I’ve tried writing a review of Ralph Bakshi’s 1979 animated attempt at “The Lord of the Rings” a couple of times. It’s a tough one because of all the things involved in it. The director was the first to bring Sauron to film screens, even if he does look like a Knight Who Says “Nee.” He also had a belief that animation could be a medium for more sophisticated adult audiences and made films like “Fritz the Cat” and “Coonskin” to prove his point.
“The Lord of the Rings” begins with a live action prologue revealing the important things. 3 rings for the Elves. 7 for the dwarf-lords in their halls of stone. 9 for the race of men … and the One Ring, forged by the dark lord Sauron in the fires of Mt. Doom. With it, Middle-Earth is his. He will not relent until the Free Peoples bring him a shrubbery. Instead, Isildur, “the heroic shadow who slipped in,” cut the ring from his hand and, oh, you know this story. I bring up the prologue for a couple of reasons. One, you have to tell at least some of the back story. Two: it shouldn’t look like there’s red burlap on the camera:
As you can see, there is no energy in the prologue. It all happens in cheap shadow. Once the animation kicks in, you’ll also notice the characters all seem a little … over-animated. Bakshi believed in rotoscoping, a technique that called for live action actors to mime the action of the scene so the animators could copy the movements. There are many times throughout the film where it looks like the production ran out of money and was forced to use the live action reference footage in place of full animation. The prologue, I think, is one such scene.
Also, the rotoscoping in this film sucks.
Instead of fluid and natural movement, Bakshi appears to have directed his reference actors toward big theatrical movements. Consider in the footage above Frodo’s dance when Gandalf arrives and the Grey Pilgrim’s own choreography as he recites the Ring Poem. Perhaps I have a different view of how animated figures should behave, but I find all the excessive gestures to be, simply, obnoxious. Every moment shouts, “HEY LOOK, I’M ANIMATED!” It also robs the scene of much of its power.
So, following the plot, Frodo chooses to leave the Shire while Gandalf elects to treat with Aruman the White, the head of his order.
What’s that? Saruman? Don’t you mean the Dark Lord Sauron? Welcome to the film’s first pronunciation note. There was some concern that audiences would confuse Saruman the White with Sauron, so the choice was made to change his name to Aruman. That’s actually a valid choice … except for the fact the character is more often referred to as SARUMAN. Even within a scene, his name shifts back and forth. If you’re going to change the name of a key character from a beloved book, at least have the stones to be consistent.
And now for the one thing I will give Bakshi credit for: getting the Hobbits to Bree without a lot of fuss. In the book, Frodo takes six months getting ready to leave the Shire. Then he runs into a bunch of trouble before getting to the largest settlement the Race of Man has in Eriador. Also, they meet Tom Bombadil:
Tom is so old, wise, powerful, and aloof that he is immune to the Ring’s corruption. He’s also the single most annoying git in the Professor’s body of work. Tolkien LOVED Tom Bombadil and forced him into the story because he meant for this book to be a light-hearted follow up to “The Hobbit.” The War of the Ring wouldn’t let him do that, so all the stuff that happens to Sam, Frodo, Merry, and Pippin before they get to the Prancing Pony is pretty extraneous.
Oh wait, except for the scene where they actually encounter the Black Rider.
So what did Bakshi do with the Old Forrest, Old Man Willow, the Barrow-Wights, and Tom? He cut them entirely. They are not referenced or mentioned. The Hobbits aren’t even chased to Buckleberry Ferry. Peter Jackson pretty much follows this example. Dramatically speaking, it’s the right thing to do. There’s barely a moment for dilly-dally and in the book, Gandalf admonishes Frodo for wasting all that time. Once Frodo has to leave the Shire, he has to get to Rivendell as quick as possible in order for a film version of the story to work. That journey can only stop to establish the Black Riders as a threat, introduce Strider, and see Frodo injured by the Morgul Blade.
Oh, I suppose there is that business at the Ford of Bruinen, too.
I’m focusing on the first forty minutes or so of the film because everything that’s good an bad in the following two hours is contained here. Once we get to Rivendell, it’s mostly just repeating the same mistakes: Overly expressive animation with lots of hand-wringing and an action referred to as “milking the giant cow,” live action reference footage taking the place of full animation in arbitrary places, composer Leonard Rosenman’s out of place score which is basically built of themes he used in “Beneath the Planet of the Apes” and would use again in “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.” There are, however, a couple of things later on I’d like to mention.
The film rushes through the events of “The Fellowship of the Ring” only to come to a dead stop during Aragorn’s chase of the Uruk-Hai. A combination of poor animation, strange pace, and dull background art, the running scenes seem to go on for about a decade or so. It’s indicative of how the film loses its footing completely once the Fellowship is broken into three storylines. It’s clear Bakshi and his partners are most comfortable with Aragorn’s story since that’s where the action is. Frodo and Sam get a tremendously short shrift, practically becoming guests in their own story. Pippin and Merry quite literally escape from the film thanks to Treebeard the walking vegetable.
Despite being comfortable Aragorn, the film still doesn’t quite focus on him. The film seems to magically jump to the Battle of Helm’s Deep while the Rohirrim fight bands of Orcs in a miasma of loosely painted backdrops. At some point, (S)Aruman lights a firework, but it really is a mishmash of stuff.
And Theoden introduces Eoywn as his “sister-daughter” WHAT THE FUCK!?
This is how “The Lord of the Rings Online” makes a Balrog:
This is how Peter Jackson makes a Balrog:
This is how Ralph Bakshi makes a Balrog:
The Professor refers to the Balrog as a creature of fire and shadow and there is a healthy debate as to whether or not the fallen Maiar have wings, but I think everyone can agree the damned thing does not look like a satyr with a lion’s head.
Take a look at Boromir. Take a good long look. Remember that he is a Lord of Gondor. Do you really think he’d wear this ensemble?
In the fantasy subset of Yakmala, we have the phenomenon of the tall dwarf. In movies like “Dungeons & Dragons,” and “Hawk the Slayer,” the dwarf is inexplicably not dwarf in size. Only the beards and foul temperament give away their dwarven heritage.
The movies ends with this bizarre bit of narration: “The forces of darkness were driven forever from the face of Middle Earth, by the valiant friends of Frodo. As their valiant battle ended, so too ends the first great tale of The Lord of the Rings.” Oh good, no need for a sequel then. Wait, what!?
Okay, one last good thing. In the book, Tolkien introduces a character named Glorfindel to take the injured Frodo to Rivendell. This is pretty much the character’s only function in the story. There is a lot more going on with the character in Tolkien’s mythology, but for the purposes of “The Lord of the Rings” as a dramatic work, he’s extraneous. While Peter Jackson chose to sub in Arwen, Bakshi choose Legolas. It’s a choice I actually like. Introducing him prior to the Council meeting allows a moment to introduce the friendship between the Elf and Aragorn. Also, it allows us to meet a character we will see as part of the action for the rest of the story in a way the serves the pace as well.
At a running time of TWO HOURS AND TWELVE MINUTES, Ralph Bakshi’s adaptation of “The Lord of the Rings” is simultaneously too long and too short. The professor offers too much story to be confined by the rules of filmed drama and Bakshi fails to make enough good choices make that story compelling.