- Year: 1978
- Director: Ralph Bakshi
- Starring: Christopher Guard, William Squire, John Hurt
Before I dive into the actual review of Ralph Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings, I want to briefly touch on the history. It’s long, and probably boring to most people, so I’ll try my best to do it in appealing terms.
Long ago, in the Second Age of Film (The New Hollywood Era), the dark lord John Boorman desired to create the ultimate evil that would bring all Hollywood under his control— a single Lord of the Rings film. Boorman desired to use this film to cover the land in diaper-wearing mustachioed James Bonds just like his previous film Zardoz.
Thousands of miles away in the Animation Ghetto lived Ralph Bakshi, an unassuming, artistic type who wanted to bring animation to the masses.
One day, Bakshi heard rumors of the Dark Lord’s desire to adapt Lord of the Rings into one film, and decided to take a risk against the advice of whoever Gandalf is in this extended metaphor. He would take the adaptation from Boorman and use it for good.
When Boorman wasn’t looking, Bakshi snagged the adaptation from his hands, replacing it with a check for $3,000,000. He should have destroyed it at that moment, throwing it back in the fire of Mount Unadaptable with the likes of Tolstoy and David Foster Wallace, but he took it home instead. Try as he may, the power of the Dark Lord Boorman would live on.
Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings is perhaps best known for its problems, as even the finished product isn’t entirely finished. Bakshi wanted three films, but the studio forced him into two. Bakshi wanted the film to be called The Lord of the Rings Part I, but the studio said no one would pay to see only half of a film.
Instead, the studio advised Bakshi to lie and just call the thing The Lord of the Rings and assume people would just have to see the second film, either in spite of or because of their anger. However, the thing flopped and Bakshi was not allowed to make a sequel.
For the character animation, Bakshi used rotoscoping, which is essentially tracing over live action performers with animation. It’s clearly unfinished, making it very hit and miss, leading Bakshi himself to regret having used this method. As always however, I have to look at the finished product and judge it by those merits.
The Literal Shadow of the Past
Bakshi’s film begins, unsurprisingly, with a prologue briefly explaining the history of the ring. It works in the book that Gandalf would explain it all to Frodo later, but stopping the film for four minutes of exposition anywhere else wouldn’t work.
I just love the wry voice of the uncredited narrator here. He sounds a bit jaded by the history but also seems to have a what-will-be-will-be-attitude about the whole thing, almost laughing off the number of times the ring betrays people. The whole thing is shot in shadow with a blood-red background, and it’s, appropriately, a haunting start.
There’s a bit of an odd change in that the narrator says the Sauron learned the craft of ring-making after the three, seven and nine had been issued, instead of playing a part in making those rings as well. I’m not sure if it’s a misread of the text or a change to simplify the backstory of the book, but it leads to the same ends at least.
A Shortcut to the Prancing Pony or How I Learned To Stop Worrying About These Knock-Off Chapter Titles
Since Bakshi only had one film to cover all of The Fellowship of the Ring and one tower of The Two Towers, it was obvious cuts had to be made. These cuts are felt the most in the opening scenes, taking only 15 minutes to go from Bilbo’s birthday party to the hobbits arriving at Bree.
However, the scenes that we do get are all important and feel complete… mostly. It is pretty awkward when Gandalf (William Squire) asks Frodo (Christopher Guard) if he sees any markings on the ring, throws the ring into the fireplace to reveal them, and then never shows Frodo the markings after all.
I’m forgiving though, because it’s followed by a scene that looks like this…
The rotoscoping leads to some inconsistent character designs, but these backgrounds are gorgeous. There’s a lot to cover, but that doesn’t stop Bakshi from building atmosphere and letting scenes breathe. Just look at this shot of Bree…
Or this one presumably in The Shire…
Each background is a beautiful and unique painting, never feeling the same as before but never being different just for the sake of it. We’ll get to whether the story and characters are adapted well, but the location is undoubtedly Tolkien’s Middle-earth, not someone’s somewhat similar version of what they read. It’s magical.
The early scenes consist of 1) Gandalf explaining the ring to Frodo 2) Frodo leaving with Sam and meeting up with Merry and Pippin and 3) The first encounter with a ring-wraith. We skip past the elves walking through The Shire, Farmer Maggot and Fatty Bolger, the Old Forest, the somewhat-infamous Tom Bombadil incident (there’s a whole piece coming on him, I promise), and the Barrow-downs. Still, as much as it hurts to lose some of these things, I prefer the focus on atmosphere and character rather than just showing every scene without any buildup or payoff.
When the hobbits get to Bree, they meet up with the best thing that isn’t a painted background… John Hurt’s Aragorn.
Aragorn, like many Tolkien characters, has two sides two him— the rugged ranger and the dignified king, and John Hurt plays them both perfectly. He can be threatening if he needs to, but he’s clearly also a man of great wisdom and honor, who would rather talk things out than fight. This is the kind of guy you’d want to follow, even if you weren’t entirely sure who he was.
From a character point of view, Fellowship is the hardest part of the story to adapt, because the characters are always together. They all get lines here and there, but their characters don’t really begin to grow until they go their separate ways in The Two Towers and The Return of the King. That said, most of the fellowship feels in-line with their book counterparts. Merry and Pippin don’t get a lot of focus, but it’s clear that Merry (Simon Chandler) is the smart and dry-witted one while Pippin (Dominic Guard) is naive but good-hearted. They do seem a bit too childlike at times, Pippin especially, but they definitely grow as the film goes on.
Legolas is likable enough, a lot of which comes by being voice by Anthony “C3PO” Daniels, and we get to see the blooming friendship between him and Gimli (David Buck).
Frodo is a tough character to pin down, as he loses more and more of himself to the ring as the story progresses, but Christopher Guard really does a great job voicing him. Especially the second time I watched this, Guard was really one of the standouts of the whole film. He’s kind and humble, but he’s not afraid to fight when he feels he has to, and he’s definitely not afraid to stand up to Gollum. It would have been heartbreaking to see him voice the Frodo scenes from the remaining story.
The other three members of the fellowship have some issues with their characterization, but they all have good moments as well. Gandalf seems really inconsistent, in that sometimes I buy him as a kind old man and a powerful wizard, and other times he’s so over-the-top he feels like a Monty Python character. I think the animation is partially to blame, as he fidgets a lot, but I won’t give William Squire a complete pass. He really can’t decide whether he wants to roll his “R’s”, and it’s kind of hilarious. Is it Frodo or Frrrrrodo? Boromir (Michael Graham Cox) comes off as a bit more abrasive than his book counterpart, but he has his moments of humanity as well. Seriously though, what’s with the Viking helmet? Was the Gondor Traveling Opera Company just passing through Rivendell and he got randomly selected as a member of the Fellowship?
Finally there’s Sam.
Just look at that gorgeous background… seriously, we have to talk about Sam (Michael Scholes). While I applaud this film for not going the comic relief direction with other members of the Fellowship, Sam is portrayed as a simpleminded oaf who just feels like the load the whole time… until the Fellowship splits up. Sure, he’s annoying, but once he goes off with Frodo, he gets a lot better. Had the second film been made, I feel the general opinion of this Sam would be a lot more positive.
As for the rest of our heroes, most of them are there. The Rohan characters are pretty glossed over with the exception of Theoden. Eomer has maybe one line, and Eowyn is present but has none. In addition, Elrond and Bilbo make appearances but aren’t particularly memorable, but everyone is serviceable.
Ay My Name
Perhaps the most famous problem with this film, maybe even more than the rotoscoping and troubled production, is the pronunciation of a certain wizard’s name. At some points, he is called Saruman like in the book, and at other times he is called Aruman. The most commonly-held belief (I can’t find anything official) is that it was originally to be Aruman as the names Saruman and Sauron were thought to be too similar, but it was changed back near the end of production. However, I’ve also heard this story in the reverse order, so no one really seems sure. The point is the problem was not fixed in post.
First, if you’re going to change a character’s name, don’t just drop one letter. Saruman is a threatening name that sounds like Sauron, perhaps because he is a more man-like version of evil. Aruman just sounds silly and incomplete. The thing would be a bit more acceptable if they said one name for the first half of the movie and the other for the rest, but there are times where it switches in the same scene! The most egregious example is when Gandalf is trapped in the Tower of Orthanc and he curses his name thrice: “Aruman! Aruman! Saruman!” It is unacceptable to leave this kind of error in a movie. How hard is this to fix?
The villains on the whole in this thing are pretty downplayed. Aruman and Saruman really only have two scenes between them, and Fraser Kerr doesn’t really have the kind of voice that would overpower people like book-Saruman does. Now, I like that Sauron is downplayed, only appearing as a shadow and a presence that is felt. That’s how the character should be, honestly. We only get a little bit of Gollum, and he’s fine, but nothing special. Peter Woodthorpe is no Andy Serkis or even Brother Theodore, but he doesn’t ruin the scenes or anything. Grima Wormtongue is only in the movie briefly, but he just looks kind of like a stereotypical villain with his cape, beady eyes and mustache.
The ring-wraiths and orcs are both monstrous, so I have less issue with the rotoscoping here. Especially with the ring-wraiths, it’s only appropriate that they look so unnatural and other-worldly.
The fight scenes are the stuff of nightmares, and you will quickly get used to the fact that people are getting brutally stabbed in a cartoon. You really feel the pain the characters are experiencing. Frodo getting stabbed by the ring-wraiths is traumatic, and Boromir’s death pains us just as much.
The Necessity of Treebeard’s Anus
Ralph Bakshi has a very distinct style of animation, but it never gets out of control here. However, he does give us an entirely different look at Middle-earth than we’re used to. There is sort of a sameness between the Rankin-Bass and especially Peter Jackson films that has formed many fans’ views of what Middle-earth looks like. For example, I would never have expected Rivendell to look like this…
Or Lothlorien to look like this…
Or the Balrog to look like this…
Okay, so the Balrog looks stupid, but ultimately I like that we get a different look at Middle-earth than we’re used to. One thing that Bakshi interpreted very differently visually than I would have is Treebeard.
While it’s not necessarily what I was expecting, he still does look like a tree and John Westbrook’s voice is perfect for the long-winded and low-voiced character. There’s just one thing Bakshi couldn’t resist throwing in.
WHY? Why do you need to give a tree human anatomy? Is this just to say you showed bare butt in your animated film? If you’re trying to push the envelope in the “Old Bearded Guy’s Butts” demographic, Gandalf specifically says he came back naked after fighting the Balrog, but we only see him clothed. What’s the point in this? It also contrasts that gorgeous background of Fangorn forest, which really deserves something better in the middle of it than tree-anus.
The Middle of the End
Since the film ends halfway through The Two Towers, the climactic scenes occur during Helm’s Deep, which is a logical place to stop all things considered. The battle scenes are harsh and gritty and really work, bad rotoscoping aside. The orc battle march is chilling, perhaps because I wasn’t expecting a song, but it makes the scene even better.
We only see a little bit of the travels of Frodo, Sam, and Gollum, not even getting to Faramir. At least we get to see Sam grow as a character, and see the set-up for what would have been the second movie. Overall, we still end at a good place.
This is a tough one to grade for me. At times, it feels a lot like Tolkien’s work put right up on the screen, but there are so many issues with it. I like that there aren’t forced story arcs added, but I also wish there was more of what was in the book. The characters feel like compressed versions of themselves, no one really being too different from their book counterparts, but very rarely realizing their full potential either. Let’s see how it turns out.
Adaptation (38/50 Points)
It’s fast-moving and skips over a whole bunch of things, some of which are important, but the stuff it does keep is great. We often get lines right out of the novel, and the characters feel very similar to how they were written. If Bakshi had made three films, who knows?
Cast (14/25 Points)
John Hurt is the stand-out, cementing his place as the definitive Aragorn with John Huston as the definitive Gandalf and Martin Freeman as the definitive Bilbo. Christopher Guard does an impressive job with Frodo, and while everyone else feels like their book counterparts, no one really elevates the material either. No one is bad per say, but there are very few great performances.
Experience (18/25 Points)
The backgrounds are some of the most gorgeous animation ever put to film. Seriously. The character animation is rough and unpolished and really clashes with the backgrounds, though. The score is fine if not a tad generic, but the Tolkien-esque songs peppered throughout really work. Why couldn’t this have been completed?
FINAL SCORE: 70%
Try as he may to control the adaptation, Bakshi fell under the power of the Dark Lord Boorman and dropped it. It was picked up by a surprising owner, although the idea of a Tolkien adaptation was not foreign to Rankin/Bass. In an attempt to finish what Bakshi had started, they too would attempt an adaptation.