Lord of the Rings (1978)

Own it!

review by Scott Hamilton and Chris Holland
See also:

The Hobbit

Hawk the Slayer

Yamato Takeru

Lord of the Rings (1978)

Lava Lamp

Our rating: one LAVA® motion lamp.

Frodo entertained the other hobbits
around the fire by performing his
famous impersonation of
Planter's "Mr. Peanut."
With the impending release of Peter Jackson's big budget version of Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings, we thought we'd take a look at the only previous movie to adapt this material to the silver screen, Ralph Bakshi's Lord of the Rings. Up until recent advances in special effects it would have been nearly impossible to make a live-action version of the story, so it isn't surprising that Bakshi, the director of Fritz the Cat and Wizards, made the film as an animated feature. But while the Jackson version of the story is getting nearly unanimous raves from the critics as both a movie and adaptation of Tolkien's work, Bakshi's film is more like a textbook example of how not to adapt a piece of literature into a two hour movie.

If you're not a Tolkien fan and haven't read the books, you might as well quit reading now. Bakshi's Lord of the Rings is no way to be introduced to this particular literary universe, and this review will necessarily be written from the perspective of those familiar with the Rings trilogy. Go pick up a copy of The Hobbit and come back to this page once you've finished Return of the King. Or go check out our review of the Rankin-Bass film The Hobbit.

"...and another thing. These '70s
wardrobe colors suck!"
For those of you still reading, we're going to assume that you know the story of Frodo and company and the correct way to pronounce "Celeborn." Freaks.

As so many films-made-from-books do, this movie starts off with an informative voiced-over prologue. The narrator drones on about the history of the One Ring and how it ended up in the possession of Bilbo Baggins. Right off the bat the film tips us off to what will be a persistent problem throughout: poor and inconsistent animation. The prologue was created with live-action actors shot in silhouette with a filter added over the image that makes it look like it was shot though cheesecloth. This technique doesn't allow for any backgrounds, so it probably wasn't the best idea. But then mixed into this footage are a couple of shots of full animation. We should also mention that the version of Smeagol/Gollum here doesn't quite resemble the fully animated version who shows up later on.

Lamest Balrog ever.
The story proper begins at Bilbo's farewell birthday party. Gandalf, everyone's favorite meddling wizard, insists that Bilbo leave the ring (you know, the one he found on his great adventure that imparts invisibility to its wearer) with his nephew Frodo. Sometime later Galdalf returns from his travels convinced that Bilbo's ring is the One Ring, created by the evil lord Sauron to rule all the other magic rings in Middle Earth. Gandalf goes to Frodo with this news and the bastardizing of Tolkien's novels begins in earnest.

The plot is about the same, but this adaptation tends to leave out a lot of critical information, while at the same time including information that will only confuse the novice watcher. For instance, in one scene Gandalf throws the Ring into Frodo's fireplace. In the books, this brings out an inscription on the Ring that Gandalf then reads. In this film, Gandalf merely throws the ring into the fire, then spouts the famous lines, leaving most viewers to wonder if Gandalf is in the habit of randomly throwing jewelry into fires and reciting poetry. The Ring is withdrawn from the fire still cool, but the runes themselves never make an appearance.

Later on, Gandalf catches Frodo's friend Samwise eavesdropping on their conversation about the Ring. Sam says he only did it because they were talking about elves. That would be fine, but elves were never mentioned in the conversation we saw! Meanwhile other plot threads are referred to but never explained, like a passing mention of the Sackville-Bagginses.

Frodo's cruel streak came out
when he began to tease Bilbo
by playing "keepaway" with the Ring.
If plot discrepancies were the only crime committed against Tolkien's work, we might have found something to like about Bakshi's adaptation. But even the most lenient of juries would be forced to indict the creative team here for their characterizations of fantasy literature's most beloved characters. Sure, we always thought hobbits were a little on the swishy side, but the foursome of Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin do everything but sing a medieval rendition of "Y.M.C.A." Sam, in particular, comes across as a combination of Porky Pig, Jar Jar Binks, Ru Paul, and JM J. Bullock. The humans and elves don't fare much better, especially when you take into account the giant belt buckles and mini-skirt length tunics worn by Aragorn (who seems to have turned Native American when we weren't looking) and Boromir, whose horned Viking helmet sent us into hysterics. Did we mention that Legolas was played by Anthony Daniels? When one takes into account the fact that the story essentially depicts a bunch of men fighting over some jewelry, it's easy to see why Lord of the Rings held the coveted title of "gayest animated film ever" from 1978 to 2000, when The Road to El Dorado finally dethroned it.

"Do you think I deserve to wear white?"
As the movie goes on, the animation problems get worse and worse. Most of the characters are rotoscoped: real actors were filmed and the animated characters drawn using the live-action footage as a reference. (Uncle Walt and Banky Edwards urge you not to call it tracing.) On one hand this can result in much more realistic movements for the characters. But the rotoscoped characters clash with those screen elements that are more fully animated. Some characters are rotoscoped even when full animation would realize them much better. The Balrog in particular is obviously a man in a suit with wobbly wings, faithfully reproduced in partial animation when a fully-animated creature would have been much more satisfying. Finally, all the orcs and most of the Riders of Rohan are portrayed by live actors wearing Halloween costumes and tunics. The resulting image was then merely tinted. In one color! As Chris' wife noted, "There are fifteen different kinds of animation in this movie -- and they all suck."

The list of complaints rolls on: Why is the wizard Saruman called "Aruman" 90% of the time? Could the music have a little more similar to the score from Planet of the Apes? And for the love of Isildur, why does the hand-to-hand combat look like it was choreographed by five year-olds on a playground?

The movie ends after the battle of Helm's Deep, perhaps the only place to stop the film if you're intent on doing two films based on the three books, but it still leaves viewers wondering why Gollum was introduced, since he never really does anything. Bakshi never got to make a second movie to finish the story off. More credit goes to Peter Jackson then, who was canny enough to get the footage he needed for all three films at once. But then, Jackson also made a film people might actually want to watch.

Review date: 12/19/2001

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