1970s, 2.5/4, Fantasy, Ralph Bakshi, Review

The Lord of the Rings (1978)

#2 in my ranking of Ralph Bakshi’s filmography.

I hadn’t so much as given upon Ralph Bakshi’s career as lost as I had considered him a man so far out of his depth in the feature film world that I regretted taking on the task of watching his films. It got to the point where I was beginning to second-guess my earlier, limited affection for his adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, being familiar with it, having seen it several times over the years, but not really having watched it for a couple of years. Well, I was pleasantly surprised. In fact, for about two-thirds of the film, I was thinking that Bakshi had made something outright good. It fell apart a bit by the end, but there’s enough to recommend in the film to say that this is pretty easily his best film up to this point.

I’m going to defend Ralph Bakshi as an animator for this movie, which is weird considering how much I’ve ragged on him through his first four films. He had the biggest team of his career up to this point at over eighty animators (at least according to the IMDB), and he went into the film with what seems to have been a real plan on what animated techniques to use when. In Wizards, it felt like he was reaching for cost-saving techniques when they became necessary and obvious that his budget wasn’t big enough. Having discovered them previously, though, he walked into the production of The Lord of the Rings with several ways to take advantage of rotoscoping, and he planned the production around it. He still overestimated how far he could go with it, though, and the film becomes increasingly stylistically chaotic the deeper into the action.

In addition, Bakshi’s tendency to having no idea how to build a singular narrative across an entire feature film is mitigated by clinging desperately to the story that J.R.R. Tolkien laid out in his source novel of the same name. He can only take it so far, though, because he’s desperately trying to fit as much into two hours and thirteen minutes as possible. The first two-thirds is largely dedicated to The Fellowship of the Ring, and it mostly works. He’s covering a lot of ground in an hour and a half, so there’s a certain thinness to the characters that betrays the film at different points, such as the early scene where Bilbo (Norman Bird) gives up the One Ring to Gandalf (William Squire). We’ve barely seen Bilbo up to this point, and we’ve just been introduced to Gandalf in that scene, and suddenly it’s a high emotional moment. It feels like a highlight reel moment rather than a full scene in a film.

However, despite Bakshi’s shakiness in handling individual moments, they end up adding together to form a surprisingly cohesive whole. When Frodo (Christopher Guard) goes off with Sam (Michael Scholes) to Bree with Merry (Simon Chandler) and Pippin (Dominic Guard), there’s the very good scene of the lone Nazgul approaching them on the road, creating a good sense of fear for their predicament that ends up carrying through a good it of the film in how it approaches the development of the world around them. The four hobbits are a bit thinly drawn (especially Merry and Pippin), but Bakshi did his best to fill the world with as much tiny detail in the dialogue as possible to help fill things out a bit more. There’s a nice moment in Rivendell when Bilbo sings a small snippet of a song as he says goodbye to Frodo that feels extra in a nice little way.

The best scene of the film, though, is the flight to the ford, and it’s all about Bakshi’s approach to the visuals. It was obvious through the bulk of the film that he was using rotoscoping extensively to capture as realistic of motion as possible, but good characters were fully animated over the rotoscoping while bad characters were realized by using a Xerox rotoscoping process that makes them look unnatural and different. It’s self-evident when the Black Rider moves off from the roadside encounter, removes his animated hood to reveal the Xerox rotoscoping underneath. It was like it was using the animated cover of the hood to hide his true self. And then, after Weathertop with Frodo alone on his horse riding hard for Rivendell, the film goes full surrealistic as Frodo moves between the real world with more traditionally designed backdrops into the wraith world with more outlandish designs surrounding them, including live-action footage of stormy skies. It really is Bakshi’s entire animated skillset used perfectly in one package.

With the formation of the Fellowship, guided by Gandalf and Aragorn (John Hurt, who gives the best voice performance in the film), they head south (the film’s embrace of little dialogue details to enhance the world doesn’t extend to ever showing a map, so I imagine it’s a bit hard to comprehend where things are to the uninitiated) towards Moria. The watcher in the water is animated (I wonder if they tried the Xerox rotoscoping process on animated cells to see if it worked), and the trip through Moria is surprisingly inert. Bakshi wasn’t all that good at building tension, to be honest, and the whole thing feels a bit flaccid. It peaks with the appearance of the Balrog, one of the worst designs in the film. It just looks silly. It does seem to be an effort to keep to the stylistic conceit of the bad guys looking a certain way since it’s a costume that’s been put through the Xerox process, but the costume looks simply silly. Really, I think animating it and then doing the Xerox process on top would have worked, but that would have cost more money.

Now, the animated stylings aren’t terribly consistent. It mostly amounts to individual shots here and there done cheaply (the opening shadow play of background suddenly breaks for a single animated shot of the Ring falling from Gollum’s possession probably because Bakshi didn’t know how to film it live action when he probably could have just used a big ring and over cranked the camera), and the biggest break early is probably when the hobbits get to Bree and all of the minor characters are presented in the Xerox style. However, once The Fellowship of the Ring is over, cost-cutting becomes the norm. Also, still, nobody casts a shadow ever. Narratively, the film goes from short to clipped and staccato (King Theoden is introduced 110 minutes into a 130 minute long film), and, visually, so much more gets Xeroxed (there isn’t a single Rider of Rohan who’s fully animated) and the Xerox stuff gets worse (whole army shots that are completely still except for a pair of animated spears swinging back and forth). The good will of the telling of The Fellowship simply dissipates as The Two Towers gets its truncated telling.

John Hurt is the highlight of the performances, but the rest are a curious mixed bag. Squire as Gandalf brings a weird theatricality using his hands that feels often overdone and inappropriate. There are weird stops in dialogue presumably brought about by the recording process. Still, it mostly holds together.

I find it unfortunate that Bakshi had to try and make two films out of The Lord of the Rings, and he didn’t get the support from Saul Zaentz, his producer, to sell the film as the first part of a larger story more obviously (there’s an oblique reference in the final shot that implies there will be more while also implying that it’s all over, and that’s it). It seemed to have been successful enough to justify a sequel financially, but Zaentz obviously disagreed. Maybe the production was just too difficult and messy for his tastes. Maybe Bakshi was simply too chaotic a worker. Whatever the reason, I still would have liked to see what Bakshi would have done with The Return of the King. It might have worked.

Rating: 2.5/4

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5 thoughts on “The Lord of the Rings (1978)”

  1. I’m just glad for once there wasn’t an author self-insert character who was trying to bang an animated girl.

    Yeah, this was ok. Not great, not even good really, just ok. It helps a lot that Bakshi actually was a long time Tolkien fan and had been trying to get someone to make the books into a movie for decades. I’m still not sure how he slid into this directing gig. I assume it was continuing reputation from Fritz the Cat. Which is odd, because his previous animated work does not hold up (even Wizards) while this version is…ok.

    It does indeed help that Bakshi is not doing the screenplay (bringing in a real fantasy author, the great Peter Beagle of ‘The Last Unicorn’ fame) as it gives him structure. And there are visual sequences here that will inspire the vastly superior Peter Jackson films.

    But I just don’t like the rotoscoping, even at its best it feels cheap. Cheap is how most of this movie feels, frankly. From the opening shadow play (an animated movie that doesn’t use animation for its opening is a bad, bad sign), to the character movements, much of this movie feels ‘loose’ and sped up. There are really great character designs and stunning backdrops (for a man obsessed with getting credited, Bakshi seems to have forgotten to credit the Hildbrandt brothers for some clearly derivative art) but then you’ll see the characters move and the limping hobbits and realize, oh yeah, he just hired some midgets and animated over them.

    It’s not all bad. It’s just not all good. It’s a solid attempt to make Tolkien come to the big screen. The original plan was 2 movies to tell the whole story, that would have been good. But despite making money, the studio failed to make a sequel. This is a baffling choice from a financial or creative perspective. But I suspect it has to do with changing leadership, blazingly ignorant executives and people really, really not liking Bakshi personally. This latter is the big unspoken truth of Ralph Bakshi’s career. He has many admirers, but none of them are former employers and few are former employees.

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    1. The rights around The Lord of the Rings were actually up in the air for decades. It was in the public domain in the US for a long time (I forget the specifics of why), but it led to copies flooding the American market and denying Tolkien any money from those sales. That’s one of the ways that Tolkien became so popular with the counterculture at the time, because those copies were cheap. It’s why both Zaentz and Rankin/Bass were able to make what essentially amounted to competing versions (I watched The Return of the King, and it’s just trash, absolute trash).

      I’m not the biggest fan of the rotoscoping technique, but it’s a step up from his free-hand stuff. Movement looks better. There’s more detail in character models. It ends up feeling like a workaround for Bakshi since he seems to have wanted to make a live action version while recognizing that technology wasn’t there at the time. My problem is that he still seems to be completely oblivious to basic animation essentials like shading and shadows. What bothers me most is that characters always feel like they’re just floating over the backgrounds instead of being grounded on them.

      He tried, though. This is the first time Bakshi felt like he really tried to make himself a better filmmaker and animator. He could only go so far because he really does seem extremely limited in terms of talent, but I have to admire, at least, the effort. At least it’s better than Wizards.

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