Ralph Bakshi’s 1978 animated version of ‘The Lord of the Rings’ was an interesting but muddled creation

October 7, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
Oct. 7, 2015

J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, a fantasy-adventure trilogy first printed in 1954–55, was a seminal publication. Ralph Bakshi’s The Lord of the Rings, an animated feature based on Tolkien’s work that was released in 1978, is an obscurity.

There was probably a time when Bakshi’s movie was prized by a certain subculture. When it came out, the fantasy-adventure genre was only beginning to emerge from fringe culture. The fantasy-adventure role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons — which owes a great debt to Lord of the Rings, like countless other fantasy books, movies and games — had been released in 1974. By the time of the Bakshi animation’s release, D&D had sold out multiple printings and inspired both a burgeoning line of supplementary products as well as a brand-new magazine. (The Dragon switched from bimonthly to monthly publication in April 1978.)

I have extremely vague memories of having seen Bakshi’s movie in a theater when I was (very!) young. But aside from a nightmarish sequence or two involving the hideous Nazgûl, the movie didn’t make much of an impression. The narrative was too convoluted, the plot too sprawling; there were too many things that went over my head.

In its defense, I suspect that the Bakshi feature was a big hit in certain counter-culture circles — I hazard to guess, groups of people who were older than me and more devoted to fantasy-adventure stuff than me and more interested in, say, weed than I ever would be or ever have been. But no, The Lord of the Rings (1978) was not the kind of hit movie that set on the world on fire.

A week or two ago, I happened to find a DVD of this production at a second-hand store — the movie was evidently released on disc (Hey, remember CDs and DVDs?) in 2010. The other night, I popped it into my computer (Hey, remember CD/DVD drives?!) and found that, well, there are some good reasons why I don’t have a very clear memory of watching this feature.

The movie is… Well, it’s OK. Bakshi and his animators have made some questionable choices: The faces and dialogue of the Hobbits seems overly childlike at times, and Sam at times comes uncomfortably close to a caricature of a naïve Hispanic gardener. (Sam’s skin tends to be shaded notably darker than Frodo’s.) Similarly, the treacherous wizard Saruman also verges on stereotype, as his costume, facial hair and clawed hands suggest an evil Oriental magician.

Bakshi’s film, perhaps due to financial constraints, has some jarring shifts in emotional tone and animation styles. It’s striking to see live-action footage incorporated during the scenes of battle and in the Prancing Pony tavern. Much of the film was apparently rotoscoped, per Wikipedia, although the facial features and costumes of the main characters generally lack the level of detail that we see in many of the secondary figures, whose live-action footage has been processed in different ways.

The combat scenes are also strange to watch, both because of the live-action visuals and because they are fairly brutal. Although the carnage tends not to be depicted graphically in The Lord of the Rings — the film got a PG rating — it’s clear that the swords are inflicting major damage. (Some of the combat scenes were shot specifically for Bakshi’s movie, but others were borrowed from the 1938 movie Alexander Nevsky, per the Internet Movie Database, which also claims that battle footage from Monty Python and the Holy Grail was repurposed in this way.) It’s easy to imagine this movie leaving a certain type of child in distress.

It’s impossible to talk about a cinematic adaptation of The Lord of the Rings without mentioning New Zealand director Peter Jackson’s trilogy, released in consecutive years from 2001 through 2003. I was a big fan of Jackson’s epic, and I must report that the set pieces in the newer films are far better than the highlights of Bakshi’s film.

Still, there’s a certain power in the way Bakshi stages the confrontation between the wizard Gandalf and the immense demonic Balrog in the mines of Moria. Saruman and his orcs definitely project a certain menace in their scenes. And every sequence in which the Nazgûl confronts the protagonists is fairly terrifying — although, I must say, the horseback chase at the Ford of Bruinen in Bakshi’s version is far inferior to the one Jackson staged for 2001’s The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. (Jackson’s handling of the party’s entrance into Moria is also much better than the animated version.)

Bakshi does little to establish the movie’s secondary characters. The Prancing Pony’s proprietor — a minor figure in the story by any light — ends up seeming more distinctive than several of the protagonists, including Legolas the elf. (Mind you, Legolas was so beloved by fans of Jackson’s movies that he was featured prominently in Jackson’s latter two Hobbit films despite never appearing in Tolkien’s original story.)

The Hobbits Pippin and Merry would be completely indistinguishable from one another were it not for their differing shades of hair. Gimli hardly seems to utter a word outside of Bakshi’s Moria sequence. In fact, when the dwarf appeared with an uncovered head during the breaking of the fellowship at Amon Hen, I was shocked to see that the character was bald. It’s a minor point, true, but it’s the kind of thing that would not and should not be a surprise in an adaptation that was paying more attention to details.

But the most frustrating thing about Bakshi’s The Lord of the Rings isn’t what is or is not in the movie; it’s the fact that the feature only tells about half of the story of Tolkien’s trilogy of books. At the movie’s close, which comes at the finish of the battle of Helm’s Deep, the narrator says, “The forces of darkness were driven forever from the face of Middle-Earth by the valiant friends of Frodo. As their gallant battle ended, so, too, does the first great tale of The Lord of the Rings.” (In the original theatrical release, the narrator reportedly said something like, “This concludes part one.”)

But this is hogwash on multiple levels. The forces of darkness were defeated in one battle, not “driven forever from the face of Middle-Earth.” And while screenwriters Chris Conkling and Peter S. Beagle provide (false!) closure for one faction of the broken fellowship, the fates of the two pairs of Hobbits — Frodo and Sam on the one hand; Merry and Pippin on the other — are left completely up in the air. I remember feeling cheated by this as a kid; a similar sense of outrage returned when I came to the end of the DVD.

Granted, Bakshi and company could only do so much with what they were given. Their version came in at 132 minutes (making it the longest animated feature to that point in history), and the movie does an admirable job of dashing through Tolkien’s plot without making anything too confusing. It’s not their fault that the studio never authorized a sequel. Still, this version of The Lord of the Rings is incomplete — no two ways about it. (An animated adaptation of the final book in Tolkien’s trilogy was released in 1980, which I didn’t know until after I began preparing this post, but it was produced by a different studio, and some of the books’ plot elements aren’t included in any Lord of the Rings animation.)

The voice acting in The Lord of the Rings is, on the whole, fine. Christopher Guest gives the ancient wizard Gandalf authority, wisdom and a hint of playfulness. John Hurt lends Aragorn with an admirable gravity, and Christopher Guard strikes a nice balance between fearfulness and courage as Frodo the reluctant adventurer.

Most of the other voice actors — Michael Scholes as Sam, Simon Chandler as Merry, Dominic Guard as Pippin, Norman Bird as Bilbo, David Buck as Gimli, Peter Woodthorpe as Gollum and Fraser Kerr as Saruman — struck me as being merely serviceable. Annette Crosbie has the distinction of portraying Galadriel, Rivendell’s elvish queen and the only female character to get any lines in the production. (Éowyn, who plays a small but significant role in Tolkien’s books, is shown in one scene but never speaks; if Arwen, a prominent character in Jackson’s trilogy, was ever shown by Bakshi, then I missed it.)

On the negative side, Michael Graham Cox’s Boromir has neither the nobility nor the angst with which Sean Bean imbued the character; the warrior here simply comes off as whiny, although that’s at least as much the fault of the screenwriters and director as it is the actor. Rather surprisingly, the worst performance comes from Anthony Daniels, who rose to fame as the distinctively voiced droid C-3PO in the Star Wars movies; his Legolas merely sounds childish and uncertain.

The movie also has a few things that are downright confusing. The dialogue makes it seem as if the wizard had known about the golden ring’s true nature for the past 17 years, but I never understood why Gandalf was moved to tell Frodo to take the ring to Rivendell precisely when he did. The characters also discuss Aruman at some times and Saruman at others; apparently producers waffled about changing the name because they worried audiences would confuse Saruman and Sauron. (I find that concern entirely reasonable, but in the end they just introduced a different kind of confusion.)

A quick note about the score: It was written by Leonard Rosenman, whose work I know only because he also composed the music for Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. Like the 1978 Lord of the Rings as a whole, it’s adequate; I much prefer Howard Shore’s music for the Jackson trilogy. Also, I noticed with some amusement that a couple of the themes in 1988’s Star Trek IV previously appeared on the soundtrack to Bakshi’s Tolkien adaptation.

In characterizing my reaction to the animated version of The Lord of the Rings, I can’t really say anything much more effusive than, “It was adequate.” But it appears that Jackson first encountered Tolkien through the Bakshi animation, so I guess the movie’s ultimate legacy might be that: It inspired a moviemaker to aspire to — and to reach — greater heights.

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