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The Animated Tolkien Trilogy: Ralph Bakshi's The Lord of the Rings (1978)

          Let’s talk about Ralph Bakshi. He’s essentially the father of American animation for adults, beginning his career by making movies like Fritz the Cat, Heavy Traffic, and Coonskin, all raunchy politically incorrect urban satires. Nevertheless, these movies were fairly well-received for their surreality and unconventional boldness, if vulgar subject matter and unappealing animation. After transitioning to the fantasy genre through an incredibly weird film called Wizards, Bakshi became intent on making an animated film out of one of his favourite books, The Lord of the Rings. The issue being, “a” film singular. Though Bakshi initially wanted to make at least two films, the second never came to fruition, and so he frustratingly wound up adapting The Fellowship of the Ring and half of The Two Towers, without getting to finish the series.
          But he completed the film regardless, and in 1978 one of Tolkien’s stories hit the big screen for the first time. And while I feel an animator like Don Bluth or Martin Rosen would have been better suited for the story, there’s no doubt Bakshi’s interpretation is, for good and bad, completely his own.
          One thing you’ll notice that pervades this film is a rather realistic animation technique being used. This was Bakshi’s first movie to use rotoscoping wherein scenes are shot in live action before being traced into animation. He wound up using rotoscoping in a number of his subsequent movies. Here it’s most obvious in the silhouette shots usually during long takes or battles. This version of the prologue is presented all in shadow and the mythical feel isn’t bad. Unfortunately it happens to look like an amateur theatre production especially when recounting the Riddles in the Dark. 
          Shortly after the title it transitions to Bilbo’s party, not expending any time on the introduction of hobbits and their lifestyle. Given how much needs to be covered, this is only sensible, but it still makes Gandalf’s observation “Frodo, I see your uncle Bilbo hasn’t changed much” feel exactly like the rapid character relationship establishment it is. Gandalf isn’t even given a proper introduction. Bilbo’s exit from the party feels similarly rushed (though it’s worth noting the brief exchange between him and Odo Proudfoot is a Bakshi original that Jackson repeated as an homage). And then there’s another major difference from the latter film in that Bakshi actually skips ahead seventeen years like the book. Though his adherence is admirable, I do agree with Jackson’s sentiment that the time skip is pointless and detracts from the urgent pace. The characters all still look the same anyway. Gandalf’s return to Bag End is swift and when shown the ring he just nonchalantly tosses it in the fire. The scene where he details the legend of Sauron is just full of weird exaggerated expressions from Frodo, Gandalf giving him the creeper eyes, and one bizarre moment where Gandalf just points directly at the camera as Frodo’s vantage point, cornering him for way too long in silence. It’s actually kind of hilarious. But the very next scene, Bakshi rectifies this with an extremely Tolkien-esque conversation between Gandalf and Frodo as they walk along the road down from Bag End. Hobbiton at night, the image of the wizard and hobbit, and the talk of the ancient magical past really gives the scene the perfect atmosphere. But it only lasts until Gandalf fishes Sam out of the brush and we see what’s easily the biggest fuck up of the movie.
          “Oh hooraayyy” Sam says by the end of the scene. That should give you an idea what he’s like in this film. Sam is a complete bumbling imbecile who complains excessively and has childish fits. It quickly goes from being bafflingly funny to hard to watch. Sam, as any Lord of the Rings fan knows, is the real hero of the trilogy, and this portrayal is unbelievably insulting, especially considering how great and emotional Sean Astin’s performance as the character is by contrast.
          We transition to an Isengard shrouded in red. This film, like Jackson’s, knows it’s better to include this sequence presented at its actual chronological point in the story. However it’s a little funny to see Gandalf and Saruman moving like old men, and Saruman using his “Many Colours” name while flashing Gandalf is very goofy. The betrayal comes out quick, Saruman makes little attempt to hide it. And at one point he’s clearly called “Aruman” for no reason! In fact, during the movie he’s variously referred to by both names, because Bakshi I guess doesn’t care much for basic consistency. This is made clear when he cuts back to the hobbits and Merry and Pippin are suddenly there. Their interaction with the Black Rider is done well enough, with the hobbits hiding under the tree root (though in another bizarre decision of Bakshi’s, the rider walks like he’s got gout). After this, Merry and Pippin reveal they “wormed things out of Gandalf” about Frodo and Sam’s quest and decide to join and protect them. When they get to the Prancing Pony, that’s where Bakshi’s in his element with its seedy look and unsettling characters. After dancing incredibly awkwardly on a table and slipping the ring on accidentally, Frodo is saved by Aragorn, already carrying Narsil (though not reforged) and giving the movie an immediate boost in awesome purely by being voiced by John Hurt. His introduction to the hobbits is done very well. Merry witnesses the ringwraiths entering Bree and not too long after, they apparate into the room the hobbits are supposed to be in. They then beat the beds with their swords, the result of rotoscoped actors not knowing how to use swords, as Aragorn and the hobbits escape. On their journey to Weathertop, Aragorn tells them the story of Beren and Luthien, during which I’m pretty sure Frodo and Sam were about to kiss (and they say the gay subtext was heavy in the Jackson films!). The subsequent wraith attack features a really unique perspective of the dimension of the wraiths when Frodo puts the ring on. He still gets stabbed. Temporarily warding them off, they then meet Legolas this time, because clearly nobody cares about Glorfindel. And he’s voiced noticeably by Anthony Daniels. Nonetheless, blonde C-3PO flies to the ford with Frodo in what’s another pretty good sequence given Frodo a few really strong moments.
          Awakening in Rivendell, Gandalf greets Frodo by reiterating what we just saw between him and Saruman. Frodo’s reunion with Bilbo here is nice too until it becomes hilarious. There’s that memorable moment in Jackson’s film when Bilbo upon seeing the ring again turns into some devilish Gollum for a moment. It does a terrific job at both shocking the audience and illustrating the ring’s continual power over Bilbo, even after so many years of not having it. Here, it’s replaced with him flailing at the ring like a cat with some string dangled in front of him, and it’s ridiculously funny. Bilbo actually is present at the Council of Elrond, which I appreciate, and we’re also introduced to a taller than expected Gimli and Boromir in a Viking hat. And with Michael Graham Cox voicing Boromir, it’s a Watership Down reunion for him and John Hurt. It’s decided to take the ring to Mordor to destroy it. The fellowship forms through a corny voiceover and footage of Boromir no doubt freezing his bare legs off in the Misty Mountains. 
          When they get to Moria, the fellowship essentially puts entering it to a vote, each character declaring whether they will or will not go. After they decide to, it’s Gandalf, rather than Frodo or Merry who realizes the riddle to enter (I love how Legolas acts like “say friend and enter” is the Elvish equivalent of setting your password to “password”). The Watcher in the Water then attacks, remembering to devour Bill in this version, before the fellowship escapes. The journey through Moria proceeds well enough until Pippin inadvertently alerts the orcs to their presence, and Gandalf has a very funny response of annoyance. This is countered by a great subtle response of grief from Gimli when they reach Balin’s Tomb. The orc attack that follows gives us our first good look at the orcs -shadowy figures in rags with visible red eyes, vaguely ape-like faces and fangs, who definitely stand out for how rotoscoped they are in comparison to the main characters. It makes the subsequent battle scene a little hard to stay focussed on -and yeah Frodo, stabbing it in the toe will really do it some harm! Frodo is struck yet again with a spear instead of a sword, and it happens bizarrely in slow motion as he seems to put himself right in the line of fire. And then the balrog shows up …and it’s really pathetic. Where balrogs in Tolkien’s legendarium, and indeed in the Jackson film, are great monstrous demons, this is Manbat with a lions’ head. The whole confrontation with Gandalf is really lame, and there’s sadly not much grief for him in the scene that follows, because it instead needs to establish the mithril vest that saved Frodo’s life. 
          In a sudden cut, the fellowship is now in Lothlorien. The Mirror of Galadriel scene introduces us to our first female character of the movie, as Arwen was cut, and being a Bakshi film we should be thankful she never flashes her boobs at the audience. Sam is included here too as in the book, but he might as well have not been for all the use he is. The foreshadowing of the scouring of the Shire is just turned into a joke about Sam complaining. Additionally, Galadriel’s test is far less dramatic, and is in fact treated almost with sarcasm from Galadriel herself. She doesn’t ever feel like the wise and magnificent power she’s supposed to be. The fellowship leave down the Great River and upon arriving at Amon Hen, Aragorn holds a committee; the breaking of the fellowship seeming to be apparent to all. Next is Boromir’s confrontation of Frodo and his attempt to take the ring. And it’s done decently -you can feel Boromir’s passion. His regret immediately after is handled well too. Frodo tries to leave in the boat while WEARING THE RING YOU MORON! But Sam spots him and joins him very much like he’s supposed to (though I feel given the characterization of this Sam, he was exactly who Frodo was trying to sneak away from). The orcs then spring up around Merry and Pippin surrounding them in a very poorly choreographed bit. Boromir attacks them and gets a good death scene, but one that just can’t hold a candle to Sean Bean’s heartbreaking demise. Aragorn sees Boromir at his deathbed in a moment performed very well by Hurt and Cox. Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli send his body off on a pyre and then embark on their rescue of Merry and Pippin, ending the Fellowship of the Ring adaptation.
          But it goes straight into The Two Towers, and like Jackson, Bakshi loves his running shots of the trio (though it’s significantly less epic by how goofy Legolas in particular looks). Meanwhile, the orcs with Merry and Pippin, talk like the Tasmanian Devil before running into the Rohirrim, who are interestingly also in shadow, though much more distinctively blonde. Edited between the orcs’ attempted flight from the Rohirrim is the establishing of where Frodo and Sam are now. While this movie only adapts the first half of The Two Towers, Bakshi knew he couldn’t just leave Frodo and Sam out entirely after leaving the fellowship. But the unfortunate effect is that it basically only allows for the introduction of Gollum to take place, while the entirety of the other characters’ arcs from The Two Towers play out. Gollum in this version stands on two feet for some reason. However Frodo does demand his service more assertively than Elijah Wood ever did. Back to the orcs: they’ve constructed a meagre defence against the Rohirrim, and the budget constraints and use of rotoscoping means there are only a handful of figures on either side. Merry’s strange quoting of Gollum doesn’t work as a means to trick Grishnahk into untying them, but he’s shot before killing them. They didn’t need Grishnahk though, as they get loose on their own very easily. The hobbits escape into nearby Fangorn Forest while the orcs are slain. They soon meet Treebeard incidentally, who has an okay design. He introduces himself properly, his absence of allegiance, and the hobbits applaud weirdly for him. And that’s the last we see of them, which is kind of jarring. Their story just stops without even an attempt to resolve anything.
          As the other three track the hobbits, they come upon the newly resurrected Gandalf the White, still wearing his old hat, mind. He quickly exposits how he’s returned, then quickly sets up the situation in Rohan as they ride to Edoras. Our introduction to King Theoden is as an old man having his beard creepily stroked by a moustachioed Grima Wormtongue. There’s a scene of Saruman and Wormtongue rallying forces as Gandalf tells Aragorn of the plan to go to Helms’ Deep already, before they arrive at Edoras. Gandalf limps into Theoden’s hall and exposes Wormtongue, who quickly flees. Theoden then introduces Eowyn as his “sister-daughter” (eww), and one of the sacrifices for this movie’s content and runtime means that one of the greatest characters in the whole trilogy is given just a glance and no dialogue. Gandalf fills Theoden in, and in a few seconds, he’s ready to go to Helm’s Deep. There’s a pause when they reach Helm’s Deep, just so Gandalf can leave the party. Back with Frodo and Sam, it appears that Gollum has sneaked off -and Sam is fucking CHEWING on his cloak!! What follows are snippets of various scenes from the book, like them spotting wraiths in the sky, Gollum plotting against the hobbits, and the “sneaking” conversation. It’s worth noting in this version how Frodo never sympathizes with Gollum.
          Rohan prepared for Helm’s Deep very quickly and there’s red smog in the air in advance of the battle, which is an interesting choice. The orcs arrive as a grim song plays over them and it’s actually effective. The battle begins, and again is mostly shown through silhouetted rotoscope characters fighting each other with obvious choreography, using swords as batons, and every time an orc dies they make an over-the-top death noise. The battle definitely creates an atmosphere, but its marred by things like this and Rohan soldiers standing in open places along the battlements as arrows fly right towards them. Then again, there’s a great moment where Aragorn lets out an awesome John Hurt laugh as Legolas shoots a soldier attacking him. After going on a while (though not nearly as long as in the Jackson film), they retreat to the keep, and there’s a tonally inconsistent silencing, before Theoden and Aragorn resolve to ride out. We get one last scene switch-over to Frodo and Sam, now near Mordor, and they actually have a nice little chat about their chance of returning after Mount Doom. Gollum then appears to tell them of the safer route and they decide to take it. So essentially all but the opening and closing of their storyline is omitted, making it seem like Mordor was really just around the corner from Amon Hen. Saruman’s army seems significantly smaller as they feebly try to ram into Helm’s Deep, but the horn sounds and the Rohirrim ride out driving them back. Just as they seem to be surrounded, Gandalf rides in with the Riders of Rohan to rescue. The movie ends incredibly abruptly here, as Gandalf slays a couple orcs and a voiceover essentially just says “oh, Middle-Earth was saved by the way”. However it does refer to this story as just the ‘first tale’ indicating how Bakshi wanted to do a second.
          And you know, I kind of would’ve liked to see it. For all my criticisms, I do like a lot of parts of this movie. There are a ton of bad moments, and as usual with Bakshi, just plain weird moments (it’s a good thing he didn’t decide to make this like Wizards), but there are definitely things he does right, proving a love for the source material. Many aspects of the world, extending to the character designs and costumes are very evocative of Old English and Nordic folklore, rather than just Medieval as it often appeared in the Jackson films. And while I prefer that aesthetic in live-action, it’s the folklore that was Tolkien’s inspiration, so it would make sense that Aragorn and Theoden would look like figures out of Beowulf. The casting is generally decent, John Hurt’s always a good choice, the music’s pretty good, if a far cry from Howard Shore, and there are two or three moments I’ll admit are done better than in the Jackson films. But at the same time, it is pretty clumsy, and though I know it’s not Bakshi’s fault, it does feel rushed, especially (as you can tell) with regard to the second book. The Fellowship of the Ring takes up an hour and a half while The Two Towers lasts less than forty-five minutes. Had he been able to adapt the trilogy properly, it might have made for a fair comparison to the Jackson films. There’s also the animation issues -rotoscoping really doesn’t work for me, especially with material like Lord of the Rings; and there are a ton of bizarre and unintentionally goofy moments that don’t make sense, even if they are really funny to watch. While some of the characters like Frodo, Aragorn, and even Boromir fare exceedingly well, others like Gimli, Pippin, and Merry are very underdeveloped. Gandalf is often awkward, Gollum is kind of mishandled, and of course Sam is an absolute travesty.
          In the end though, it is probably one of Ralph Bakshi’s best movies. It’s not quite good, but few of his movies technically are, entertaining though they may be to watch. I do admire that he tried something different for this film, both in content and scope. It’s got the most mainstream appeal of his films and it could’ve been executed a whole lot worse. It’s a shame he was never able to do the sequel, (something he’s said, if he’d known about at the time, he wouldn’t have even attempted the first). I’m very curious what his Return of the King would have looked like. But I do know it would certainly have been better than what we got when the torch was passed back to Rankin/Bass.

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