’s also a world that is seeing the rise of technology, and one that, ultimately, is subject to the rules of science and rationality.  Intriguingly, the movie does not cast the fantastical beings in this world as purely imaginary – they lie between that which exists and that which does not.  Dragons “soar past reality,” sure, but they also “leave illusion behind.”  The movie posites that Fantasy is neither fully real nor fully divorced from reality, but nestled between the two.

The movie’s conflict is almost identical to its setting in many ways: “All mankind is facing an epic choice: a world of magic, or a world of science.  Which will it be?”  The movie poses a question to us: can magic and science (or enchantment and logic, or fantasy and reality) coexist, or must we choose one or the other?  What is the relationship between our fantasy and the real world we live in?  It’s kind of a heady question for what is ostensibly a kid’s film, but it’s presented in a way that I feel lets kids engage the topic without getting confused.

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God it’d be nice if there was a cleaned up version of this movie so the stills didn’t look like shit

The opening montage of the movie focuses on the animals core to the movie’s title – i.e. dragons.  Many people before me have written how dragons are almost synonymous with the Fantasy genre, for good or ill, and this movie definitely plays with that idea in a marvelous way.  The beautiful imagery of these massive reptiles gracefully gliding through the air, smoke and fire streaming from their heads, is surreal and wondrous.  I would go so far as to say it visually sums up the very appeal of the Fantasy genre to me, as it presents us with an image that could not exist, and yet is so enchanting we wish it could.  Notably, the dragons are neither purely beautiful or ugly – they’re big, scaly creatures with bloated bodies, but there’s a grace and majesty to them alongside it.  Magic and fantasy can have warts, lumps, and other blemishes and imperfections of the real world, yet still manage to amaze.

When the opening montage closes, Carolinus and his companion dragon, Gorbash, stop by a farmer’s mill just in time to see a swan and several fairies get crushed by the water wheel.  Carolinus is understandably horrified: “The worlds of magic and logic must exist side by side, not destroy each other!”  The wizard tries to warn the farmers of their insensitivity, and their result adds another layer to the conflict.  Magic is firmly associated with nature – Carolinus says, “My domain is the green world, nature itself and all its inhabitants!” – while science and technology are associated with humanity’s civilization.  Both have negative aspects throughout the film, but one could be right in saying that humanity’s destruction of the mysterious natural world is what sets it off, adding “Nature vs. Technology” to our list of conflicting dichotomies.

Sadly, magic is losing the battle, just as the natural world has failed to overcome the progress and domination of civilization.  Nonetheless, it doesn’t go without a fight.  Another ally of Carolinus, an old dragon named Smrgol, consoles the wizard and offers to eat the farmers for their insult.  It’s important to note that Smrgol is a good guy overall, but he’s also still a dragon, and has dragon solutions to problems.  It is also important to note that dragons are capable of speech in this story – a rule that is far from universal in Fantasy fiction.

Instead of reacting with violence, Carolinus chooses to hold a council with his three brothers, each of whom are associated with a color, an element, and a theme.  Carolinus, the green wizard,  represents earth and the natural order.  The blue wizard represents water as well as the mysterious depths of reality, whether they be the abyss of the ocean, the void of outer space, or the undiscovered country of the afterlife.  The golden wizard represents air, transcendence, philosophy, and harmony.  Finally there is Ommadon, the red wizard, who represent fire and malice.  Given glorious life by James Earle Jones, Ommadon is our main antagonist, and provides just as much bombast and diabolical grandeur as you could want from the actor who also voiced Darth Vader.

Our wizards are all subordinate to an ambiguous force they call “Antiquity,” which ties their magic to yet another concept, the past.  If you’re having trouble keeping up, the dichotomies we’ve collected so far are: Enchantment vs. Logic, Magic vs. Science, Imagination vs. Reality, Nature vs. Technology/Civilization, and Old vs. New.  And, as our wizards point out, their side of this conflict, no matter how you want to define it, is losing, and soon they may pass from existence entirely.

Though he is a villain, Ommadon is the first to bring up the question of a solution to their conflict: “So what are you going to do, sit around like a bunch of old nannies and let it happen?”  Carolinus rises to the challenge, suggesting the creation of a Magic Realm, or, as Ommadon puts it, “A foolish retirement village.”

“The world, though it does not realize it, cannot live without magic!” Carolinus argues, going on to list all the ways magical creatures inspire man.  From the dragon’s thick skin inspiring armor and tanks, to the flight of fairies inspiring airplanes, to even wizards like Carolinus inspiring television and film with their crystal balls, magic – the impossible, the superstitious, the nonexistent creations of imagination – inspires invention.  As Carolinus concludes, “If man is to surmount the insurmountable, there must always be magic to inspire him!”  Fantasy and reality have a symbiotic relationship in Carolinus’s view, as magic inspires man to learn more of the world and create new technological wonders.

Ommadon, however, presents a different viewpoint.  “I will not concede defeat to this modern world!” he rails, “I have weapons you would not dare use!  Fear rules Man!  By summoning all the dark powers, I will infest the spirit of man so that he uses his science and logic to destroy himself!”  Ommadon’s plan preys upon the worst aspects of human nature, working with miscommunication, paranoia, greed, and short-sightedness to make mankind bring ruination upon itself.  He even takes Carolinus’s examples of how fantasy inspire humanity to achieve more and twists them to a grim end.  “I’ll teach man to use his machines!  I’ll show him what distorted science can give birth to!” Ommadon rants as the movie shows us images of humanity tearing down the natural world with construction equipment and slaying each other in war, before building to an even more pressing bit of industrial nightmare imagery. “I’ll teach him how to fly like a fairy,” Ommadon continues as we see a warplane bomber take off into the air, dropping an atom bomb that explodes into a mushroom cloud, or as Ommadon calls it, “The ultimate answer to all his science can ask!”  Where Carolinus sees the potential for wonder among man’s inventions, Ommadon only sees its potential for death and ruin, a potential that his magic’s nefarious inspiration will thrive within.

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It suddenly occurs to me that a lot of the movies I saw as a child featured nuclear annihilation and giant fire breathing reptiles

These two present us with two possible endings for our story’s conflict of dichotomies. Carolinus preaches coexistence, with civilization sustaining magic in their imagination while being inspired to grow by it in turn, while Ommadon preaches mutual destruction, with magic inspiring man to destroy the natural world and civilization in one selfish, short-sighted sprint towards annihilation.  While the other two wizards side with Carolinus, Ommadon will not relent, and sets out instead to enact his plan of destruction.  Only the death of Ommadon will save both magic and humanity, but there is a snag in the plan.

The brothers cannot fight directly – “The eternal laws of enchantment expressly forbid the four magic brothers from warring on one another!” As essential parts of the world, they cannot kill each other despite their power, though they can recruit mortals to help.  Though his brothers offer to help, Carolinus alone must do the task, as the Golden Wizard’s subjects are peaceful, while the Blue Wizard’s are restricted to the uncharted depths of the sea.  His task is to find three heroes who can begin a quest (which must begin with three heroes, no more, no less), though sadly he only has two on his side: his dragon companion Gorbash, and a knight, Sir Orin.

To find a third, Carolinus asks Antiquity, a supernatural force of order that manifests as a tree in this scene (further tying magic to nature).  Antiquity suggests Carolinus find “the Descendant of Great Peter.”  According to Carolinus, Great Peter tamed the dragons of old, while Antiquity claims his descendent – 777 generations removed – is the first of the line to be “a man of science.”  Carolinus is perplexed as to why this matters, just as the audience might be.  However, it is fitting if you think about it: if Carolinus’s forces of magic are fighting to save the harmony of fantasy and reality, it is only fitting that science, the flip side of that coin, lends aid as well.

Our protagonist enters the story at this point, sharing his dragon-taming ancestor’s name: Peter Dickinson.  He lives in the modern era (of the 1980’s) and has invented a game that’s obviously meant to homage D&D, which he is trying to sell to a pawn broker who looks and sounds a bit like Don Knotts.  Peter is sort of the bridge between the two books this film is based on.  While the bulk of its plot comes from a novel called The Dragon and the George, the title and some other aspects from The Flight of Dragons, a speculative biology book written by a real life man named… Peter Dickinson.  And, funnily enough, movie!Peter Dickinson is ALSO writing a book called The Flight of Dragons, which, if it is the same as the real life book of the same name, would have to be inspired by this adventure.  This is all very meta and fun, especially for those who have read the speculative biology book in question – the book version of The Flight of Dragons is, essentially, between enchantment and logic.

Peter’s other invention, the board game, is also important, even if it is an entirely fictional creation of the movie rather than a real thing you could read like the book.  Notably, his game’s miniatures resemble the four brothers, Gorbash, and Carolinus’s daughter, Princess Melisande.  While one might chock this up to a simple plot contrivance, it actually has a rather interesting symbolic meaning.  This game, which requires imagination to enjoy and logic to win, has recreated the world of magic.  There is a direct tie to the fantasies we dream up in our real, dragon-less world, and the Age of Enchantment.    Carolinus makes the connection all the more clear by replacing his miniature on the game board to convince Peter to join the fantasy it represents, and the two literally ride dice into the world of magic. As a D&D player myself, it’s an excellent visual metaphor for how the game transports you to another world via your imagination.  Or, as the movie puts it:

Peter, confused by amazed, asks, “Am I on the game board or in reality?”

“Perhaps somewhere in between,” Carolinus responds, “Imagination is the most potent of all magic.”

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Actual footage of D&D

They arrive in the magical world, at which point Peter promptly flips out when he sees and talks to Smrgol, an actual fucking dragon.  His enthusiasm and wonder if infectious, presenting the exact overwhelming confusion and delight most people would feel when confronted with the impossible things they’ve dreamed of seeing their whole lives.  I think few people who love fantasy would have trouble relating to Peter in this moment, which is important considering he’s our protagonist.

While Peter is understandably awed by encountering a dragon, he is more flustered when he sees Melisande, who he conceived as his dream woman when making his board game.  While seeing the fantasy image of a dragon is an exciting sight, he is more flustered at the slightly more grounded fantasy of his ideal romantic match, basically acting a shy schoolboy when they first meet.  It’s a short, quiet moment, but an interesting one to note for a movie that is constantly exploring the relationship between fantasy and reality.

Gorbash arrives to greet Carolinus, and Peter begins analyzing how the dragon’s body works almost immediately: “the fiery breath has something to do with the dragon’s ability to fly!  But what?”  This is a particularly important character moment, as it shows Peter is both fascinated with the fantasy of what he’s seeing, but also drawn to trying to see the logic behind it.  He doesn’t choose one over the other, but rather tries to bridge the two – and over the course of the film, he succeeds.

Melisande even connects with him in this, as she shows knowledge of dragon biology that proves to be illuminating: “Because dragons tend to ignite ordinary bedding, they find a soft metal to sleep on, and gold proves most comfortable for them.”  She helps Peter realize that his rational questions aren’t out of place, and that there is a reason behind the workings of these fantastical creatures.  While dragons may be imaginary, they can nonetheless be replicated by science.

Later Carolinus shows Peter his library of unwritten books – that is, books that have not been written yet.  From Beowulf to The Wizard of Oz, the ones he list represent a tradition if imagined tales – but also includes Peter’s text, which, as you now know, is a different sort of fiction, as it isn’t a narrative but rather a fictional biology.   To drive this home, Carolinus points out the importance of this detail: “You [Peter] are unique – a man with one foot in the realm of magic, and the other in the realm of science.”  Carolinus’s respect for Peter continues to grow when the modern man suggests drinking milk to deal with his ulcer – a problem no magic spell has managed to solve for the old wizard.  This shows both Carolinus and the audience that Peter’s logical mind may have powers the world of magic may not.

Ommadon, being a competent villain, sends his dragon minion Bryagh to take care of the problem of Peter, even though the red wizard isn’t sure how a logical modern man could threaten his magical power.  The wicked dragon arrives when Peter and Melisande are having a cute moment and easily kidnaps our nerdy hero.  Luckily Peter’s allies are close by and rush to action.  Gorbash flies off to recover him while Carolinus tries to use a spell to just teleport Peter back.

It should be noted that Bryagh, while technically a henchman, is very quickly established as an utterly nasty piece of work.  Our two main dragons, Gorbash and Smrgol, are fairly benevolent and likable, so Bryagh’s utter malice is all the more stark in contrast to them.  Though he gets few lines in the movie, every word out of Bryagh’s mouth is violent and cruel.  Case in point, Bryagh decides to drop Peter when he sees Gorbash in pursuit, sneering “May the rocks crush your skull!” as he does so.  Few dragons in film are as intentionally malicious as this one.

Carolinus’s spell goes through just as Gorbash tries to catch Peter, but, alarmingly, only Gorbash falls to the ground.  Unsure of where Peter went, the others bring Gorbash back to the homestead to recuperate.  Old Smrgol joins the others in watching over his dragon nephew, showing genuine paternal worry for the younger dragon.  However, all are surprised to discover that Gorbash isn’t quite acting like himself – because Gorbash and Peter were merged into one, and now Peter’s mind is at the helm of Gorbash’s body.

Carolinus, in contrast to many other wizards, admits immediately that he fucked that spell up hard, and that the quest is now a bit off since they technically only have two people to start it instead of the necessary three.  Smrgol, despite his incredibly old age, opts to join Peter and Sir Orin on the quest, both to satisfy the need for a magic numeral and so  he can in turn teach Peter how to be a dragon.

With that lead in, the movie indulges in another lesson on dragon biology straight from its literary namesake.  Smrgol explains that dragons need gemstones to breath fire, and rob dwarf mines to get the gems.  This builds a sort of magical ecosystem, with dragons needing dwarves for survival (and providing a reason for dragons to rampage among human/dwarf civilizations and steal gems and gold).  Dragons use the gems to grind limestone in their “craw”, and the ground up limestone helps make the fire inside their body.  Peter theorizes on how this may work in scientific terms: “Limestone is high in calcium, mixed with stomach acids it makes hydrogen, hydrogen lets you float like a blimp.”

Smrgol argues dragons don’t need a complex explanation – “you’ve got fire inside you that makes you go up, that’s all you need to know.”  But, when pressed, Smrgol gives Peter details that help him understand the details anyway.  It’s a merging of magic and science – it allows Peter to have his fantasy and analyze it too.  The tying of dragon fire to dragon flight is important, as they’re the two most fantastical elements of the dragon.

After this we finally get a proper introduction to Sir Orin, the much talked about third member of the questing party.  While chatting with Peter about their shared affection for Melisande, Sir Orin recounts the story of Gorbash’s birth, where he discovers a nest of dragon eggs that Bryagh sets down to devour.  This further establishes Bryagh’s malevolence by showing him to be a child-eating cannibal: “He began to sup on the next generation as it were,” according to Orin.  Orin is only able to save one egg, the one that ultimatley hatches into Gorbash.  Bryagh and Orin’s battle is equal parts silly and badass, which is also a description that works for Orin himself.  Between several almost comical blunders as well as several more genuinely astounding blows, Orin wins by keeping Bryagh from releasing gas before using his metal gauntlet to set off the dragon’s “Thor Thimble” (i.e. the electrical ignition switch dragons use to turn their gas into flame), making Bryagh suffer a somewhat explosive (but not fatal) fall.  This furthers the movie’s growing theme that science is present in fantasy despite the latter’s nature – reality and magic cannot fully be separated, even if beasts like poor Bryagh really wish it could.

The group gathers three more allies from here on out: Aragh, a talking wolf that has been returned to life to help our heroes, Daniel, a beautiful archer who is smitten with Orin, and Giles, an elf.  The scenes that introduce these characters are fun and provide nice character moments for Peter, Smrgol, and Orin, but are ultimately kind of unnecessary.  One of the flaws of this movie is that these three additional adventurers don’t add a lot to the plot – you could cut them entirely and keep the story intact, though it would be slightly less colorful and fun without them.

Eventually our heroes get to the one place all adventurers must visit when questing through a vaguely Medieval European fantasy land: an inn.  Said in is called Hell’s Way, as it lies on the border of “the Realm of the Red Death,” i.e. Ommadon’s domain.  This is when shit starts to get real for our heroes, as we  get a lot of build up for another powerful minion of Ommadon’s that lives near this border: the Ogre of Gormley Keep.  In the classic mythic tradition of monsters like Grendel, the Ogre attacks the Inn at night, when the heroes are sleeping and thus cannot defend themselves.  He kills most of the staff and patrons of the inn before kidnapping Daniel and Orin, forcing Peter and Smrgol to fight him.

The fight between the two dragons and the ogre is pretty brutal, with the ogre outmatching the dragon Peter in terms of raw strength.  Smrgol, despite being older and weaker, jumps into the fray to save Peter, shouting, “Hey you, let that schoolboy go!”  Despite only knowing Peter for a few days, Smrgol has clearly warmed up to him, and he notably uses cleverness and misdirection to destroy the ogre – classic serpent tactics, and also the strengths Peter has that he has forgotten to use in the brutish body of the dragon.  Sadly, Smrgol’s intervention comes at great cost, as the old dragon dies of exertion shortly after the battle ends, leaving Peter in charge of the quest from here on out.

(this fight is also one of the reasons I’ve considered dragons and ogres to be mortal enemies since childhood)

Our heroes face two more challenges as they enter Ommadon’s domain, both of which Peter solves through analysis.  First they encounter a deadly acid, which Peter realizes is sulfuric in nature by smell.  He then basically uses chemistry to figure out how to kill the giant worm creating the acid, saving his alles from death by worm.  This is a notable change from how Peter solved problems earlier in the film, as up till now he relied far too much on the brute strength of his new dragon body without thinking of tactics. The heroes are then cursed with despair, which only Peter resists before using a magic shield to repel it, which admittedly is less in the “using your wits” camp of problem solving and more in the “use a mcguffin” camp, but y’know, points for thinking still.

Infuriated at these failures, Ommadon orders Bryagh to set out with the title: A FLIGHT OF DRAGONS! (Look, if you don’t track this movie down after reading this, at least watch the video in that hyperlink for some quality James Earl Jones voice acting, you will thank me for it.)  That is to say, he asks Bryagh to lead the army of mind controlled dragons he’s collected into battle.  It’s a pretty badass moment, but sadly we don’t have the budget for a battle scene with an army of dragons, so Giles plays a flute to put all the dragons – Peter included – to sleep.  Bryagh remains, however, because unlike the other dragons who were enchanted into wickedness, Bryagh is legitimately fucking evil and refuses to submit. He then proceeds to kill all the helpers of the quest that remain, screaming, “PUNY SCUM OF CAROLINUS, PREPARE TO DIE!” as if to remind us that 1. He can talk and 2. He is an evil S.O.B.  Only Sir Orin manages to put up a good fight against him, eventually killing the cackling monster, though he sadly also perishes from his wounds shortly after.

With all the others dead, we are left with a final confrontation between Ommadon and Peter.  Though Ommadon believes he is victorious at first, Peter emerges from the sleeping Gorbash because he realized two things cannot occupy the same space at the same time, trumping magic with logic.  Ommadon turns into a monstrous, bloated thing with six dragon heads that resemble Bryagh, and challenges Peter to test his power.  Specifically, Ommadon says he can pluck down the sun, and Peter tells him that can’t happen because the sun is no longer in the position Ommadon would reach for: “What you see is the sun’s position 8 and ½ minutes ago… You are magic, mere illusion!  I am logic, science, and the truth!”  After all his trials, Peter realizes that ultimately, for all of magic’s power, it cannot trump the reality of existence.

Ommadon does not accept defeat easily, reminding Peter, “Deny me, and you deny all magic!”  To do away with the evils of imagination – lies, superstition, deceit – Peter must also admit the pleasures of it are equally insubstantial.  Peter does so at great cost, destroying Ommadon with his devotion to logic at the cost of banishing himself from the world of magic.  It is especially awesome when he repels Ommadon’s chanting by listing all the schools of science.

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This is also my reaction to hearing the word “algebra.”

The magic realm is created upon Ommadon’s defeat, and Peter’s allies are revived alongside the slumbering dragons, saving the day.  Melisande wishes to find Peter and thank him, but Carolinus states that Peter cannot return to the Magic Realm:  “The great dome of invisibility grows over our world to protect its sanctity for all time.  And no one on the outside may enter its boundaries, save for the length of a dream or flash of an inspiration.  But it will stay through the years, the centuries, and the ages, a part of man for all time.  And whenever man needs magic, we will be here.”  Melisande persists in her request, and, with some regret, Carolinus agrees to help her.

Peter returns to the modern day world and sells a shield he got on his adventure (and brought with him to the future… somehow, yes it’s a tiny plothole, hush) to fund his game and book.  Melisande follows him, pawning the crown of Ommadon and spending the rest of her life with Peter, showing that at least some bit of fantasy has followed him into reality.

Though not a flawless film, I absolutely adore The Flight of Dragons.  The character design is marvelous, the characters themselves are well portrayed and lovable (even if some are a touch undeveloped), and it is filled with wondrous imagery to inspire the imagination, which it certainly did when I was little and continues to do now.  In addition to all that, it has this wonderful meditation on the purpose of fantasy in a world that is decidedly not fantastical.  Why do we imagine things that do not exist?  Why are we drawn to them?  There are many reasons according to the movie, and though some may be nefarious, we must always remember that fantasy can bring out the best in us.  It can inspire us to create, for there is no other way to make a fantasy real.  We imagine what doesn’t exist so that it can become – and if we imagine a better world, perhaps that can help us find a way to make our world better.

The Midgaheim Bestiary: Preface

There were two kinds of books I read more than any other when I was a little kid: books about zoology, and books about mythological monsters.  Both fascinated me for the same reasons, as they allowed me a glimpse into a world of amazing creatures I might never see in person.  Crocodiles and tigers seemed just as distant and wondrous as dragons and ogres, and I often daydreamed about these fantastic creatures emerging from the wilderness of my own yard.  The distinction between real exotic animals and mythological monsters was so blurry in my childhood that I even tried to capture a mythic beast on more than a few occasions.  After all, my books said crocodiles and elephants existed even though I had never seen one – maybe the only reason people didn’t think dragons exist was that they hadn’t seen one either, and maybe they hadn’t seen one because they hadn’t looked in my backyard yet.

Though the flights of fancy they inspired were incredibly similar, there was a notable distinction between zoology and mythology books.  Zoology was focused on the animals.  You’d find their average and maximum sizes, their lifespans, their habits and homes, their social lives (or lack thereof), and dozens of more facts.  You’d learn about entire families of different creatures and how they compare to each other, like how the Saltwater crocodile was the largest crocodilian but the Nile crocodiles were more cooperative, or how there are only two species of alligators despite them being equally as famous as their much more diverse crocodile cousins.

Mythological creatures never got the same complexity.  Their books were more like History textbooks, and as we all know, history is defined by the winners, which means the history of mythological monsters is defined not by the monsters themselves, but by the heroes who slaughtered them.  There is very little about the nature of a mythological monster – rarely do you hear about their family, their lifespans, their place in the environment, their personalities, or their habits.  Instead you get a name, a rough physical description, the name of the town they menaced, and the life story of the person who killed them.  Child me was perturbed that such wondrous creatures were defined by the lives of their murderers.  It would be as if a book of crocodiles said little about the reptiles themselves and devoted most of its page count to the biography of the poacher who wiped them out.

This disconnect planted a seed in my childhood mind.  If there was not a biology book about mythic creatures yet, then it would be up to me to make one.  We already have biology books for real creatures, after all, and most of them live outside our homes in exotic places.  Mythic creatures live in our minds and imaginations – a much easier place to visit, especially when you’re four years old.  Surely it couldn’t be too hard to make a grand biology book of mythic creatures.

Oh, sweet childhood ignorance.

I began researching this project around the same time I began forming permanent memories.  Now, over two decades later, I am still researching it.  The world of mythological monsters is immense, for every culture in the world has its own, and there are so many cultures in the world.  To make things even more daunting, those cultures are so wildly different, and have changed over thousands of years in different ways.  Child me was wrong to think that the world of imagination was smaller and easier to visit than the world of reality: while my own mind is within easy reach, the mind of, say, a 700 BC storyteller from China is farther than any distant crocodile, for it is separated not only by distance, but by vast amounts of time.  Each mythology is its own world, separated from reality by a mixture of imagination and misconception, with rules vastly different than those of our modern world as well as those of OTHER mythologies, which are different in their own unique ways.

Researching every mythological monster in the world is probably an impossible task.  Putting all of them in the same world, with shared rules that follow and honor the myths that inspire them all, is definitely impossible.  Child me had undertaken a project that no mortal being could see through – perhaps one that no god could either, for these monsters are the products of different gods as well.  It is a labor that makes Sisyphus look like a whiny chump.

Yet here I remain, pushing this boulder up a hill.

The Midgaheim Bestiary isn’t the entirety of the project I started as a child.  Rather than adapting EVERY mythology in the world, it focuses solely on the ones that come from Europe, from Norse sagas and Greco-Roman epics to Arthurian ballads and Celtic and Russian fairy tales, and on and on as I discover more and more less well known pockets in this broad umbrella.  Why focus on these myths, which many agree are a little overexposed?  Well, because they’re overexposed, honestly.   These are the mythologies I’ve had access to since I was small, and the ones I continue to have more access to than any other.  They’re the myths of my ancestors and radiate through my culture’s history even today.  They are, ultimately, the myths I am most knowledgeable about and comfortable with, and for that reason they feel like a good starting place.

Notably, I’m still researching them.  I’ve had access to these myths for my entire life – close to three decades! – and even now I keep learning new things about them.  If other mythologies are just as complex, and I have no reason to believe they aren’t, then I have a LOT of work ahead of me before I’m ready to start adapting them.  So for now this project focuses on what I know best, and what I know best, to the disappointment of many, is European monsters.

Yet despite how well known and “cliché” these myths have become in modern fantasy, weaving these different European mythologies has proved very difficult.  Even with the great deal of overlap between them, they are all products of different fictional worlds.  The dragons of the Norse aren’t quite the dragons of the Greeks, which in turn aren’t quite the dragons of Arthur, and on and on it goes.  I have had to make changes and choices.  Sometimes wildly different takes on the same monster – all hailing from equally valid myths – require that monster to be split into a few different ones (often using different variations of the same name).  Sometimes monsters that are incredibly similar but technically come from wildly different sources get lumped together.  Changes are made for consistency.

It’s not quite the biology my childhood self envisioned, but to be fair, the book I envisioned can’t exist.  It is, however, pretty close to the idea.  I even added a few original creations to all the mythological ones – child me would disapprove of other authors doing that, but it never stopped him from doing so.  Since this text will never be 100% faithful to the myths that inspired it (as, again, it literally cannot be), my adult self embraces the notion of adding my own touches without a trace of hypocrisy.  It’s all made up nonsense in the end – some of it is simply younger than others.  When a wholly original monster appears in the bestiary, I will make a note of it for those of you who are mythological purists like my younger self.  You can then ignore these fake monsters while you read about dragons and minotaurs.

Many, but not all, entries in this bestiary will include some “Meta” notes at the end talking about how the entry in question is adapting myth in varying amounts of details.  This is another compromise I’ve made between the impossible ideal of this project and the reality of it – while the literal myths cannot be interlinked as they are, I can at least give them the respect of talking about how I’ve adapted them and how they differ from my adaptation.  It’s a simple courtesy I think.

I post this project here knowing that it may never be finished.  Even this limited portion of it – the Midgaheim Bestiary – may be too large for me to complete before I croak.  There are so many monsters out there, after all.  However, maybe, just maybe, I’ll complete it.  If I don’t, then maybe, just maybe, I’ll inspire some other kid who loves monsters to make their own.  Maybe, in time, there will be as many books on monster biology as there are on real zoology.  Maybe someday the monsters will get their due.

We’ll just have to see how it goes, won’t we?

ATOM Kaiju Bonus File C27: Okhalee

27 Okhalee

Okhalee was created by ask-drakos for the ATOM Create a Kaiju Contest.  Ask-drakos retains all the rights to Okhalee, and the illustration and profile here are adapted from their work.  While Okhalee is not an official part of ATOM’s canon, he and the other contest entries posted on this site are considered semi-canonical – the Star Wars Legends to ATOM’s Star Wars. Ask-drakos is a wonderful blogger, so follow them on tumblr if that’s a thing you do!

Aliases: The Chicago Phoenix, Agelaius maximus, Giant Blackbird

Date Discovered: October 13th, 1955

Place of Origin: Yucca Flat

Notable Stomping Grounds: Yucca Flat, Lake Michigan and surrounding cities, Fitzgerald Island Kaiju Sanctuary

Length: 62 feet

Wingspan: 100 feet

Biology: Okhalee, before becoming a kaiju, was a male Red-Winged Blackbird. When his flock was migrating back north for the spring, though, they were caught in the blast of a nuclear test at Yucca Flat, killing nearly all of them – nearly. Though a few birds that survived the incineration were affected by the Yamaneon reaction ensuing, all but one quickly succumbed to their injuries, even with their new regenerative ability. This lone survivor, once fully recovered, returned to his home territory later that spring, and nested near Chicago. Though he was mostly unchanged except for his new size, a few remaining burns caused new features to form that are totally unknown in normal blackbirds – such as reinforced bony spurs on the legs and wings, and brightly colored wattles on the face.

Okhalee’s powers include:

  • Super strength
  • An enhanced healing factor
  • Immunity to radiation
  • Sonic calls

Personality: Okhalee appears to exhibit all of the normal behaviors for a male Red-Winged Blackbird, only scaled up to his current size. He will frequently patrol his territory, perching in high places like the tops of skyscrapers and certain sturdy trees to call territorially, as well as to forage for food. Though he consumes an enormous amount of grain and similar plant material, usually from farms, this is a cost that is readily taken by the residents of the Great Lakes for the services that he will provide – namely, the blackbird’s famous territoriality.

Much like a normal blackbird, he will aggressively defend it from intruders – but in the absence of other kaiju-scaled birds that could pose competition and the lack of predatory kaiju ‘native’ to the Great Lakes area, this means that nearly all incoming kaiju are treated as threats. Much as a normal blackbird will swoop at and attack birds of prey, humans, and even things as large as horses and cars, Okhalee will fearlessly attack all but the most powerful kaiju, driving them safely outside his territory. The residents there are more than welcome to support the giant bird for this, and have even begun using his signature alarm call as a sort of early-warning system for kaiju attacks; Whenever the call is heard, and it can be heard for well over a hundred miles, cities go on alert, and can easily evacuate or otherwise prepare for the threat coming their way. This reputation has led Okhalee to be somewhat revered, even, and he is certainly beloved both within and outside his range as a protector of mankind, even if an inadvertent one.

When attacking, Okhalee primarily will swoop at his target at high speeds, pecking at their heads and necks with his pointed beak. When this is not enough, however, he is more than willing to get into closer range, battering foes with his wings – the dual spurs on each wrist seemingly able to puncture nearly any armor – and tearing at them with his talons, or even simply calling out his song at such a volume that it can blast back small kaiju and damage larger ones. On some occasions, he has even been seen to ‘ride’ a foe, grappling their backs with his feet and holding on tightly as he pecks at them.  Even the nastiest of flying monsters treads carefully with Okhalee, as few monsters are as vicious or daring as the territorial blackbird.

ATOM Kaiju Bonus File C26: Gevlek

26 Gevlek

Gevlek was created by profcene for the ATOM Create a Kaiju Contest.  Profcene retains all the rights to Gevlek, and the illustration and profile here are adapted from his work.  While Gevlek is not an official part of ATOM’s canon, he and the other contest entries posted on this site are considered semi-canonical – the Star Wars Legends to ATOM’s Star Wars.   Profcene has been creating kaiju on the internet for, I dunno, probably as long as I’ve been making kaiju on the internet, or close to at the very least, so check him out!

Date Discovered: July 22, 2057

Place of Origin: Ragnarok Rock

Notable Stomping Grounds: Ragnarok Rock, the Wells-Verne Kaiju Sanctuary

Height: 75 feet (at the hunch of the neck)

Length: 180 feet.

Biology: Although some of his features muddy the designation, Gevlek is generally believed to be a species of prehistoric hyena. Of course, his long, almost reptilian tail, large neck, webbed feet, and fin lining its back stretch the definition of “hyena”. It is unknown whether his features are indicative of an undiscovered species of aquatic hyenas or if these are traits unique to Gevlek’s mutation. Being a hyena, it was also questioned for some time whether Gevlek was male or female, but careful observation of his behavior revealed Gevlek is male.

Gevlek possesses the standard set of kaiju powers, including:

  • Super strength
  • An enhanced healing factor
  • Immunity to radiation

Personality: As stated above, it was ultimately Gevlek’s behavior, not his anatomy, that signaled his sex. When on his own, Gevlek is a rather curious creature. He often spends his time lazily observing life from the safety of his well-marked territory. Gevlek has been observed to be a very quick learner.  His first scuffle with humanity proved this well enough, as the hyena was almost done in by an avalanche during his first outing.  The EU, fearing the threat Gevlek posed to its citizens, set up a trap in the mountains with the hopes of return Gevlek to his icy prison, but Gevlek, perhaps drawing upon his memory of the circumstances that led to his original imprisonment, realized the ruse and ran off. Fortunately, the EU’s fears of Gevlek have not come to pass, as the creature tends to avoid major human settlements.

Hyenas, ultimately, are social animals, and Gevlek is no different. Cut off from his kind by thousands of years of icy slumber, Gevlek still desires to find a new clan. Unfortunately, Gevlek’s behavior can only be described as socially awkward. He’s generally a passive creature, and, presumably as a relic of his origin species, Gevlek is easily cowed by female monsters, regardless of species. Even slightly raised levels of aggression from a female kaiju will make Gevlek cower and submit. Aggressive male kaiju can also easily bully Gevlek around.

The hyena monster rarely sticks up for himself. Still, he tends to try to act friendly towards other kaiju, which usually entails invading personal space, trying to show others various objects, and basically doing anything he can think of to get some attention. His attempts to make friends often end with barred teeth. Nevertheless, Gevlek persists. Indeed, any monster that can tolerate Gevlek would find a great ally, for, though he can’t really stick up for himself, Gevlek with fight with full determination against any foe that harms anyone he considers his friend. With his powerful jaws and strong neck muscles make for a devastating bite, but Gevlek’s intelligence is by far his best weapon, as the hyena is a fiendishly crafty opponent.

 

ATOM Kaiju Bonus File C25: Trifitan Arum

25 Trifitan Arum

Trifitan Arum was created by Cstalli for the ATOM Create a Kaiju Contest.  Cstalli retains all the rights to Trifitan Arum, and the illustration and profile here are adapted from his work.  While Trifitan Arum is not an official part of ATOM’s canon, it and the other contest entries posted on this site are considered semi-canonical – the Star Wars Legends to ATOM’s Star Wars.  Cstalli’s tumblr is filled with more beautiful art and character designs, so give it a look!

Aliases: The Glowing Lilies, The Flower Fairies, The Angels of Bloomington

Date Discovered: May 18th, 1964

Place of Origin: Bloomington, California

Notable Stomping Grounds: Too many to count – Trifitan Arum populations could be found on most continents during the Atomic Time of Monsters, and gardens filled with the flower fairies can be found on every kaiju sanctuary.

Height: 60 feet

Wingspan: 150 feet

Biology: Created when a large amount of Yamaneon radiation leaked into a large botanical garden through unknown means, the Trifitan Arum are made up of a massive hodgepodge of plant DNA. Most recognizable are lilies, thistles, cacti, poison ivy, violets, and the famous titan arum. The Trifitan’s massive body is made up of a complex system of vines, allowing it to move and transfer water, nutrients, and toxins throughout its body. There appear to be cacti-like ribs in the torso, while the head and appendages are entirely filled with complex mobility vines. The fairies’ limbs, most notably their whip-fingers and upper razor-leaf appendages are able to stretch and compress, allowing them incredible reach and range for their attacks. They fly through currently unknown means, but scientists believe the strange properties of their pollen* have given them the power of flight.

The Trifitan, like most plants, need regular access to sunlight and water, but seem to need very little nutrients from the soil. Water and sunlight, on the other hand, are incredibly important; they can most often be seen standing motionless in pools, ponds, lakes, or the sea, absorbing water and the sun’s rays. A Trifitan will become immobilized within hours of losing access to the sun or adequate water, and die days later. Its entire pale body is capable of absorbing sunlight,

Their bodies give off an incredible bio-luminescent glow, strong enough to be seen even in harsh sunlight. The combination of their light and their kaiju-pollen create an explosion of plant life wherever they go. Scientists are currently trying to reverse engineer this reaction to help cities recover from droughts, and to make deserts more habitable for human life. The sap or ‘blood’ of a Trifitan holds a powerful neurotoxin, which is usually pumped into their spines and bladed leaves, but can also penetrate thick skin if the Arum were to bleed on an enemy. Their bodies, while limber and flexible, are also frail, making them particularly easy to kill.  Being plants, they have an extreme weakness to fire, dry/cloudy climates, and the cold.

Like all kaiju, the Trifitan Arum have an impressive array of abilities:

  • Super Strength (significantly less than is average for a kaiju)
  • An enhanced healing factor (again, significantly less than is average for a kaiju)
  • Immunity to radiation
  • Flight (unrelated to their flower petal “wings”)
  • 360 degree vision
  • Neurotoxic blood/venom
  • Blinding bioluminescence
  • Mysterious ability to accelerate plant growth

Personality: The Trifitan Arum, through unknown means, seem to have established a hive mind, with no true individual behaviors or any leader. Scientists have theorized that their pollen floats around the earth, allowing them to all understand and respond to one another, and call others to their aid. They typically patrol a large stretch of land, a few hundred miles in diameter, helping the local plants to grow, stopping to sunbathe, soak up water, and occasionally shove their legs into fertile soil for extra nutrients in times of struggle.

They have been dubbed “Angels” by many people for both their appearance and their apparent decision to guard the natural world. The massive collective will do their best to stop mass plant death, be it a wildfire, deforestation, excessive farming, or even particularly destructive kaiju fights.

While they have no qualms in attacking kaiju or humans, the Trifitan are hardly a threat when fought alone; their power lies in their incredible numbers and ability to assemble. When not fighting or responding to a distress call, they have been seen interacting with other kaiju with anxious curiosity, generally from afar.

 

ATOM Kaiju Bonus File C24: Cervere

24 Cervere

Cervere was created by Scatha5 for the ATOM Create a Kaiju Contest.  Scatha5 retains all the rights to Cervere, and the illustration and profile here are adapted from her work.  While Cervere is not an official part of ATOM’s canon, he and the other contest entries posted on this site are considered semi-canonical – the Star Wars Legends to ATOM’s Star Wars.  Scatha5 is a marvelous illustrator with a particular knack for dragons, felines, and draconic felines.

Aliases: Asset Pantera, Incensed Panther

Date Discovered: April 23, 1955

Place of Origin: Area 51

Notable Stomping Grounds: Area 51, Typhon Island

Height: 50 feet

Length: 85 feet

Biology: Created in one of the few attempts at Kaiju defense that focused on trying to drive the giants away rather than outright destroying them, Cervere is myth come to life through science. Originally of a species of felid from Africa that possessed chemical glands in the base of their ears that, when needed, released a burst of toxic smell, Cervere was run through the same testing and Kaijufication processes as the other unfortunate residents of Area 51. The experiments did not have the results hoped for; the chemical smell repelled some Kaiju, but actively attracted others, with no way to tell before hand which result would happen. Growing smaller and less impressive than the others, and with the chemical smell hiting a 50/50 chance, Cervere was deemed a failure and would have been “retired” if not for the discovery of Area 51.

The giant panther boasts the following power set:

  • Super Strength
  • An enhanced healing factor
  • Immunity to Radiation
  • A burst of visible chemical smell from the mouth and ears, wreathing his head in a cloud of purple gas, either attracting other Kaiju and creatures, or repelling them

Personality: As Kaiju go, Cervere is laid back and almost completely disinterested in brawling. The large lazy feline would rather sun himself and sleep for days and days than engage in even friendly spats. This isn’t to say he won’t fight if mood strikes, but sleeping is more important than a good wrestling match.

The way his smell works, however, sees him attracting attention to himself without really wanting to. Just as he finally settles in for a nap, another Kaiju will catch a whiff of him and will bluster up to him and attempt to get him to engage in a spar. This happens regardless of if the smell is repulsive or attractive to the other. It’s simply easier to get them to leave when all he needs to do is belch a purple cloud into their face and they retreat out of sheer disgust. If the other Kaiju is the attracted kind, Cervere is absolutely capable of ignoring them utterly, flopping down on his side facing away and dismissing their existence.

In the case of an extremely pushy visitor that will not leave, Cervere is more than capable of holding his own in a fight. With long, thick claws and jaws filled with teeth, he is just as vicious as any other feline is capable of being, turning into a savage, spitting beast. He is also smart and flexible, able to find vulnerabilities and exploit them while keeping his own out of reach. Most of the pushy ones only push once.

Dismissed as a failure and nearly discarded by the humans that created him, Cervere doesn’t care for humanity one way or the other. He has enough reasoning power to know that not ALL the humans on the planet can be the same as the ones who twisted and tormented him, but he also doesn’t care. He will leave them alone if they are capable of returning the favor. Other Kaiju he is able to be more friendly with, if they are also capable of leaving him alone when he wants it. Once a connection is made, however, Cervere is a loyal, steadfast friend.

 

ATOM Kaiju Bonus File C23: Torgong

23 Torgong

Torgong was created by SirKaijuofVaudeville for the ATOM Create a Kaiju Contest.  SirKaijuofVaudeville retains all the rights to Torgong, and the illustration and profile here are adapted from his work.  While Torgong is not an official part of ATOM’s canon, he and the other contest entries posted on this site are considered semi-canonical – the Star Wars Legends to ATOM’s Star Wars.  SirKaijuofVaudeville is the admin of the Hollow World Enigma shared universe project on DeviantArt, and is also working on his own story on his DeviantArt page.

Aliases: The Mole Monster, The Tunneling Terror, The Terror from Atop the World

Date Discovered: December 22, 1958

Place of Origin: Himalayan/Tibetan Yameneon Tunnels

Notable Stomping Grounds: Himalayan/Tibetan Yameneon Tunnels, Echidna Island

Height: 40 feet

Length: 120 feet

Biology: Torgong’s physiology is stranger than a casual glance may suggest, as its unique adaptations go beyond the simple eyelessness and pale skin that is common among subterranean organisms.  Its blood is filled with an alkalized chemical that melts the flesh of other creatures, while patchs of its dermal tissue are filled with inorganic matter – or, in layman’s terms, it has naturally forming rock armor.  Genetic analysis has been inconclusive when it comes to pinning down Torgong’s taxonomy, with some tests indicating that hominids are its closest relatives.

Torgong’s power set includes:

  • Super strength
  • An enhanced healing factor
  • Immunity to radiation
  • Acidic blood
  • Mineral-rich armor plating
  • Sixth sense

Personality: As strange as its biology is, Torgong’s motivations are fairly simple.  It exists to eat, spending every waking moment in search of more meat to devour.  Despite the fact that hunger is mostly a vestigial drive in kaiju, Torgong is an absolute glutton, and has a particular fondness for human flesh.  To date nothing has quenched the monster’s insatiable appetite, and it is unlikely Torgong will be relocated from its current home on Echidna Island any time soon.

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