Happy Birthday Tolkien, and the lesser known LOTR film
Today the Good Professor turns twelvety-three, by Shire reckoning. In honor of his birthday, I thought I’d review a lesser known adaptation of his magnum opus, Ralph Bakshi’s 1978 animated The Lord of the Rings. I saw this film years ago, before I saw Jackson’s trilogy, and even before I had read the books, and have fond memories of it. This review, however is written in light of a recent viewing of a few weeks ago, Jackson’s films and multiple readings of the Tolkien’s novel over the years under my belt.
Bakshi’s film is a mixed bag of good, bad, and so-bad-it’s-good. I’m rather a fan of the opening narration; it’s depiction of the events entirely through shadowy silhouettes on a colored screen lends a legend-shrouded-by-time feel to the scene that is decidedly lacking in Jackson’s in-your-face portrayal of the Battle of Dagorlad, even though Sauron was probably just a dude in a Burger King crown standing behind a sheet. The rotoscoping used for the film, wherein live actors were filmed and later painted over by animators, is responsible for a lot of what I both love and laugh at in this film. The fight scenes feel more visceral for it, every blow carrying weight, and the orcs and nazgul are effectively scary and creepy. The balrog………not so much.
[no picture here. Bakshi’s balrog must be seen to be believed]
The film seems to have not budgeted enough for animation, and starting at Bree, background characters are just barely painted over enough to be “animated”, as if you ran a photograph through a few Photoshop filters and called it a painting. It gets worse as the film progresses, like a morgul stab wound, the Photoshop filter sickness spreading even to the main cast at times. Poor Eomer.
A side effect of the decision to use rotoscoping is that, presumably due to the direction the actors were given, all of the characters appear very fidgety when standing still, and move very dramatically and, dare I say, animatedly, when they are doing something, infusing every dialogue-heavy scene with an atmosphere of melodrama. Thus begin the so-bad-it’s-good elements of the film. The overacting extends to the characters’ facial expressions as well. Sam can’t seem to keep both eyes fully open at any time, Gandalf’s ominous stare could very well destroy the Ring itself, and Aragorn and Legolas have hilarious running faces. As my friend remarked, “It’s a wonder this whole film isn’t a gifset on Buzzfeed”.
Speaking of Sam, someone on the crew clearly had it out for him. While this film’s Frodo and Aragorn are actually superior characterizations in many ways to Jackson’s take, with Frodo being less mopey and tougher and Aragorn acting more kingly and highborn (and having John Hurt do an awesome battle-laugh for him at Helm’s Deep), Sam is a fidgeting, goofy, embarrassment for all hobbits everywhere. Gone is Frodo’s stalwart companion with a wondrous desire to see elves. In his place stands…I really don’t know. A lobotomized Tom Bombadil?
Also amusing are some odd character designs, such as Roman Elrond, Viking Boromir, and Amerindian Aragorn, although I do love seeing different visual interpretations of characters, so this is actually more of a plus for me.
Now, setting aside the amusing parts of the film, are there any other elements that are legitimately good or bad? Yes. For the bad, the film has no sense of pace; transitions between scenes are abrupt, and there is no tension or energy rising towards the film’s climax at Helm’s Deep. The whole film plays like the midseason clip show recap episode of an anime, and assumes you are quite familiar with the novel. Lines are delivered verbatim from Tolkien’s writing, but without any context in the film itself. Boromir asks “Why all this talk of hiding and destroying?” almost as soon as the Council of Elrond begins, before anyone has talked much about hiding or destroying anything. Sam hears “a great deal about a dark lord and something about the end of the world” despite being found in a bush far away from where the Shadow of the Past conversation took place. Storywise, the film can only really be enjoyed by fans quite familiar with the book, who are filling in all the gaps themselves. That said, the flip side is that Bakshi sticks pretty close to the books, so while a lot of things are missing, or envisioned oddly, nothing is greatly altered, and there are scenes here not found in Jackson’s work, such as Aragorn’s brandishing of Narsil before the hobbits in Bree, or Grishnakh’s pawing for the Ring. I do wish Bakshi could have made his second movie, so I could see Faramir and Denethor characterized properly.
So all is not lost! In addition to the orcs and nazgul, and the more accurate characterizations of Frodo and Aragorn, the scoring is quite fun, though decidedly more Disney-medieval sounding than Shore’s. The background paintings, when not portraying the shadowy twilight world of the nazgul as totally psychedelic, are very atmospheric, and I loved the portrayal of the 17 years passing in the Shire via changing seasons, as Tolkien noted it could be done in his hilarious skewering of an earlier screenplay draft of LOTR (well worth finding a copy of The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien for).
Among the bad and the hilarious, there is a lot of interesting stuff here for Tolkien buffs to enjoy, and Bakshi’s take on the material is quite different from Jackson’s, though the former’s influence on the latter can be seen in many of the early scenes with the nazgul, particularly at Bree. For those fans familiar with Middle-earth only through Jackson’s films, Bakshi’s offering may only serve as humorous casual viewing for an evening, but for fans of the book, there is more here for you than just comedy, and you may find yourself, as I, drawn to this odd movie again and again, to see a unique vision of Tolkien’s world.