There are few things I love more these days than weird-ass old animated films. While Disney was busy making glossy family fare for the masses, other animators were pushing the medium in new, interesting, and nutty ways. Arguably the most innovative and least Disney-ish of the bunch during the ’70s was Ralph Bakshi, the animator and director who made a splash with the X-rated cartoon Fritz the Cat and socially conscious films like Heavy Traffic. In 1977, he made his first fantasy film–the absolutely brilliant Wizards–and would follow it up a year later with his take on Tolkien‘s The Lord of the Rings.
Wizards, despite some graphic violence, sexual innuendo, and Nazi imagery, was Bakshi’s first attempt to do a family film, or at least a film more for a wider audience. It became a cult classic, but didn’t really endear him to a younger crowd. The big test was going to be adapting a hugely popular and beloved fantasy novel series which many considered to be unfilmable. The same year as Wizards, Rankin & Bass made a feature-length version of The Hobbit, but Bakshi was going to be much more daring. While he wanted to make the whole book trilogy in one film, it became evident that he’d have to split it in half and thus, The Fellowship of the Ring plus a good portion of The Two Towers were combined to make The Lord of the Rings.
Bakshi didn’t have the kind of budget to animate every cel of the film traditionally, so he mixed up animation techniques, employing cut-outs as well as Rotoscoping, which he’d done extensively in Wizards. Rotoscoping is the technique of filming live action and then drawing over the film frames to create a half-animated scene or sequence. As a result, there’s a strange, otherworldly quality to The Lord of the Rings that put a lot of people off. For example, the prologue of the movie–which sets up Isildur facing off against Sauron and obtaining the ring–was done by filming actors in silhouette, like an old-timey puppet show. Other creatures like the Balrog and the Ringwraiths were done using human actors in costume and then Rotoscoping that.
One of the most amazing things about the movie is just how much it informed Peter Jackson’s take on the material in a visual sense. Granted, both Bakshi and Jackson were working from the same source material by an author who was very descriptive, but it’s amazing to see shots lifted almost entirely from the animated film to the live-action one. The top picture of this article–with the Hobbits hiding from the Ringwraith–is almost exactly what you see in Jackson’s first LOTR film. Even the layout of Moria looks eerily similar, even if the Balrog itself looks a bit naff.
What I think the movie has going for it is a pace and a sense of story that Jackson’s didn’t have, simply by virtue of him having more time. While I still think the Jackson version is the best version of that story (even more than the books, sorry folks), Bakshi’s version cuts to the chase really nicely and also hones in on the friendship between Frodo and Sam. The other characters tend to suffer a bit–especially Gimli and Legolas who aren’t much of anything here, and Eowyn who doesn’t even have a line of dialogue–but if you’re making a single film to encompass a whole book and a half, it gets to the heart of the matter really well.
Where I do think the movie suffers, even taking into account the low budget and rapid schedule, are the big battle scenes, especially at Helm’s Deep. Helm’s Deep was a massive sequence in the second Jackson movie (which remains my favorite of the films, despite what everyone else says) with tens of thousands of characters and dozens of real actors taking part. Such a sequence couldn’t possibly be done in animation without dozens of animators working round the clock, a luxury which Bakshi simply didn’t have. What we get is a really weird Rotoscoped “battle” with people on horseback wearing crappy armor. It… it like doesn’t look right.
But for all its downsides, I think there’s a lot to admire about Bakshi’s The Lord of the Rings. He swung for the fences and the first half of the movie is fantastic. The real tragedy of it is that the film didn’t do well enough to warrant Bakshi getting to make his sequel. His version of Tolkien’s epic trilogy never got its conclusion. And even more unfortunate, in 1980, Rankin & Bass made a TV movie version of it using the same cast they had in their Hobbit movie and using their own visual style. If Bakshi’s version didn’t quite work, Rankin & Bass’ follow-up to it really didn’t work. Ah, to what could have been.
Images: Warner Bros