I think I’ve made it clear in the past that I’m not much of a fan of J.R.R. Tolken’s novels. Certainly, that’s no comment on the quality of Tolken’s work. Hobbits, elves, and dwarves just aren’t much my style. I’m not particularly a fan of Peter Jackson’s much acclaimed film adaptations. Even then, I can’t deny how hugely successful Jackson was in creating a vast, believable universe on screen. I personally might not dig it but it’s still an extremely well-done series of films. Ralph Bakshi’s 1978 animated adaptation of Tolken’s epic is… Less so.
There are a lot of problems with the film. First off, is the animation itself. The use of rotoscoping in “Wizards” was mostly limited. In “The Lord of the Rings,” it makes up ninety percent of the animation. All the main characters are obviously rotoscoped over real people. However, Frodo, Aragon, Gandalf, et al, at least have distinct faces and expressions. Some effort was put into making these characters come alive. The same can not be said for the background characters. This film is a textbook example of how not to use rotoscoping. The Ringwraiths are silhouettes with crowns and cloaks. This doesn’t look great but at least sort of makes sense considering who the characters are. Orks are, basically, extras with plastic vampire fangs or monster make-up or, worse yet, store bought gorilla masks on their faces with some sketchy, dark animation plastered over them. It looks bad. When one of the more thoroughly animated characters have to interact with these barely animated characters, it looks incredibly awkward.
Sadly, the corner cutting doesn’t stop there. Many times, some of the main characters suddenly shifted into the more crude style, especially when running or riding their horses. In the second half of the film, the soldiers of Edoras are portrayed in the same fashion. Like I said, when done with inhuman characters, it’s almost acceptable. It looks awful but it’s almost acceptable. But when done with human characters? Unacceptable. There’s certainly nothing worse in the film then the Balrog. One of the most legitatmetly threatening creatures Tolken ever created is shown as a guy barely taller then every one else, with big, stiff, unmoving wings, and a barely animated lion mask on his head and shoulders. It’s just laughably bad. Later on when Gandalf reappears as the White later in the film, we see still paintings of his battle with the Balrog in the depths of the cavern… Which show a completely different monster, one much more convincing then what was previously shown in the film.
That’s not the only special effects failure in the film. The conflict between Gandalf and Saruman is wholly unconvincing. Basically, some stars and cosmos flash behind them, between them, and… That’s it. Lame. As the film progresses, some characters are literally unmoving, painted into the background.
There was clearly a budgetary limitation here. There wasn’t enough money to fully animate everything that needed to be animated. That raises the questions about why Bakshi even attempted to adapt the story in the first place, but you can’t blame the guy for being ambitious. But what about the shitty pacing? Compressing two novels into one two hour-fifteen minute which is tricky to begin with. From a writing perspective, it’s fair to say screenwriters Peter S. Beagle (of “The Last Unicorn” fame) and Chris Conking failed completely. Battle scenes drag on forever, while characters slash away at indistinct enemies over and over again, no sense of tension ever arising. The scenes of the Ringwraiths chasing Frodo across the river drags on for-fucking-ever. Sequences stumble into one another without rhyme or reason. Suddenly, Mary and Pippin are running with a group of Orks without much explanation. The Fellowship exploring Moria drags on, not much happening. Treebeard appears late in the film and disappears again just as suddenly. The climax of the story, Galdalf the White and his reinforcements storming into Helm’s Deep, is indistinct from the rest of the battle we’ve been watching haplessly drag on for the last hour. Even the early scenes of Gandalf and Frodo hanging out in the Shire are limply paced, reeking with exposition. All of this is avoiding the film’s biggest problem, which is that it DOESN’T HAVE A FUCKING ENDING. The story literally just stops, there’s a voice-over telling us that the story has stopped, and credits. The screenplay is horribly jumbled. The writing and pacing is clumsy, to be kind.
Thus far, I haven’t mentioned my general problems with Tolken’s writing in general. It’s unavoidable for me. I don’t find any of his characters to be compelling. Frodo is a weak protagonist. Most of the story revolves around the other character trying to protect him from getting killed, which almost happens several times anyway. Aragon’s real character development doesn’t happen until midway through the last book. The motivation for the rest of the cast? Who the hell knows. Gimli and Legolas aren’t in this movie much and spends the majority of their screen time fighting off similar looking Orks. Not to mention Legolas' permanent stink-eyes. Gollem, one of the few "Lord of the Rings" characters I actually like, doesn’t have much screen-time in this one, most of it composed of just whining at the hobbits. This is clearly only my opinion and other people might not have these problems with the movie. Sure.
Okay, so is there anything about the movie I liked? There are a couple of nicely animated scenes. A shot of the Shire going through seventeen years is cutely off-hand. The waters of a river forming into a cascading wall of white horses is pretty cool looking. I like the octopus attack, one of the few combat scenes that actually succeed. The background paintings are pretty. The main overture of the score is decent, properly mythic and rousing. Oddly, Wormtongue is actually the best animated character in the film. Some of the performances are good. John Hurt certainly does what he can with what he’s given. Galadriel’s monologue about what she would do with the ring, so effectively played by Cate Blanchett in the live-action adaptation, is almost as good here. None of this really makes up for all the other glaring problems.
I don’t even know how much I can blame on Bakshi. The degree of executive meddling was seemingly high and he clearly didn’t have enough money. Still, the over-reliance on rotoscoping was no doubt his choice and somebody probably should have taken a second look at the script. Perhaps before active production even started, someone should have realized there was no way this story could be told in two films.
Speaking of which, the second half of the film was, of course, never produced. Despite doing quite well at the box office (and probably single-handedly bankrolling the next two films Bakshi made), the critical rejection was apparently enough to put the brakes on future installments. Considering how the first part came out, I’m not exactly sad. “The Lord of the Rings” is just a bungled mess, from beginning to not-end. [Grade: D]