It seems almost unfair to critique Ralph Bakshi’s compromised, unfinished 1978 adaptation of The Lord of the Rings after the phenomenal artistic and financial success of Peter Jackson’s blockbuster film trilogy, surely one of the most successful literary adaptations in recent memory. J.R.R. Tolkien’s magnum opus about a fellowship of hobbits, elves, dwarves, and men seeking to destroy a magical ring during a long-forgotten prehistory, is pitched somewhat uncomfortably between epic poetry and kid lit, though that may be the reason for its seemingly universal appeal. Unlike Jackson, Bakshi clearly steers his adaptation toward juvenilia (the story covers only the events of The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers; a sequel concluding the saga was shelved after this film flopped at the box office), and it seems unlikely that Tolkien would have been happy with the result, especially considering that he adamantly refused to sell the movie rights to an eager Walt Disney.
That’s particularly unfortunate, because Disney’s films display a psychological complexity that’s completely vacant in Bakshi’s film. After all, Disney gave us Snow White, who in a harrowingly subjective flight into the forest hallucinates that fierce animals and other terrors surround her where there are in fact only indifferent trees and crooked logs. It’s easy to imagine such a sophisticated external projection of inner emotional turmoil giving an expressionistic charge to Fangorn Forest or Lothlorien in a Disney adaptation. Instead, Bakshi seems wholly disinterested in the psychology of Tolkien’s characters, rendering Frodo Baggins, that most precarious of fantasy heroes, as nothing more than a wide-eyed innocent, pure and incorruptible. In Bakshi’s vision of Lord of the Rings, “hobbit” is code for “child.”
The greatest achievement of Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy is its insistence on a leisurely pace, so rare in contemporary blockbusters, allowing time for lengthy narration lifted directly from Tolkien’s prose. In The Two Towers, there’s a particularly striking sequence in which Elrond illustrates for his immortal Elf daughter, Arwen, what will happen if she marries Aragorn, a mortal man: “He will come to death, an image of the splendor of the Kings of Men in glory undimmed before the breaking of the world. But you, my daughter. You will linger on in darkness and in doubt, as nightfall in winter that comes without a star.” This does nothing to advance the plot, but it does everything to enhance our appreciation of these characters’ internal lives and the difficulty of the choices they have to make. (Tolkien himself didn’t even include this passage in The Two Towers, or any of Aragorn and Arwen’s romance for that matter, relegating it instead to an appendix.)
Hewing to plot above all else, Bakshi’s film gives us no such moment of reflection, and the only time Tolkien’s language is preserved in any respect is during the prologue, in which the events surrounding the creation of the One Ring are explored with an abstract design of black silhouettes against a crimson backdrop, one of the few moments of artistic inspiration in the film. Stripping the plot of Tolkien’s language, the narrative becomes a frenetic mess of underdeveloped characters performing obscure actions until the final incomprehensible Battle of Helm’s Deep. This would be unfortunate enough, but Bakshi also shows an extraordinary condescension toward his audience by changing the name of the evil Wizard Saruman to Aruman, as if one could not tell Saruman apart from archvillain Sauron.
Bakshi’s one talent seems to be the composition of landscapes. Although now painfully dated, his X-rated animated adaptation of R. Crumb’s Fritz the Cat captures a certain stereotypical ‘70s inner-city flavor, and his ink-heavy panoramas of Middle-earth show a great level of detail. He experiments with high-contrast effects in his images, sometimes, as in one vividly realized swamp, featuring a watercolor-light sky behind a charcoal-gray foreground. The problem with his landscapes is that they are not only flat, almost never utilizing Disney’s multi-plane photography technique, but completely static. Apparently, there’s no air movement in this Middle-earth. The one scene of any precipitation, when Frodo and company are crossing a snow-covered mountain pass, features snowfall rendered on cells against a totally flat and still background, as if not actually landing within the space the characters inhabit.
The character animation is even more disappointing, and some of it can’t even be called animation. A lot of the crowd scenes, whether of orcs massed in battle at Helm’s Deep or drunken patrons of the Inn of the Prancing Pony, were shot with live actors in front of a camera, then not merely rotoscoped but actually painted and colored over the exposed film. It’s a terribly distracting effect, and whether employed merely as a timesaving measure or to give a sense of natural movement to background figures, it inevitably undermines the film.
The main characters like Aragorn and the hobbits, however, really demonstrate Bakshi’s cluelessness when it comes to human movement. Aragorn, drawn like a Middle-earth He-Man, is stiff and inexpressive. The hobbits, constantly appealing to our sense of cutesiness, are always sheepishly kicking out their feet in an “aw, shucks!” gesture. When Treebeard, that ancient guardian of Fangorn Forest, declares that orcs are his enemies, to the delight of hobbits Merry and Pippin, all the hobbits do to express their excitement is clap enthusiastically and repeatedly. It’s a moment that illustrates the failure of the film as a whole, in that it doesn’t come off as a matter of not knowing how to animate human emotion, but rather of not knowing anything about human emotion to begin with.
Blu-ray sadly highlights the visual deficiencies of The Lord of the Rings even more than DVD. Ralph Bakshi's technique of painting directly on exposed film results in an often grainy, translucent look to background figures. Still, the landscape animation holds up well, and some of the darker images retain their fidelity. The sound design is very primitive, never going beyond two tracks, with only the most basic foley effects used for battle noise.
Other than a couple trailers, the sole extra feature of the set is a half-hour documentary called "Forging Through the Darkness: The Ralph Bakshi Vision for The Lord of the Rings." You must watch it, because it's one of the most obnoxiously uncritical, self-congratulatory 30 minutes you will ever see. Bakshi actually says at one point, "My films have been around for 30, 40 years. People are rediscovering them every five, four years in colleges, and they are stunned. Was I ahead of my time? No. Everyone else was behind. I'm not ahead, I'm doing what's right for an artist. He's doing what he believes in. I'm not ahead of my time. What I am is honest. What they are is dishonest."
Not even the Dark Lord Sauron would want to put his name to this movie.