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Enter the Dragon

11 Jan

The dragon Smaug is in many ways the centrepiece of both The Hobbit book and film series – no other character more often dominates covers, calendars and promotional art related to the story. It is no accident that a dragon plays such a prominent role in one of J R R Tolkien’s very first works of fiction – he did, after all, once famously say: “I desired dragons with a profound desire”. For Tolkien’s taste, however, there were too few dragons in ancient literature, indeed by his count only three – the Miðgarðsorm or ‘Worm of Middle-earth’ which was to destroy the god Thor at Ragnarök, the Norse apocalypse; the dragon which the Anglo-Saxon hero Beowulf fights and kills at the cost of his own life; and Fafnir, who is killed by the Norse hero Sigurd. There are elements of all three of these mythological dragons in Smaug, as well as some entirely of Tolkien’s own making, such as the dragon’s name. Tolkien once noted that Smaug bore as a name the past tense of the primitive Germanic verb smúgan (to squeeze through a hole) – “a low philological jest”, as Tolkien himself put it, from an Oxford professor of Anglo-Saxon and Norse.

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Manga: The Enigma of Anime

16 May

‘Manga’ is now officially defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as a ‘Japanese genre of cartoons, comic books and science fiction films, typically with a science fiction or fantasy theme (the Japanese definition is slightly different, but more on that anon). Since the days of Akira, quality Japanese animation has been delivered to the West by a company that liked the medium so much it named itself after it. Manga Entertainment saw the future in Akira, snapped up the cinema and video rights to the film, tried it out on Western audiences, and in the process brought a whole new world to the English lexicon. Since then, Manga Entertainment has brought many of Japan’s best cartoons to the rest of the world: as well as Akira, other seminal manga films included Ghost in the Shell and Ninja Scroll. If you’re yet to take the plunge into manga, think big – big robots, big explosions and big future cities. In terms of mood and atmosphere, films like The Matrix, Blade Runner, Kill Bill and Sin City probably best capture the tone of manga on the big screen – typically anything where the old-fashioned themes of westerns and gangster movies are transplanted into a futuristic or ultra-modern setting. As these films illustrate, the impact of manga on global SF and fantasy in recent years has been humungous – Japanese animation now seems almost to be the medium of choice for auteur directors and fantasy/SF fans all over the world.

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By the Power of Grayskull!

8 Nov

One of the most popular and enduring cartoons ever made, He-Man was the result of a collaboration between toy giant Mattel and animation outfit Filmation. Mattel had put out two figures in 1981 (a barbarian warrior and his skeletal blue nemesis), only to find themselves inundated with letters from children demanding to know who they were and why they were fighting. Mattel brought in TV scriptwriter Michael Halperin to write a series bible that would form the backbone for Filmation’s series. He came up with the world of Eternia, a fantastical planet where Star Wars met Conan the Barbarian. Filmation specialised in producing animation quickly and cheaply, and were one of the last US animation studios to resist outsourcing their work to the Far East – probably a contributing factor to their sad demise in 1990. The studio kept budgets low by repeatedly re-using stock footage in episodes and featuring long takes panning across backgrounds. Continuity was something of a mess as a result, although in truth it was unlikely that many younger children even noticed the repetition. Bringing on board then-unknown writers such as Paul Dini (Batman: The Animated Series), Larry DeTillo (Beast Wars) and J M Straczynski (Babylon 5), the studio churned out 130 episodes in just two years. The show proved to be an instant success – in the early eighties, it was almost impossible to spend more than 20 minutes in a children’s play area without witnessing at least one child yelling “I have the power!”.

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