Ralph Bakshi's "The
Lord of the Rings"- The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
Z's review of the 1978
first Tolkien Experience
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
Fiction Club". Of course the club was into Star Trek, Star Wars and
My first attempt to speed-read through "The Fellowship of the Ring" was
pretty unsuccessful. I barely registered the plot and knew only the
essentials about the characters. Once I saw the Bakshi movie, I at
managed to walk away with some understanding of the book, so it
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
completely wrong. Several years ago, the movie was shown on TV, and I
being somewhat bored by the almost endless Nazgûl
chase at the Fords of Bruinen and the interminable scenes of the Orcs
Merry and Pippin through Rohan. I didn't give the Bakshi film another
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
to rent the old Bakshi version, to give my first Tolkien experience
CLOSE look, this time through an adult's eyes.
You might say that Ralph Bakshi's LOTR
is half-animated. It really looks as if 80% of the film's budget was
in the first hour, and when they started to run out of money, they
to seriously cut corners in production, and the movie took a STEEP
slide in quality in the 2nd half.
Part of the controversy was the
technique of "rotoscoping"- filming live-action and then drawing the
cels on top of the film. It does make for very realistic movement, but
there was something disconcerting about it. Characters came off as
and fidgety. But at
least, in the film's first half, the animators really DID take the
to draw cartoon cels on top of the photographic image and dispensed
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
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
and distorted live-action filmed actors to carry parts of the story! It
really is as horrible as it sounds- those scenes look "cheap",
compared to the truly animated scenes (with animated characters) in
Bree, Rivendell and Edoras.
Another thing that I had noticed was
"flat" look of the movie. Multi-plane
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
cameras allowed the animators to have foreground elements on one plane,
characters on a different one and background elements on another. As
camera zoomed in, you would begin to see AROUND the foreground objects,
and when characters walked, the foreground would whiz by, while the
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
the viewer "inside" the picture.
It almost looks like we're watching 2
unsuccessfully spliced together- one movie was truly animated, with
scene (even freeze-framed on DVD) looking like illustrations in a
children's LOTR book. The other movie was simply shot live
with the cheapest costuming and makeup imaginable!
Where Less looks like Less
It doesn't start off very well. A
gives us the history of the forging of the One Ring by the Dark Lord
and the war in which Prince Isuldur cut the ring from Sauron's hand.
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
creatures. One of these creatures, Sméagol, wants it and kills
friend for it. (On a side note, the Sméagol scenes are hideously
Well, the idea is generally right, but
the way it was shot is AWFUL. The prologue is not really "animated"-
that I can see. It's a bunch of silhouettes behind a red woven window
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
1: Where most of it is done Right
I really love the way the first hour
the prologue) was produced. THIS is animation! Every hobbit at Bilbo's
birthday party is beautifully drawn, and the painted backgrounds are
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
is worth watching and I have few complaints about the quality of the
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
things (which were NOT in the book!)
- When Gandalf
the Ring into the fire, he retrieves the ring and tells Frodo that it
the One Ring. And why? Because it stays cool in the fire? Nobody
READS it. Gandalf recites the "One Ring to Rule them all..." verses but
he's clearly doing it from memory, right?
- Sam is a
and can discern important parts of historical tales without having
MENTION them. When Gandalf pulls Sam Gamgee out of a bush, Gandalf
to know what Sam had overheard. Sam (looking very silly as he
around in a little circle) babbles that he heard about Rings and
and Elves and asks if he can see an Elf. Problem is, during Frodo and
entire conversation made no mention of the word "Elves". Where DOES Sam
get these ideas from?
SHORT GREY cloaks. When the hobbits are first "sniffed out" by a
it's dragging its leg as if it was run over by an 18-wheeler. BUT...
on, their legs must heal miraculously, because they don't have any
walking around trying to kill the hobbits in Bree! The Nazgûl
amazingly inconsistent vocalizations... in the Shire, they snuffle and
moan like a pooch being put out of its misery. In Bree, they
via gestures and high-pitched shrieks. And at the Fords, they speak in
menacing (and perfectly intelligible) whispers, "Come back! The Ring!
Mordor we will take you!"
- Saruman the
red robes. And the difference between "room" and "roof" is a little
at Isengard. Gandalf first speaks to Saruman in a room. Saruman zaps
and freezes him on what's supposed to be the "roof" of Orthanc. But,
they never leave the room during their battle, the walls just sorta
Bree is the
first scene in which we see
"cracks" appearing in the rotoscoped animation. The faces of the
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
shadows moving as they turn their heads. Animation (pre-"Shrek"),
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
figures! It looks weird.
- Aragorn is a
man with a sleeveless tunic and a skirt. As he draws the Sword that Was
Broken, the Hobbits are SUPPOSED to know what the significance of the
is, and they're supposed to be impressed by his name, Aragorn. Not that
Gandalf had given them any, eh, letters to explain a few things...?
- Sam Gamgee is
seriously in love with Frodo. Yes, I MEAN IT, shocking as it may seem.
At Weathertop, when Aragorn tells the hobbits the story of Beren and
Lúthien, he closes with "he was her doom, but her love as well".
Sam reaches over to touch Frodo with a look of intense longing in his
eyes. This tender moment is interrupted by an attack by the Black
Riders. Darn! Couldn't the Nazgûl give them some privacy? They were
relating! A "Swishy Sam" scene comes up much later in
Lothlórien, when Sam meets Galadriel. Sam's bow is more like a
curtsey, and he giggles like a girl!
- Legolas meets
and the Hobbits at the Fords of Bruinen. But that's okay- no one knows
who Glorfindel is, so Legolas as a substitute works- fewer characters
keep track of.
- Boromir is a
The significance of Gondor, and how it relates to the Sword, and how
fits into all this is never explained. It never goes into Boromir's
and seeing Aragorn as a potential future rival because there WAS NO
in question! Plus, In the book, Boromir was the heir of Denethor, the
of Gondor. That was a position more prestigious than that of many
His cloak was supposed to be "lined with fur", and the movie has him
a big ol' PELT thrown over his shoulders and belted at the waist, with
a horned helmet. Boromir's real status would be akin to a PRINCE, yet
movie shows him as a simply-dressed Viking. Gee, Gondor must be a poor
realm if a prince dresses like that. I'd hate to see the sorry
of the average farmer...
- Aragorn and
can handle all types of weather in the same clothing. The Fellowship
South, and tries to cross over the mountains via the Pass of Caradhras.
They are bombarded by a snowstorm and have to turn back. So... here
are in the snowy mountains and they're STILL dressed for summer
Aragorn and Boromir are wearing short sleeved shirts? Sure, Aragorn has
a cloak and Boromir is wearing a pelt, but didn't it ever occur to them
that LONG SLEEVES are a most excellent invention? And pants? But no,
of them are wearing skirts, so their poor bare legs can freeze in the
Fellowship is attacked by Orcs. The Orcs are not animated- they're
filmed characters, high-contrast (again) and superimposed on painted
of Moria. It makes showing masses of running Orcs easy, yes, but this IS
supposed to be an animated film…
- The Dwarves
Moria to scare the bejeebers out of people. The ruins that the
walked through did not look like the ruins of a PALACE. The Dwarves
built Moria as a vast city and a showcase for the greatest of their
(mining, metal work, stonecraft). It was supposed to be BEAUTIFUL, yet
the movie shows Moria as a place full of scary stone gargoyles and
faces sculpted in the walls. Dwarves would want to live THERE? They'd
their greatest city and proudest achievement look like Dracula's castle?
trip to Lothlórien starts off fine, and I think this sequence
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
barefoot forest hippie-chick. BUT… both movies are missing the key
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
important parts much later, but since Bakshi never DID complete the
half of LOTR, I suppose the missing gifts don’t matter anymore
- The Balrog
head, huge butterfly wings and huge FEET. Not scary or intimidating at
all. In proportion to the Orcs, the Balrog is no more than 10 feet tall.
The dissension within the Fellowship
the book closely until Merry and Pippin go off on their own, looking
- Merry and
clueless with no sense of self-preservation. We see them tearing
the forest at full speed (supposedly looking for Frodo) and then they
smack-dab in the Orc camp at a clearing. They look like they'd
JUMPED into the arms of the Orcs! So, when was the last time you'd
for someone by making blind, full-speed ahead mad dashes and not
to look ahead of you??? I really had to replay this scene several times
to BELIEVE what I was SEEING!
2: Where it all falls apart
This is where the quality of the
goes downhill, and steadily gets worse and worse. Distorted, color
live-action scenes "take over" the movie. And… speaking of the Orcs,
is how they are portrayed:
Fangorn forest, the Orcs have
argument amongst themselves. The names of Uglúk and
are briefly mentioned, but since the movie’s pacing is accelerated at
time, they leave OUT the nature of the core disagreement: whether to
the hobbits over to Saruman or to Sauron in Mordor. The hobbits are
in a very chaotic battle and the Riders of Rohan are very briefly
types of Orcs (not that this represents any Orc factions, or any
between the Uruk-Hai and the Mordor Orcs). We have the horned
with fangs, wearing tattered dark-green short togas. Then we have the
Orcs wearing long, burlap sack robes. Then we have the "mummy" Orcs,
simply have a bunch of grey bandages wrapped completely around their
wearing robes. We also have a few, gnarly, tree-like Ent-wannabes.
Worst of all, the "head on a stick" Orcs which weren't
actors at all- they were mannequins dressed up and shoved into the
of several scenes to MAKE it look like there were more Orcs! No "White
Hand" or "Red Eye" symbols to show their affiliation.
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
And we get to see yet another terrible "new" money-saving technique:
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
the animated Gandalf or Balrog (from the earlier scenes in Moria) AT
Aragorn and Legolas go to Edoras,
the hall of King Théoden of Rohan. This one is truly the last
that has any quality animation, matching, at least, the quality of the
animation of the first hour. The Wormtongue and Théoden scenes
good, but they lost a key character in 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
mention by Gandalf that Éomer is Theoden's nephew. Éomer
and Éowyn speak NO lines at all, so we never see them as
- Fangorn, and
are merely incidental. Merry and Pippin are found by Treebeard in
Forest. But Treebeard did absolutely NOTHING. He walked around with
and Pippin in his branch-like hands and spat out leaves, but nothing
Treebeard, and the Ents of Fangorn played NO ROLE in the victory of
Deep AT ALL! This also leaves the Merry/Pippin/Treebeard subplot
unresolved, since they never return to the film, leaving all of us to
wonder "what happened to them?"
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
filmed! %$#@!). Case in point- only half of the Orcs onscreen actually
move. The rest stay absolutely still while their comrades go into a
And when Aragorn and King Théoden discuss their chances of
the battle, King Théoden is completely frozen for several
on the right half of the screen, as if he were turned to stone. This
you wonder what's WRONG with him until he jolts back to life after
his conversation with Aragorn
- The Orcs can
speak, but they sure can sing! Based on seeing this movie, the Orcs
in harsh, slobbering snarls. But if you get a bunch of them together
some horns and war drums, they manage to pull off some impressive
singing (their Isengard War March) as they storm across Rohan to invade
the fortress of Helm's Deep.
I’m not saying much about the
Frodo/Sam/Gollum scenes. Those are the slowest chapters in the book,
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
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
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.
- In Rohan,
have a metal shortage. Because of this, the Riders have no protective
or helmets, making them easy pickings for their enemies. They go into
and fight Orcs wearing only short-sleeved cotton tunics and a
Even Éomer, the nephew of the King, doesn't manage to find a
or any other protective gear. Even though every Rohirrim, from the
soldier to the Third Marshal of the Mark is armor-less, King
HORSE is protected with a coat of mail scales. Therefore, a horse must
be more valuable than any of the men! Go figure.
There is one extremely funny moment where an
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
kind of scene!
- Back in
of Helm's Deep is won when Gandalf rides in to the rescue with a bunch
of reinforcements! Whoo! Then the ending narration informs us that the
forces of Darkness had been wiped out of Middle Earth FOREVER! (Uh...
about Mordor? There's plenty more Orcs there!) Rumor has it that the
reels were switched, so LOTR could end on a "triumphant" note.
vs. Peter Jackson- Where Bakshi wins a few rounds
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:
- The passage
between Bilbo's party and Gandalf's visit to Frodo to examine the Ring.
The Bakshi film showed 17 years passing. The Jackson film gives the
that it may have been only a month between the party and Gandalf's
Bree. The Bakshi film showed the inn as being a merry place,
fire, and singing and dancing. Bakshi (rightly) introduced the
as Mr. Butterbur. The Jackson film showed the Inn as a rather scary
filled with murderous-looking brutes (from the vantage point of a
run by a decent, but not overly friendly nameless inkeeper.
The Bakshi film spent a bit more time in introducing the character of
and his attempts to win the hobbits' trust. It correctly shows Sam's
to trust some strange Ranger who they just met. Jackson's film seems a
bit too abrupt concerning the hobbits' willingness to accept Aragorn's
me, or did Jackson's depiction of Galadriel scare the hell out of
you, too? It's really a good thing that I'd read the book, because in
movie, Galadriel is cold, dangerous, threatening and downright creepy.
Look at things from a simple hobbit's viewpoint- after seeing
little transformation in the garden, wouldn't you run and hide and
at the very mention of the name "Galadriel"? Bakshi, much more
portrayed Galadriel as a benevolent queen.
- Better reasons for Frodo to
offer the Ring to Galadriel. In Bakshi's film, after she told
him that the destruction of the Ring would cause the fair realm of
Lothlórien to fade away, Frodo offered
her the Ring. Quite understandably, since this revelation hit him like
a ton of bricks... all of the previous discussions about the Ring had
only told him of its evil and the need to destroy it. He was
never told about the effect that destroying the Ring would also have on
Lothlórien and everything the Elves built with their
Three Rings. So, Frodo became over-awed by this responsibility, and
hoped that someone as good and wise as Galadriel would know what to do
with it- the matter was becoming too big for a simple hobbit. In
Peter Jackson's film, the impetus for Frodo to offer the Ring to
Galadriel was her prediction that the Ring would eventually corrupt and
destroy everyone in the Fellowship. Huh?
Screenshots from Peter Jackson's "The Lord of the Rings"
So, there you have it… Ralph Bakshi’s Lord
of the Rings. It had so much potential, but in retrospect, I
that this film could not have satisfied any of its target audiences.
story is too complicated for children, and the length of the movie
2 hours) would make kids squirm with impatience, especially since none
of it was "funny" and the plot was not altered to simplify it.
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
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
off (let’s not THINK about the Prologue) and how wretched it becomes at
of the King
This article is
2002, K.F. Louie. May not be reproduced without the written permission
of the author.
Movie stills are
1978, Tolkien Enterprises, Berkeley, California. Used without
Questions and Comments
be sent to me at:
no place like HOME