Ralph Bakshi's "The Lord of the Rings"- The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
Z's review of the 1978 Animated film

Z's first Tolkien Experience

LOTR 1979 CalendarI had first seen Ralph Bakshi's LOTR in 1978, the year it first came out. I was in high school, a burgeoning geek- part of the after school "Science Fiction Club". Of course the club was into Star Trek, Star Wars and Tolkien. My first attempt to speed-read through "The Fellowship of the Ring" was pretty unsuccessful. I barely registered the plot and knew only the barest essentials about the characters. Once I saw the Bakshi movie, I at least managed to walk away with some understanding of the book, so it encouraged me to re-read the books properly.

I recall thinking rather well of the movie, and I had bought several of the film-related books.  For the longest time, the image of Boromir as a Viking had stuck with me, even though I realized that  the characterization was completely wrong. Several years ago, the movie was shown on TV, and I recall being somewhat bored by the almost endless Nazgûl chase at the Fords of Bruinen and the interminable scenes of the Orcs driving Merry and Pippin through Rohan. I didn't give the Bakshi film another thought until Peter Jackson's film version of "The Fellowship of the Ring" came out in 2001. I was very moved by that movie, and touched by the genuine warmth of Ian McKellen's Gandalf. After seeing it several times, I decided to rent the old Bakshi version, to give my first Tolkien experience another CLOSE look, this time through an adult's eyes.

The Animation

LOTR VHS frontYou might say that Ralph Bakshi's LOTR is half-animated. It really looks as if 80% of the film's budget was used in the first hour, and when they started to run out of money, they started to seriously cut corners in production, and the movie took a STEEP downhill slide in quality in the 2nd half.

Part of the controversy was the animation technique of "rotoscoping"- filming live-action and then drawing the cartoon cels on top of the film. It does make for very realistic movement, but there was something disconcerting about it. Characters came off as jittery and fidgety. But at least, in the film's first half, the animators really DID take the trouble to draw cartoon cels on top of the photographic image and dispensed with the photo after the figure was completely rendered in animation. In the second half, we are lucky to see half-baked traced OUTLINES of the characters, with most of the original, live-action video still visible! It got even worse during every Nazgûl, Orc and battle scene- they got rid of the animation entirely and depended on tinted, high-contrast (posterized) and distorted live-action filmed actors to carry parts of the story! It really is as horrible as it sounds- those scenes look "cheap", especially compared to the truly animated scenes (with animated characters) in Hobbiton, Bree, Rivendell and Edoras.

Another thing that I had noticed was the "flat" look of the movie. Multi-plane camera technology had been around since the 1930's, and Disney made extensive use of it to give their animated features the look of true depth. The multi-plane cameras allowed the animators to have foreground elements on one plane, characters on a different one and background elements on another. As the camera zoomed in, you would begin to see AROUND the foreground objects, and when characters walked, the foreground would whiz by, while the mountains in the back would stay fairly static, just like things would appear in real-life. LOTR  has only 2 brief multi-plane scenes (Bree and Weathertop), so most of the movie never really puts the viewer "inside" the picture.

It almost looks like we're watching 2 movies unsuccessfully spliced together- one movie was truly animated, with every scene (even freeze-framed on DVD) looking like illustrations in a gorgeous children's LOTR book. The other movie was simply shot live action, with the cheapest costuming and makeup imaginable!


Prologue: Where Less looks like Less

SauronIt doesn't start off very well. A prologue gives us the history of the forging of the One Ring by the Dark Lord Sauron and the war in which Prince Isuldur cut the ring from Sauron's hand. Isildur admires the ring, but is shot down by Orcs and the ring drops into the Great River, where it sits for ages until it is found by two hobbit-like creatures. One of these creatures, Sméagol, wants it and kills his friend for it. (On a side note, the Sméagol scenes are hideously over-acted).

Well, the idea is generally right, but the way it was shot is AWFUL. The prologue is not really "animated"- not that I can see. It's a bunch of silhouettes behind a red woven window shade! That's right- you too can film LOTR with a flashlight, a window shade and finger puppets! Or if you're ambitious, you can use a bigger shade and film your friends! No costuming, and all props can be cardboard- who'd know?


Hour 1: Where most of it is done Right

I really love the way the first hour (after the prologue) was produced. THIS is animation! Every hobbit at Bilbo's birthday party is beautifully drawn, and the painted backgrounds are real paintings.

The script follows the book reasonably faithfully in the first hour, with a few deletions- The Old Forest, Tom Bombadil, The Barrow Downs for starters. For the most part, the first hour is worth watching and I have few complaints about the quality of the animation. I find a few of the plot and character changes to be rather ludicrous, but it really isn’t as bad as it sounds. We get to "learn" the following things (which were NOT in the book!)
Gandalf and Frodo

limping Nazgul Bree is the first scene in which we see some "cracks" appearing in the rotoscoped animation. The faces of the patrons at the Prancing Pony Inn don't look quite...animated. They aren't. The faces are real human faces, shot high contrast, with real (and grainy black) shadows moving as they turn their heads. Animation (pre-"Shrek"), avoided high contrast shadows, because it is far too difficult for an animator to duplicate the play of light upon a 3-dimensional moving object. And these half-animated/half film people are interspersed with fully animated figures! It looks weird. Boromir the Viking unimpressive BalrogThe Fellowship is attacked by Orcs. The Orcs are not animated- they're live-action filmed characters, high-contrast (again) and superimposed on painted backgrounds of Moria. It makes showing masses of running Orcs easy, yes, but this IS supposed to be an animated film… GaladrielThe trip to Lothlórien starts off fine, and I think this sequence was done better than the one in the new Peter Jackson LOTR movie. I like Bakshi’s depiction of Galadriel as an elegant Queen, instead of Jackson’s barefoot forest hippie-chick. BUT… both movies are missing the key scene of Galadriel’s parting gifts- specifically her gift to Frodo- the Phial of Galadriel, and to Sam, the box of fine gray dust. Those two gifts play important parts much later, but since Bakshi never DID complete the second half of LOTR, I suppose the missing gifts don’t matter anymore NOW.

The dissension within the Fellowship follows the book closely until Merry and Pippin go off on their own, looking for Frodo.


Hour 2: Where it all falls apart

This is where the quality of the animation goes downhill, and steadily gets worse and worse. Distorted, color tinted live-action scenes "take over" the movie. And… speaking of the Orcs, this is how they are portrayed:

Outside of Fangorn forest, the Orcs have an argument amongst themselves. The names of Uglúk and Grishnákh are briefly mentioned, but since the movie’s pacing is accelerated at this time, they leave OUT the nature of the core disagreement: whether to hand the hobbits over to Saruman or to Sauron in Mordor. The hobbits are freed in a very chaotic battle and the Riders of Rohan are very briefly introduced.

Gandalf vs BalrogIn the meantime, Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli spend days chasing after Orcs. We see a bit too much of the wonders of rotoscoping when Aragorn is so very realistically animated as he runs (his legs get caught up with his sword), trips and falls flat on his face! They meet Gandalf on the road. And we get to see yet another terrible "new" money-saving technique: shoving a still-life painting in front of the camera while Gandalf yaks in the background about how he escaped the Balrog. The painting does not resemble the animated Gandalf or Balrog (from the earlier scenes in Moria) AT ALL.

Gandalf, Aragorn and Legolas go to Edoras, the hall of King Théoden of Rohan. This one is truly the last scene that has any quality animation, matching, at least, the quality of the animation of the first hour. The Wormtongue and Théoden scenes are good, but they lost a key character in Éomer. Éomer? Éomer who? The Riders of Rohan are just a bunch of badly rotoscoped horsemen (the live action shows through the outlines much too well!) and there's some blonde guys, but the only mention we hear of Éomer is a brief mention by Gandalf that Éomer is Theoden's nephew. Éomer and Éowyn speak NO lines at all, so we never see them as important characters. Orcs climb the wallThe Helm’s Deep battle scenes are live-action scenes with NO animation. BY now, I’d practically given up on this movie! Not only does it transform itself into a low-budget, live action flick, several of the scenes are also still-life (is my DVD stuck? Oh! No it's not. That's the way it was filmed! %$#@!). Case in point- only half of the Orcs onscreen actually move. The rest stay absolutely still while their comrades go into a frenzy. And when Aragorn and King Théoden discuss their chances of surviving the battle, King Théoden is completely frozen for several seconds on the right half of the screen, as if he were turned to stone. This makes you wonder what's WRONG with him until he jolts back to life after finishing his conversation with Aragorn Notice that I’m not saying much about the Frodo/Sam/Gollum scenes. Those are the slowest chapters in the book, and the movie actually does well in trimming those chapters down to a bare minimum of screen time. Luckily, the Frodo/Sam/Gollum scenes have no live-action showing through, and are completely animated. Since those chapters are all about the long, dull trek from Emyn Muil to the Black Gate, and we only have 3 characters interacting, I’d say that we really aren’t missing anything that we NEED.  Come to think of it, what good is Gollum as a guide? It's not as if he led them through the Dead Marshes or to the Black Gate... all he did was make vague promises to take them to Mordor, mumbling about a winding stair through some secret passage.

There is one extremely funny moment where an exhausted Frodo tells Sam that the burden of the Ring is heavy. Sam looks blank, gets up and walks jauntily away, whistling like he doesn’t have a care in the world! How’s that for empathy? This is definitely a "must play again" kind of scene!


Bakshi vs. Peter Jackson- Where Bakshi wins a few rounds

Peter Jackson's LOTR is a superior movie on almost all counts- well deserving of the praise and the financial success that it had received. But- just to pick a few bones, there are a few places where Bakshi did it better:

Peter Jackson's LOTR
Screenshots from Peter Jackson's "The Lord of the Rings"

Conclusion

So, there you have it… Ralph Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings. It had so much potential, but in retrospect, I realize that this film could not have satisfied any of its target audiences. The story is too complicated for children, and the length of the movie (over 2 hours) would make kids squirm with impatience, especially since none of it was "funny" and the plot was not altered to simplify it. Teenagers would be just the right age for "pure" Tolkien… as in reading the book. And Tolkien buffs could not be satisfied with the midway-point decline in quality, or seeing favorite scenes from The Two Towers rushed through. The movie might have made it if it went on for 3 hours, and if the budget allowed all of it to be animated. Still, it is worth a look, even though your jaw will drop in disbelief when you see how well it starts off (let’s not THINK about the Prologue) and how wretched it becomes at the end.

Related Pages:
Rankin-Bass' Return of the King


This article is Copyright 2002, K.F. Louie. May not be reproduced without the written permission of the author.

Movie stills are Copyright 1978, Tolkien Enterprises, Berkeley, California. Used without permission.

Questions and Comments may be sent to me at:
ZMOQ

There's no place like HOME