The Lord of the Rings (1978, Animated) Review
According to John Boorman, who worked on an adaptation of Lord Of The Rings for MGM in the mid- to late-seventies, JRR Tolkien was rather reluctant to have his book adapted for film at all, finally selling the rights for a sum of money equivalent to what it would take to pay for his grandchildren's education. Following this act, Tolkien wrote to Boorman to ask him how he was going to adapt the film - with actors in a live action film or with animation? When Boorman replied it was to be the former, Tolkien said, "I'm so relieved, because I had this nightmare of it being an animated film." Tolkien never lived to see Ralph Bakshi's film - he died in 1973 and this film was released in 1978 - but that is a pity for it would have been interesting to see how he would have viewed this flawed but interesting version of a book often said to be unfilmable.
In not assuming that everyone is now familiar with the story of Lord Of The Rings, the film concerns the possession of the Ruling Ring created by the dark lord Sauron following the forging of the Rings of Power by the Elven-smiths. Where the Rings of Power were distributed amongst the ruling races of Middle Earth, Sauron created the one ring to rule all others and with the power it provided, he conquered all before him but was eventually defeated in the battle that decided the fate of all Middle Earth. Rather than having the ring destroyed, it became lost only to be found years later by a hobbit named Deagol, killed by his friend Smeagol when the latter became so obsessed with the power of the ring that he could not bear to be without it. For many years, Smeagol kept hold of the ring such that his whole personality changed into Gollum, whereupon a hobbit from the Shire, Bilbo Baggins, stole it from him and took it home. Gollum began his search for the ring but was captured by Sauron's forces that were gathered once more in Mordor.
However, on the evening of Bilbo's eleventy-first birthday, his good friend, Gandalf The Grey, urged the hobbit to surrender the Ruling Ring and to leave the Shire for Sauron, though once defeated was now stirring in Mordor and had dispatched his armies of orcs and Ringwraiths, to discover the whereabouts of this ring. Bilbo left the ring and the Shire only for his nephew, Frodo Baggins, to accept the task of taking the ring to Mount Doom in Mordor accompanied only by his friends Samwise, Merry and Pippin, bound for the only place where the ring can be destroyed. At the same time, Gandalf left the Shire to prepare the way for the young hobbits but after he fails to show for a meeting with Frodo, the hobbits realise the danger inherent in the journey to Mordor and how their journey will decide the future of Middle Earth...
In as much as it is possible for an animator to work outside the system given the effort required to produce an animated film, Ralph Bakshi is probably the best known example. Bakshi had been working in animation since 1959 on cartoons such as Deputy Dawg, going on to produce Spider-Man in 1967 and soon after, he began work on an adaptation of Robert Crumb's counter-cultural cartoon Fritz The Cat, his first feature as a writer/director and so financially successful that it guaranteed Bakshi future opportunities as an independent producer of animated features. As a long-term admirer of Tolkien's work, Bakshi had suspected that it would only be through animation that justice would be served to Lord Of The Rings, insofar as preparing for an adaptation through Wizards, an animated fantasy film completed a year before working on Lord Of The Rings.
The actual background to Lord Of The Rings is that some time before Bakshi started work, John Boorman, director of such work as Point Blank, Deliverance and Zardoz, completed a script for Mike Medavoy at United Artists in which all three books within Lord Of The Rings were adapted into a single film. Bakshi worked with MGM - this was before the companies merged into MGM/UA after the studio-crippling failure of Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate - to buy the rights off UA, get Boorman off the project and to take it over. Boorman left the project with his writing fee intact and would use this experience to write and direct the stunning Excalibur, adapted from Thomas Malory's La Morte d'Arthur leaving Bakshi to write and direct Lord Of The Rings as three animated films, which would complete an adaptation of Tolkien's book.
According to Bakshi, the executive for whom he was working (Dan Melnick) was removed from his job at MGM and the deal to make Lord Of The Rings fell apart. Still, Bakshi was determined to complete his series of films and contacted Saul Zaentz, one of the funding partners on Fritz The Cat, to take Lord Of The Rings back to MGM and to complete production. The move was not entirely in Bakshi's favour, however, with his plan for three films now reduced to two two-hour films with the first part finishing after the battle at Helm's Deep during The Two Towers. Bakshi's version of Lord Of The Rings opened in 1978 and against his intention of calling it Lord Of The Rings, Part One, the film was publicised as simply Lord Of The Rings, leading to accusations by fans that he had failed to complete the film. By that stage, Bakshi was leaving the project, MGM had dropped the second part and the project remain mothballed until Peter Jackson met with Saul Zaentz, who still owned the film option, and New Line Cinema to discuss filming the three books back-to-back to form three three-hour films. The rest is now history of a very recent kind.
Bakshi's intention was always to ensure that as much of Tolkien's work in Lord Of The Rings would be preserved on-screen and he held extensive meetings with the author's estate before beginning work on his film. Due to the problems within the production companies, which it is fair to say were out of his control, as well as being limited by his own resources, it was unlikely that Bakshi was ever going to be wholly successful. In particular, after being forced to take a book-and-a-half from Tolkien's massive novel, Bakshi found it necessary to remove a number of characters and scenes, stripping the plot down to a minimum and excising anything that did not serve to move the action onwards. At such point, fans of Tolkien would already be outraged, sensing that Bakshi was removing the novel's gentler diversions in favour of swordplay and sorcery but the director still managed to include a number of scenes that sit at odds with the narrative thrust, including Frodo singing a traditional song from the Shire in The Prancing Pony, the tavern where the hobbits travel to meet Gandalf. Whilst Bakshi's intentions were in no doubt honourable, such moments appear to be present to counter the claims of excessive edits made to the source text and to reassure fans that his was a sympathetic adaptation.
Still, such complaints would be present with any adaptation of any novel. A much more interesting view on Bakshi's work is in the decisions he made as the director and as an animator on Lord Of The Rings, notably the use of rotoscoping to reduce the time taken to complete the film. For those unaware of the term, rotoscoping is an animation technique where actors are filmed performing the script using traditional 8/16/35mm cameras with the resulting images then painted over to give the animation a more realistic effect than might otherwise be possible. Often dismissed as only being used by artists incapable of capturing movement through traditional freehand drawing, rotoscoping was actually used on a number of animated films before Bakshi used it on Lord Of The Rings, including the very first American animated feature - Walt Disney's Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs - where it was used to realistically animate the human characters including the Queen, Snow White and the Prince.
As with any effect in film, rotoscoping can be both good and bad and there is a mix here of excellent animation as well as clumsily drawn characters that sit badly against hand-painted backgrounds. Regarding the former, rotoscoping provides the principal characters such as Aragorn, Gandalf, Samwise and Frodo with a weight and fluidity that might otherwise have been absent. Indeed, it is the hobbits that are animated most effectively, with Bakshi using female actors to capture what he thought of as being creatures with pronounced feminine movements and characteristics. Bakshi's use of rotoscoping also provides opportunities to place realistically animated characters against impressionistic backgrounds, such as in the Flight To The Ford sequence where the surrounding countryside disappears from the foreground action as an injured Frodo escapes from the Ringwraiths only for this background to reappear as his pursuers are washed away by a flood from the river.
On the other hand, rotoscoping provides the film with two effects that are quite notable for all the wrong reasons. Firstly, orcs are generally the worst example of animation made possible by rotoscoping, appearing to be actors wearing Hallowe'en masks and orange-peel teeth and drawn in dull blacks and browns. Secondly, characters appearing within crowds have had very little effort expended upon bringing a common look to the film with the group of people cheering Frodo on whilst he sings in The Prancing Pony being so obviously sourced from live actors that Bakshi and his team appear to have added little more than a little colour-fill. By far the worst moments are when orcs and crowds combine such as Saruman's army at the battle at Helm's Deep where large numbers of characters are blandly animated against a bright red background.
The major problem with Bakshi's version of Lord Of The Rings is not, however, to do with the use of rotoscoping, despite it being the aspect of the film over which it is most often criticised. Instead, it is the pacing of the film that disappoints, as if Bakshi, faced with the task of reducing half of the source text to a two-hour film was simply unable to decide how the film should then be structured. Aside from a wonderful opening, which continues until the fellowship of the ring is formed at Rivendell, the sequences that follow collapse into one another without any clear drive to the storytelling. Whilst there are standout moments after Rivendell, notably in the mines of Moria and the interaction between Samwise, Frodo and Gollum, it becomes difficult to tell how one battle involving orcs is substantially different from another and when the film concludes after the routing of Saruman's forces at Helm's Deep, there is little on-screen evidence to suggest that a great battle has been fought and won or what consequences such a victory had.
Overall, the central issue with Bakshi's script is that following the battle with the Balrog, anyone unfamiliar with the book will struggle to understand what is happening with otherwise important characters getting so little time onscreen as to be largely irrelevant. Boromir, for example, would appear to be little more than an incidental member of the fellowship, saying little until his attempt to convince Frodo to allow him to use the power of the ring to defeat Sauron's forces in Mordor and to bring with it, a new age for men in Middle Earth.
Of course, any review of Bakshi's Lord Of The Rings would not be complete without a comparison to Peter Jackson's films and whilst it is fair to say that it is the more recent films that are the better of the two, Bakshi's movie has a lot going for it. The manner in which the film opens with Bilbo's birthday party in the Shire, following the backlit shadow-play prologue, is a rich and rewarding chapter, showing the relaxed nature of life away from the dangers yet to come and the manner in which Gandalf takes possession of the ring before passing it on to Frodo is as capable as it is in Jackson's film. Where Bakshi's version improves is in the scene set in The Prancing Pony, with Frodo now travelling as Mr Underhill and encouraged to perform a song in the tavern, watched by Strider, who is later revealed to be Aragorn. Instead of the paranoia felt by Frodo in Jackson's version, it is only with the accidental use of the ring that the local inhabitants and the hobbits suspect anything untoward despite the unseen presence of the approaching Ringwraiths on the streets outside.
From that point on, however, Peter Jackson made the better film(s) although there are still a small number of moments when Bakshi's is more convincing. If we simply look at the comparative running times and using only the theatrical versions as opposed to the extended versions on the DVDs, New Line allowed Jackson to use 270 minutes of screen time to adapt roughly half of Tolkien's work as opposed to the 128 minutes given to Bakshi, which simply allows Jackson more time in which to offer incidental stories, characters and dialogue giving Middle Earth the appearance of being a living, breathing world populated by distinct characters where Bakshi shows little beyond what is of immediate concern to the story.
Still, there are many moments when Jackson's debt to Bakshi is clear with scenes from one being duplicated in the other, such as the moment in which the hobbits hide from a Ringwraith in the roots of a tree, the passage down the river Anduin passing the two giant statues within the Kingdom of Gondor and finally, the entrance to the mines through the gates of Moria. Even in these instances and as much as Bakshi may have influenced Jackson's direction, the imagery used in the live-action versions of Lord Of The Rings sparkle where the animated film falls a little flat. For example, where Jackson's camera swoops around the Kingdom of Gondor, showing the Rauros waterfall in the distance, Bakshi's view simply pulls back from the fellowship rowing downstream, showing that his reliance on rotoscoping, although no doubt keeping the budget low, may have prevented him from capturing the magic that an adaptation of Lord Of The Rings really deserved.
Finally, the voice acting is not at all bad throughout, led by John Hurt as Aragorn but also featuring Anthony Daniels (C3-P0) as Legolas and a cast that, after checking their history on the IMdB, seem to have made careers out of bit parts in UK television productions though special mention must go to Peter Woodthorpe who plays Gollum and does a superb job, capturing his duplicitous nature almost as effectively as Andy Serkis did in Peter Jackson's films. It would appear, though, that Woodthorpe's calling in 1978 was as a voiceover artist given that he also dubbed Pigsy in that same year's Monkey.
Lord Of The Rings has been anamorphically transferred in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and disregarding Bakshi's choice of animation styles, it certainly looks good with excellent edge definition, a rich representation of the strong colour scheme of the original print and very little evident grain apart from the very odd moment, which one suspects is due to the handling of the original print through production rather than due to anything that occurred during the transfer.
The film has been transferred with a Dolby Pro-Logic 2.0 Surround Sound English soundtrack instead of the mono soundtrack of the original and it is fine if underwhelming. Whilst there is good separation between the left and right channels, the rear speakers are rarely used bar a few moments during, for example, the Flight To The Ford or the Helm's Deep sequences. Otherwise, the soundtrack has a good dynamic range, handling low frequencies as well as it does high with no noticeable hiss during periods of silence.
Warners Home Video have really missed an opportunity to provide the definitive version of Bakshi's adaptation of Lord Of The Rings and one that would have complemented the renewed interest in the story following the release of Peter Jackson's versions. Whilst the only extra provided here is a little information on the Cast and Crew, the disc lacks a director's commentary by Bakshi, which should have been a minimum requirement given that he has had no problems in discussing the film in many Internet and print magazines in late-2001. This reviewer's opinion of the DVD was that Warners were taking advantage of the market to make a quick buck on the back of a no-frills release with minimum effort, once again demonstrating why they are often considered to be the poorest of the major region 2 DVD distributors.
Much as I think Peter Jackson is one of the greatest directors to have emerged in the last twenty years, in that every film he has written and directed has been wonderfully inventive, including his work so far on adapting Lord Of The Rings for the cinema, I still have a high regard for what Ralph Bakshi managed here. This version of Lord Of The Rings is fascinating, as it appears to be a textbook case of a director's ambition exceeding what was possible given the technical and financial conditions in which they found themselves operating. Then again, look beyond the problems mentioned here and this is an often-interesting example of a film made with the best of intentions but showing that this is simply not enough to guarantee a film's success. It also demonstrates how complex the work of a animation director who chooses to work independently must be, without the backing of a Disney or Dreamworks animation studio for support.
Of course, if nothing else, this version of Lord Of The Rings will have been a film that Peter Jackson would have referenced when explaining to New Line what he absolutely did not want to do and in terms of being guaranteed the right to make three three-hour films back-to-back, Jackson must have demonstrated what might have happened had the studio forced him to reduce the source text too much, resulting in a spottily-paced film in which large parts of explanatory dialogue and action is missing, or to leave a gap between films meaning that the studio can back out with the films appearing incomplete. What with the clear influence of Bakshi's Lord Of The Rings on Jackson's films, most pronounced in a number of shots listed earlier, this version of the story is an essential watch for fans of Jackson's work to understand how he got to where he is and what he's doing in New Zealand at the moment.
Still, were this version not of interest in itself, it would have value only to film historians and students but flawed though it certainly is, Ralph Bakshi did a pretty good job of adapting the first half of Tolkien's novel in an individual style recognisable as the director's own. Bakshi even sticks to Tolkien's book much closer than Jackson in sequences that bear comparison without feeling the need to introduce love stories that were not in the original text. What is unfortunate about Bakshi's film is that it is now being dismissed out of hand by supposed fans of Lord Of The Rings whose only exposure to the work is through Jackson's films and superb though they are, Bakshi certainly deserves a mention.
Despite the poor release by Warners Home Video, this is a worthwhile purchase should you find it in the sales, where it currently resides - not bad, not great but oh...so interesting.