This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.
Ralph Bakshi’s 1978 attempt to animate the first half of The Lord of the Rings, comprising the entirety of The Fellowship of the Ring and about half of The Two Towers, is a film blighted by ambition. Like James Cameron during the production of Avatar, Bakshi was intent on using the production to spearhead the use of a novel and innovative technique. Unfortunately, in Bakshi’s case, the technique chosen yields visual results that fall far short of the expense and effort involved in deploying it.
Bakshi made the unusual decision to film the entire film using a rotoscoping technique, whereby all the scenes were filmed in live action and then animated, with the animators (including a young Tim Burton) literally tracing the live-action frames, embellishing them, and setting them against lush painted backdrops. (The voice actors, some of whom played their roles in the live reference footage and some of whom did not, then did the voice track). This, as one might imagine, is an insanely time-consuming process; Wikipedia notes that in his later rotoscoped films Bakshi had his animators use the live footage merely as a guide, rather than tracing, since the tracing process took forever.
It was the exceptionally long time taken by the rotoscoping technique that ate up so much of the film’s budget, which I suspect led directly to the many problems it has. The first casualty is the visuals. Part of the problem with the rotoscoping is that it’s inconsistently applied. In the scenes with only a few characters, the animators could concentrate on it and do a proper job, but whenever there is a crowd scene this rigour goes out of the window; the application becomes more and more slapdash, until you end up with orcs which are only silhouettes (because painting them all black is quick), and patrons of the Prancing Pony who end up looking exactly like live action actors who’ve had a grainy colour filter applied to them. Even more disconcerting are sequences such as the escape from Moria, in which characters we are used to see in a richly-animated form (well, richly animated by the standards of the film) suddenly become victims of the colour filter, and then switch back to their fully-animated form again.
The numerous corners cut by the animators lead to further problems. For example, the moving, rotoscoped characters never really integrate well with the static, painted scenery, and the movements of the characters, even when the animation is at its richest, seems weirdly overexpressive and overemotive, even though Bakshi claims he was trying to minimise this. At other points in the film, such as the battle scenes with the orcs, there are sequences where some of the characters are fully mobile, whilst others are completely motionless, because they aren’t doing very much and the animators didn’t have time to make them mobile. The animators clearly celebrated with Gandalf the Grey became Gandalf the White, because it gave them an excuse to simply colour all his clothing in a single shade and have done with it; he doesn’t look purified and remade, he looks like someone didn’t get around to colouring him in. (That said, there are actually a few scenes where Gandalf is wearing his all-white gear, and then a bit later he’s dressed in his original Gandalf the Grey costume, and then a few seconds later he’s back in the monochrome outfit…)
The list goes on. The defenders of Helm’s Deep all look like they’re running around naked from the waist down. Theoden’s skin colour is clearly paler than Aragorn’s prior to the battle of Helm’s Deep, and then ends up significantly darker in the middle of the battle, when they are spending the night under siege, and then it ends up lighter again in the morning. Perhaps this was down to the lighting on the live-action footage – except post-rotoscoping, it’s nigh-impossible to see what sort of lighting effect could have caused this, so the upshot is that Theoden seems to get an instantenous moon-tan which disappears with the coming of day. Smoke and mist effects consist of actual smoke or mist with the animation played behind it, so if you were watching it in the cinema, it would look like something had caught fire in front of the screen or something. In the battle of Helm’s Deep itself the rotoscoping is all but abandoned except for the major characters, with the end result that, weirdly, the minor bit-part characters look more realistic and detailed than the leading players. The end result of all of these accumulated flaws is an animated feature which was expensive to make, but at the same time looks ridiculously cheap, especially when compared to contemporary works.
However, the film’s problems are not just restricted to the visual style. Its other major failing is the script, which clearly seems to have been finalised, edited, and recorded in a hurry. In trying to tell half the saga in one two hour film, the story is compressed to an extent where it is almost incomprehensible. In the latter part of the film, where it’s all journeys and battles, this isn’t such a problem. It’s in the earlier scenes, where the situation is being established, that the story really gets butchered (although fat dollops of exposition are dumped in the middle of the action throughout the film, because there simply isn’t time to show and not tell). The sequence where Bilbo freaks out at Gandalf at the suggestion that he should leave behind the ring is wrecked, because prior to this we’ve only seen deliver a couple of (mangled, nonsensical) sentences of his birthday speech, so viewers have no way of realising that this is shockingly out of character behaviour for Bilbo. It doesn’t convey the corruptive effects of the ring to the audience so much as establish that Mr Baggins is a bad-tempered and rude little hobbit.
Occasionally the abridgements introduce outright contradictions: Gandalf personally handles the ring when he’s placing it in the Frodo’s fireplace to make the magic lettering appear which reveals its’ true nature. In the book, of course, Gandalf is careful to never even touch it himself, because he fears being corrupted if he even touches it, but the changes to the fireplace sequence could be justified in the name of simplifying and speeding up the scene… however, a bit later on, Gandalf gives his speech about how he absolutely doesn’t want the ring because fears he would not be able to resist it, so the fact that five minutes earlier he handled it himself seems to have been forgotten. There are more glaring inconsistencies than this; it’s clear that at some point a decision was made to rename Saruman as “Aruman” to prevent confusion, which would be fair enough, except this change isn’t consistently applied in the script: sometimes he’s Saruman, sometimes he’s Aruman. Sometimes he changes name within the same line.
The end of the film also suffers from being poorly scripted. It is abrupt, jarringly so. Frodo and Sam’s story doesn’t end on any sort of cliffhanger; it just kind of peters out. Gandalf’s intervention at Helm’s Deep consists of him riding up and killing two orcs. Nothing actually shows why Gandalf turning up at that point was enough to turn the tide of battle and bring victory to the defenders. A spoken narration declares that the first part of the story is over, so Bakshi was clearly banking on being allowed to direct a sequel, which seems ridiculously overoptimistic considering the circumstances. Rankin-Bass eventually animated (in a more traditional manner) an adaptation of The Return of the King to give some semblance of closure to the story, but this doesn’t change the fact that the film doesn’t end with a cliffhanger, and doesn’t quite stand alone, but just simply ends, as though the money suddenly ran out and they had to wrap everything up in a hurry. As far as sudden and abrupt endings go, it’s on a par with the end of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, for crying out loud.
This isn’t a meritless film. It’s highly visually ambitious, and though it always falls far, far short of its ambitions you can still sometimes see what Bakshi was going for. The painted backdrops are gorgeous, and a few of the visual concepts, such as the part where the four hobbits are hiding from the Nazgul under a tree root, were borrowed by Peter Jackson for his adaptation as a tip of the hat to Bakshi (the gay vibe between Frodo and Sam is also there, but I genuinely don’t think it’s possible to do an adaptation of the Frodo/Sam relationship which dispenses with it entirely). And the voice acting is of a very high standard; a couple of the actors – the ones who voiced Boromir and Gollum – went on to voice their characters in the excellent BBC Radio adaptation of the saga, and many of the other actors’ performances seem to have at least partially inspired their counterparts in that version.
Despite all this, however, the 1978 Lord of the Rings definitely occupies the “so bad it’s good” category, rather than actually being a good film. The acting is great, but it’s a decent delivery of a wretchedly mangled script, and the visual shortcomings are sufficiently distracting that they undermine the film constantly. Worse still, because the worst animation always comes with the major action sequences, the rotoscoping actually sabotages the film most at the points where it really needs to carry the story by itself. It’s not surprising to see why it took a few decades before Hollywood dared tackle Tolkien again. Recommended to cinematic masochists only; suggested serving involves a gathering of friends, some sort of drinking game to go with the action, and a tolerant attitude to heckling.