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My father was the one who introduced me to JRR Tolkien, giving me a dog-eared, well-thumbed chunk called The Lord of the Rings one summer when we were on holiday (I was maybe…eight, I guess? Pre-transformation anyway). I remember there was this weird picture on the cover of the Black Riders that looked sort of animated but also sort of not and I asked my father what it was from.
“That’s from the movie.” He said.
“There’s a movie?”
“Oh yeah. You have to see it.”
“Is it any good?”
“No. No, it’s awful.”
This was really the problem you had if you were a fantasy fan any time before the turn of the millennium:
We had no good movies.
Our brothers and sisters in the science fiction fandom had it pretty bad too of course, the vast majority of their movies were cheap schlock but at least they could point to a few straight up classics that even the hoity-toity critics had to admit were the real deal; Alien, 2001, Bladerunner.
Fantasy fans though? What did we have?
Truly, our cup ranneth over.
So if you were a fantasy fan in the seventies, eighties or nineties and you heard there was a Lord of the Rings movie, you had to see it even if it was terrible. Because it’s not exactly like you had a whole lot of options. The Lord of the Rings, the undisputed big swingin’ dick of the high fantasy genre, used to spend most of its time on lists of “unfilmable” books and with good reason. I can think of two periods in Hollywood history where a faithful film adaptation might have been possible. The first would be in the late fifties, when studios were creating gargantuan epics like Ben Hur and The Ten Commandments. The second would be now, the current era of movie history which (not coincidentally) was largely kick-started by Peter Jackson’s own Lord of the Rings trilogy. The current movie scene owes almost as much to The Lord of the Rings as the fantasy genre does. Planned trilogies, huge runtimes, massive battle scenes, copious amounts of CGI…so much of how movies are made, look and sound in the modern era can be laid at the feet of Peter Jackson (though we won’t hold that against him).
On the flipside, if I had to choose the worst possible time to try and make a Lord of the Rings movie (aside from, I dunno, the silent era) it would be the nineteen seventies. The seventies is often lauded as the greatest movie decade and it’s won that reputation for a slew of grungy, lo-fi, morally ambiguous classics. It was that kind of era (contrast that to 2001 when Jackson’s Fellowship of the Ring came out when everything seemed a good deal more black and white). So you have a decade where no one is really spending big money on movies anymore, epics are largely a thing of the past and the cultural zeitgeist is really not grokking a simple morality tale of noble heroes trying to defeat an evil lord of darkness who lives in a black spiky castle. Who (Who, I ask you?) would be a mad enough bastard to try and make a Lord of the Rings movie in the nineteen seventies?
When not animating, he keeps his drawing arm strong by wrasslin’ grizzlies.
Ralph Bakshi is one of the most famous (or at least notorious) American animators out there. Having made his bones in the Terrytoons studio (Heckle and Jeckle, Mighty Mouse and the like) he went on to create the animated adaptation of R. Crumb’s comic strip Fritz the Cat.
Oh sure. I’ll review it. If you can tell me what I say to my wife when she walks in on me watching the scene where all the animals have a bathtub orgy.
By 1969 the movie rights to The Lord of the Rings had found their way to United Artist’s, where Stanley Kubrick and John Boorman both had a crack at adapting it, with Boorman turning in a 700 page script that no one at the studio could even understand. Bakshi, who’d been obsessed with the idea of doing an animated version of the story since the fifties begged UA for the chance to direct. Impressed by Bakshi’s passion, UA junked Boorman’s script and told Ralph to go do his own version.
Bakshi was a true Tolkien die-hard and, in stark contrast to Boorman who had altered characters and plot points willy-nilly, wanted to do a movie version of the book that was as faithful as possible. Bakshi firmly believed that Tolkien was a genius who could do no wrong.
I can respect fidelity to the source material (and if anyone ever decides to do a movie of The Hangman’s Daughter
I’ll probably start respecting it a whole lot more) but ultimately I think this was the movie’s undoing. Being faithful to the text is all well and good if you have hundreds of millions of dollars and a New Zealand but if you’re trying to do the story in two moderately budgeted animated features (as was the plan) then you really need to start looking at the story with a gaze of grim determination and a pair of scissors clenched in one hand. Bakshi tried to fit as much of the book as possible into the movie and we’ll see further on the problems that this caused.
Bakshi made the decision to use rotoscoping, a technique he’d first used in his earlier animated feature Wizards
as a way of saving money. Rotoscoping is about as old as animation itself and basically involves drawing and painting over live action footage to create an animated effect. This has the upside of giving you more realistic movement and it tends to be cheaper and less labor intensive than traditional cel animation. Despite this, rotoscoping has traditionally been used more as a tool than a style. There’s plenty of instances of rotoscoping in animated movies (Cruella De Ville’s Car
, Edgar’s motorbike in The Aristocats
, The Giant Mouse of Minsk in An American Tail
) but it’s rare for it to be used for extended sequences and Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings
represents probably the most extensive use of the technique in a feature film until Richard Linklater’s Waking Life
in 2001 (and that was digital, rather than hand-drawn rotoscoping). Why is that? Well, part of the appeal of animation is that animated characters don’t
move like real people and can be stretched or distorted or flattened however the animator pleases. Another reason (and a big part of why all the examples I listed above are inanimate objects or vehicles) is that living characters that are rotoscoped tend to have their home address in the Uncanny Valley. No one had ever tried to make a movie that was almost entirely rotoscoped.
So. Untested animation techniques. Impossible to adapt source material. Certainty of death. Small chance of success.
“What are we waiting for?”
The first order of business for any LOTR adaptation is the table setting, and there is a TON to get through. You need to recap the main events of The Hobbit, explain who Sauron is, what the deal with the ring is and give some background to all the fantastical creatures we’re going to be seeing.
These are called “horses”. Remember that, it’s going to be important.
Jackson pulled this off with epic battles, atmospheric narration and subtly effective visual storytelling. How did Bakshi tackle the problem of getting the audience up to speed with the story of Middle Earth?
Ah. The old “get the local am-dram troupe to dress up and stand behind a backlit sheet of hessian” technique.
Okay, so you’re probably looking at that screenshot and saying “That don’t look like no animation to me” while idly fondling your switchblades so let me explain. LOTR is not actually a wholly animated film.
“Alright guys, he hasn’t used us in years, we gotta make this count.”
The movie combines some scenes that are rotoscoped with some that are simply “posterised” (recoloured so they sort of look animated) mixed in with a little traditional animation and some plain unadulterated live action. How does Bakshi integrate all these different visual styles without the movie seeming incredible disjointed and jarringly inconsistent?
So Gandalf (William Squire) tells us that the One Ring was forged by Sauron but then taken by Isildur when he defeated the Dark Lord in combat. But the ring, much like JoJo, kept trying to get back, get back, get back to where it once belonged and when Isildur was killed it fell into the hands of Sméagol, a hobbit. The ring cursed Sméagol with madness and terrible grammer, transforming him into Gollum who lived deep underground for decades until finally the ring was stolen from him by Bilbo Baggins. So as the movie begins Gandalf the Wizard is visiting Bilbo who is leaving the shire on his eleventy first birthday (seriously, the grammer is the first to go). At a party thrown in his honour, Bilbo trolls half the Shire by using the ring to disappear right in front of them. Gandalf confronts Bilbo at his home and demands that he leave the Ring to his nephew Frodo instead of taking it with him. Bilbo flies into a rage, saying that he won’t give up his “precious”.
Realising that maaaaaybe he’s gotten a little too attached to the ring, Bilbo hands it over to Gandalf and leaves the shire.
17 years pass and Gandalf comes back the shire and asks Frodo to hand over the ring so that he can examine it. He then throws it in the fire which reveals lettering written in the black speech of Mordor. In Peter Jackson’s movie Gandalf of course refused to speak the black speech in the shire. Bakshi’s Gandalf, however, does not believe in trigger warnings and loudly proclaims “Ash nazg durbatulûk, ash nazg gimbatul, ash nazg thrakatulûk agh burzum-ishi krimpatul.” which, according to my English/Black Speech phrasebook means “Could you please direct me to the nearest train station?”
Gandalf explains that the ring is…y’know…The Ring, and that Frodo needs to hightail it out of the Shire. They’re overheard by Frodo’s gardener Sam Gamgee who OH JESUS OH SWEET JESUS!
Joseph Merrick? Is that you?
Okay, so let’s talk about this animation.
I hate it.
It’s really, really, really, really ugly and unpleasant to look at.
Ralph Bakshi is one of the most respected animators of all time, you say? Ummmmmmmmmm…nope, don’t care. This is ass. This is pure ass. Utter butt. That’s not to say there aren’t some very striking images in the movie, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the animation, and basically whenever something moves in this thing it looks horrible. Which is a bit of a handicap for a motion picture. Remember in The Thief and the Cobbler review where I mentioned how Richard Williams had absolutely insane standards for his animators and kept firing those that couldn’t make the grade? Honestly, I think Bakshi had the opposite problem. There seems to be almost no discipline being imposed here. Characters go wildly off model, continuity is poor at best…the rotoscoping can excuse some of that but there is some damn sloppy work going on here.
“Hey Ralph, do his eyes look a little weird to you?”
“I’ve already told you. I love you and everything you do is perfect.”
“I love you too, boss.”
Okay, so Gandalf tells Frodo and Sam to go to Rivendell and show the ring to the Elves. Meanwhile, Gandalf races on horseback to Isengard to consult with the head of his order.
No, this is actually supposed to be Saruman the White. Or Aruman. And I should warn you, if you are sensitive to stupidity this next paragraph is going to hurt. So the studio execs, who tend to credit audiences with about as much intelligence as a lobotomised yak, decided that the names “Saruman” and “Sauron” were too similar. The decision was made to change Saruman’s name to “Aruman”. But then the decision was made to change it back. So what’s the problem? Well…they didn’t manage to re-do all the dialogue, meaning that sometimes he’s called “Saruman” and sometimes he’s called “Aruman”.
So, in their attempt to be less confusing, they ended up with a character with two different names. Truly, we often meet our destiny on the path we took to avoid it.
Alright so Gandalf tells (S)aruman that the ring has been found and that they need to get on that. (S)aruman responds that yeah, he was all about stopping Sauron but once he actually listened to what he had to say he actually made some really good points and basically that he’s switching to Team Evil. He tells Gandalf to fess up to where the ring is and when Gandalf tells him to screw off (S)aruman hits him with a Care Bear stare.
“I have a mangina! I’M OL’ GREEEEEG!”
Meanwhile, Sam and Frodo have left the Shire and have just been joined by Frodo’s cousins Merry and Pippin who kinda just show up out of nowhere. Merry and Pippin are also hobbits, but they can be easily distinguished from Frodo by that fact that his name is Frodo and their names are Merry and Pippin. Seriously though, all three are pretty much identical.
Also, you have no idea how much goddamn capering I had to sit through for you people
On the way they have to hide from a Ring Wraith and here the movie actually manages to put some points in the win column. Peter Jackson actually came to the story of the Lord of the Rings through this movie rather than the book and several scenes in his movies are homages to Bakshi’s, this being one of them. The scene where the four hobbits hide from the Ring Wraith is awesomely creepy for a few reasons. Firstly, the unsettling quality of the rotoscoped animation actually works in the movie’s favour for once as the Ring Wraith is genuinely unnerving. Also, unlike Jackson’s upright, striding Nazgul, Bakshi’s are hunched over, shambling ghouls. Also, while the score by Leonard Rosenman is pretty poor overall (and I’m not the only one to think so, Bakshi hated it too) the music is appropriately skin scrawling. It’s a very effective scene overall.
They manage to escape from the wraith and arrive in Bree to wait for Gandalf. The scene in The Prancing Pony is weird because it’s mostly posterised with the exception of the hobbits, who are still rotoscoped which makes it seem less like the hobbits have come from the Shire and more like they escaped from Toon Town. Merry (Pippin?) leaves the table to go out for a smoke and is discovered by the Dark Riders who are looking for Frodo. As they are nightmarish wraiths of pure malevolence they of course…send him to sleep with some blue gas and then…just…leave him there. Seriously, they just walk off.
You fiends! He could catch a chill!
Like in most pubs, it is the tradition in the Prancing Pony to make the shortest patron dance and sing for the amusement of the local drunks. Frodo gets roped into performing a song and accidentally ends up turning invisible in front of the stunned patrons. Frodo’s confronted in his room by a ranger named Strider (John Hurt), who tells him that he’s also waiting for Gandalf who still hasn’t shown up. Pippin (Merry?) bursts in to tell Frodo that he saw the Dark Riders and that they attacked him with a nap. Strider tells Frodo that he isn’t safe at the inn and that they need to find somewhere else to stay. He then also does something kinda weird by telling them that he’s called Aragorn son of Arathorn even though he just introduced himself as Strider. So why even bother with the Strider alias? In the book the reveal happens later, and is a twist where the hobbits learn that Strider is actually the long-lost king of Gondor.
“Pah! Gondor has no king. Gondor needs no king.”
Sarcastic Map of Wartime Europe? Why are you dressed like that?
“I’m cos-playing as Middle Earth. Duh.”
The hobbits and Strider give the riders the slip and when they make camp Aragorn tells them a campside story about an elven princess who forswore immortality to love a human being, at which point Same and Frodo smile and gaze lovingly into each other’s eyes and then cuddle because sweet Eru Ilúvatar if you thought Jackson shipped Sam and Frodo pretty hard you ain’t seen nothing. I wouldn’t be surprised if Bakshi shot a scene of them picking out curtains but had to cut it for time. The riders attack again and stab Frodo with a morgul blade which starts to slowly kill him. As they flee the riders Frodo is seperated from the rest and is chased by the ring wraiths as far as a river in a scene that lasts about as long as an Ancient Egyptian dynasty and is saved when the river suddenly swells and washes the riders away. On the way, the party also encounters a beautiful Elven princess on a white horse with long blonde hair…
Oh, my mistake. Hello Legolas.
Frodo passes out and we now see him lying in a bed in Rivendell, tossing in his sleep and crying “No! No! Never!”
“Alright, you win! DESTINY! DESTINY! NO ESCAPING THAT FOR ME!”
When he wakes, Gandalf is there and explains why he wasn’t able to meet him at Rivendell and that he was able to escape from Saruman’s prison with the help of a giant eagle.
The eagle disguised itself as Galdalf’s wife and slipped him a file during a “conjugal visit”.
Gandalf tells Frodo that the War of the Ring has now begun and that a council has been called to decide what to do with the ring. And then, weirdly, Frodo turns and looks directly at the camera.
“Well viewer, what do YOU think I should do?”
At the council are Aragorn, Gandalf, Frodo, the Elf King Elrond, the Dwarf Gimli, Legolas and Boromir, son of the steward of Gondor, who in this version considerately wears one of those horned helmets that makes it really, really easy for your enemies to grab hold and de-core your throat like an apple. Boromir shows common sense the equal of his taste in hats when he suggests that instead of destroying Sauron’s ring they should use it against him.
One does not simply play “stop hitting yourself” with the Lord of Mordor. It is folly.
Gandalf says that their only chance is to do something so stupid that Sauron would never expect them to do it, namely to go into the Mordor on foot and drop the ring into the fires of Mount Doom.
Named of course after its discoverer, Percy Doom.
Frodo is chosen for Operation Orcbait, along with Sam, Pippin, Merry, Boromir, Aragorn, Gandalf, Legolas and Gimli in accordance with Middle Earth legislation on diversity in hiring practices and they set off.
A snowstorm forces them to take a diversion through the mines of Moria where they’re attacked by goblins. As if that wasn’t bad enough, things really go down the khrapper (if you’ll pardon my Dwarvish) when a Balrog appears and chases them through the mines. What’s hilarious is that instead of any buildup the Balrog just kind of appears from behind the goblins who are all like “Holy shit, we have a Balrog?! Since when?!”
Anyway, Gandalf holds the Balrog off while the rest escape. The Balrog falls into the ravine but pulls Gandalf along with him who yells “Fly, you fools!” to the fellowship before falling into darkness.
What did he mean by that? Who can say…
Once outside Frodo says that they have no hope of succeeding without Gandalf and Aragorn says “Then we must do without hope. There is always vengeance.” which is what I told my wife when we applied for a mortgage (really though, it works for any situation).
Aragorn makes the decision to go to Lothlorien, which Boromir is not happy about because he doesn’t trust its Queen, Galadriel. We cut to Lothlorien where Galadriel welcomes the Fellowship and tells them that she’s heard that Gandalf bit the big one and that she “sorrows” for them.
She just used “sorrow” as a verb and frankly Sauron is starting to look like the lesser of two evils.
One of the weird things about this movie is what Bakshi chooses to emphasise and what he just allows kinda happen without comment. For example, the scene where Galadriel shows them The Mirror of Galadriel, which she actually calls The Mirror of Galadriel instead of just “my mirror”. Frodo looks in the mirror and sees THE FRICKIN’ EYE OF SAURON staring right back at him but it’s not really treated like a big deal at all. The eye is just there and there’s no ominous musical cue. Hell, the damn crickets on the soundtrack keep on chirruping and while Frodo clearly notices it he doesn’t really seem all that shocked or scared. Honestly, I feel kinda bad for Sauron.
“C’moooooon…pay attention to me!”
Frodo then offers to give Galadriel the One Ring. I’m trying to not compare this movie to Jackson’s all the time because as I’ve already said Jackson had access to resources and technology and New Zealands that Bakshi could only dream of but I think it’s fair to compare this scene in both versions. In Jackson’s, Frodo offers the ring and Galadriel very nearly accepts it, turning dark-eyed and booming voiced and proclaiming that she will become a Dark Queen and that all shall love her and despair before recovering her senses and shakenly realising how close she came to the Abyss. It’s a thrilling scene, and quite unsettling, and shows very clearly why Frodo has to be the one to bear the ring because the great and powerful are too easily corrupted. In Bakshi’s version, there’s never any indication that Galadriel is even remotely tempted to take the ring and she just laughs off the notion with a giggle and a little dance (please make the capering stop) which is doubly odd because the dialogue is pretty much identical in both versions. The only difference is that in Bakshi’s she seems like she’s being horribly sarcastic:
“Oh suuure. In the place of a Dark Lord you would have a Queen. Not dark but beautiful and terrible as the Morn. As if.”
After some relaxing capering the Fellowship departs from Lothlorien. They sail down the river and Aragorn tells them that the time has come to decide which way they’re going to go, either to Minas Tirith to use the ring to help Gondor like Boromir wants, or to go East into Mordor to try and destroy the ring. Aragorn says “I am not Gandalf.”
He also says that if Gandalf had a plan for how they were to get into Mordor, he never told him.
“I mean, if only he had given us a clue! Just one little clue!”
Alright, so up until this point the movie has been…passable. Ugly, weird, oddly directed and unevenly acted but still very faithful to Tolkien’s story and characters which are strong enough to earn a lot of goodwill. But it’s around this point that Bakshi glances at his watch and howls “OH MY LORD IS THAT THE TIME???!” and the movie suddenly becomes a madcap rush to the finish line. The problem is that Bakshi was trying to tell the entire story in two movies instead of the more logical three. So whereas Peter Jackson had three hours to cover one book, Bakshi has two hours to cover one and a half and the movie just collapses into an unseemly hullabaloo.
No, that’s a hula Baloo.
It goes like this.
“Frodo! Give me the ring”
“What have I done?”
“Screw this noise! Were going to Mordor!”
“Oh no! Orc picnic!”
“It’s…just a…flesh wound…”
“Looks like we’re done for, Merry.”
“I’m Pippin, you’re Merry.”
“Actually? I’m pretty bummed right now.”
“I’m back, baby.”
Gandalf, Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli make their way to Rohan which is ruled by the Rohirrim, a proud warrior race who ride creatures called horses.
I told you to remember this stuff.
Rohan is ruled by Théoden but recently he has fallen ill and the kingdom is effectively ruled by his advisor Gríma Womrtongue who is secretly in the pay of (S)aruman and who has allowed orcs to move through Rohan unmolested but Théoden’s nephew Éomer and his warriors have been attacking the orcs which has led Gríma to brand him an outlaw but Saruman is planning a huge attack against the Rohirrim so Gandalf has to convince them to retreat to the stone fort of Helm’s Deep and we learn all this in like one minute’s narration from Gandalf which makes it a tad difficult to follow what’s going on and near impossible to frickin’ care. They arrive in Rohan and Gandalf exposes Gríma who runs off and Théoden thanks him and introduces him to his “sister-daughter” Eowyn.
You…you mean your niece, right? Right?
Meanwhile in Mordor, Sam and Frodo are attacked by Gollum (Peter Woodthorpe) but manage to capture him. They spare his life and in return he swears to take them into Mordor. Now, Gollum is by far my favourite of Tolkien’s characters (something I appear to have passed on genetically).
Mini-Mouse LOVES “Funny Baby”.
Woodthorpe’s Gollum is by far the best thing in this movie. He gives a very distinctive vocal performance that’s radically different from Andy Serkis while still feeling very “right” for the character. It’s not really surprising that the BBC got him to reprise the role when they were doing their radio adaptation.
Back in Rohan, the Orcs arrive en masse and march towards Helm’s Deep. Singing. Okay, well, while that may seem a little out of character for the forces of evil, there is textual precedent for goblins singing in The Hobbit so I’ll allow it. But I can’t actually figure out what they’re saying. I can catch the occasional “Sauron” or “Mordor” but other than that…it doesn’t seem to be black speech or Elvish or…
Ah. Okay. So it turns out that composer Leonard Rosenman just made up some nonsense words for the Orcs to sing.
‘Cos you know, when I think of Tolkien, I think of just randomly making up fake languages without any thought or reflection.
That’s what he was all about.
That was ol’ J.R.R. to a T.
If the man was spinning in his grave any faster he’d turn into Wonder Woman.
Gandalf runs off because he has something super serious to take care of and basically leaves the defenders of Helm’s Deep to fend for themselves. They’re quickly overrun by the Orcs and have to take refuge in some caves. Théoden asks Aragorn to ride out with him in a desperate, heroic last stand and dude I’m sorry you were introduced like five minutes ago it’s kind of hard for me to get invested.
But then, when all seems lost Gandalf arrives with Éomer bringing reinsforcements and they beat the Orcs the end.
No seriously, that’s the end of the movie. That’s your satisfying conclusion.
Allow me to explain.
I already mentioned that Bakshi’s plan was to do two movies covering the events of The Lord of the Rings and wanted to call this movie Part 1. But United Artists reasoned that no one would go see a movie that was only half the story without being duped and so deliberately released the movie under the title The Lord of the Rings, implying that this was the whole book in one movie (Bakshi was absolutely furious about this incidentally). Despite these shenanigans, and contrary to what you might think, this movie was actually a pretty major hit, making $30 Million on a $4 Million budget. Weirdly though, United Artists refused to make a sequel which seems downright bizarre today. Here you have a movie that’s returned massively on your original investment with a story that is positively crying out for completion. Why wouldn’t you make a sequel? If I had to guess, I’d say UA were just leery of the whole concept of multi-part movie story-telling. After all, if you don’t think people are going to see the first half of a story, why would you think they’d go see the second? Especially since people who hadn’t caught the first movie in theatres didn’t really have other options to see it (home video was still just becoming a thing).
So that’s Ralph Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings, weird, unfinished and in the final analysis not really all that good.
I will now diminish, and go into the West. See you next time.
Interesting and experimental, but the problem with experiments is that most of them fail. Awful continuity, weird, ugly character designs and discordant, clashing visual tones. Just a mess.
Stupid capering hobbitses we hates them forever.
The two most defining characteristics of Saruman the White: 1) He wears white. 2) He is named Saruman. They failed at both.
Supporting Characters: 13/20
The movie’s takes on Gandalf, Gollum, Boromir and Aragorn are all pretty effective.
Finally, something Bakshi and I agree on.
FINAL SCORE: 30%
NEXT UPDATE: 22 January 2015
NEXT TIME: Sigh.
Y’all ready for this?
Neil Sharpson aka the Unshaved Mouse is a playwright, blogger and comic book writer based in Dublin. A new movie review goes up every second Thursday, and he is also serialising his novel, The Hangman’s Daughter, with a new chapter every Saturday. Today’s review was made possible by the very kind donation of Lurking Lurker. Lurk on, you crazy diamond.