Ralph Bakshi’s 1978 animated adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings does not lack for ambition, nor can it be criticized for deviating very much from the source material. However, its good intentions and faithfulness to the text can’t compensate for a clashing visual style, Bakshi’s own idiosyncrasies as a filmmaker, and the kind of executive meddling that makes for Hollywood nightmares. In conjunction with the release of the live-action Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings trilogy on Blu-ray, Warner Home Video has remastered and released Bakshi’s adaptation in a DVD/Blu-ray combo pack. The good news is that the movie looks and sounds better than it has in years. The bad news is that it’s still a deeply flawed film that must settle for being “interesting” over being “good.”
After the monstrous amounts of money the Jackson films have made, a plot synopsis seems superfluous, and The Lord of the Rings is also a story that doesn’t lend itself to easy capsule summary. The lands of Middle-Earth are threatened by the ancient evil Sauron and the only obstacle in his way is the tiny hobbit Frodo Baggins, who has come to possess Sauron’s Ring of Power. Sauron’s victory is assured if he gains possession of the Ring, so Frodo must set off to the lands of Mordor, almost literally under Sauron’s nose, to destroy the One Ring. This plot summary is akin to summarizing The Brothers Karamazov as “Rotten father murdered, eldest son most likely suspect, all the sons discover God,” or Seven Samurai as, “Farmers hire samurai to protect their village.” Even if the summary is accurate, it also entirely misses the atmosphere and the execution that elevate what sounds like a trite or simplistic concept into a truly classic story.
My colleague Maxie Zeus has already discussed the artistic successes and failures of Bakshi’s animation decisions, such as the use of rotoscoping and the visual clash of the “solarized” live-action footage with full cel animation. I have little to add to his excellent critiques, so my only repetition will be that I think Bakshi’s use of rotoscoping in this movie may be the best use of the technique since the Fleischer Brothers’ work on the Popeye and Superman shorts, and that Bakshi’s Ringwraiths are genuinely unnerving screen presences.
Bakshi’s The Lord of the Rings covers Tolkien’s books to about the middle of The Two Towers. On numerous occasions, Bakshi has stated that he wanted to make The Lord of the Rings as an animated film since discovering the books in the 1950’s, and that his primary goal was to stay as true to Tolkien’s text as he could. Even if it leaves several plot points undeveloped or underdeveloped, and flings out characters and story elements abruptly, the screenplay does an exceptional job of compressing that much material into a little more than 2 hours of screen time. In fact, Jackson’s films would have benefitted from the kind of focus and discipline in Peter S. Beagle’s adaptation. Beagle’s script is one of the few true successes of the movie, even if it is probably incomprehensible to a Tolkien neophyte, and also one of the few cases when executive meddling did right by the art. While Chris Conkling gets a screenplay credit, research reveals that his script was only the latest in a long line of attempts to adapt Tolkien’s material by throwing away or changing nearly everything about it. The script was almost entirely re-written by Beagle before filming started, although Beagle soon had much reason to regret taking the job for a nominal fee and promises of more lucrative work.
Some of that faithfulness to Tolkien’s prose doesn’t serve the movie terribly well. Several of the actors’ line readings strain so hard to stay true to Tolkien’s words that they forget to bring life to his language. William Squire’s Gandalf and Annette Crosbie’s Galadriel are especially susceptible to this, although Squire is also competing with John Huston’s Gandalf in the Rankin-Bass cartoons and Sir Ian McKellen in Jackson’s live-action movies, and comes up wanting against both. It’s also true that the movie deviates from Tolkien in one glaring, well-known way where the wizard Saruman occasionally becomes “Aruman.” Possibly the producers feared audiences would confuse Sauron and Saruman, and forced the name change. At that point, either they just did a rotten job of replacing “Saurman” with “Aruman” or the producers changed their minds again and only partially restored the original name, but no primary source I can find confirms any of the above. Either version is entirely believable, and doesn’t change the unfortunate end result that the same character goes by two different names throughout the film.
While Bakshi may have wanted to stick as closely to Tolkien’s work as possible, he definitely leaves his unmistakable stamp on The Lord of the Rings, especially in the exaggerated, cartoony motions of many of the characters. However, this same quality also means that the film would have probably been flawed and controversial even without its visual or behind-the-scenes stumbles. In some cases the film is unfortunately dated, as with the more impressionistic backgrounds that seem as quaint and antiquated as a lava lamp now. Most of Bakshi’s shots also feel like they are set in tight, cramped areas—something that served Bakshi well in his animated urban dramas but not as well here. This works for some situations, like a hobbit hole or the mines of Moria, but there are other cases where a greater sense of grandeur and scale are required. The conflicting armies at the end of the movie do battle in fields that feel far too small to contain them, and one doesn’t get much sense of the vast journey ahead of Frodo and Sam once they split off from their friends (watch video clip #3).
Watching the Blu-ray of The Lord of the Rings reminded me of a joke on an early Monty Python DVD that “all the film scratches and soundtrack noise are now reproduced in perfect digital clarity.” I was surprised that Warner Bros. was willing to do a high-definition transfer at all, and the results are as good as they can be. The best parts of the movie are sharp and clear without losing the sense of film grain that seems as much of an aesthetic choice as a constraint of the budget. Unfortunately, it’s also clear that some of the film elements are in very bad shape or were very badly done in the first place, since some segments of the movie are visibly inferior to others. The main English soundtrack is nominally in Dolby TrueHD 5.1 sound, but it is rather disappointing, especially in comparison to the visual restoration. There is little if any use of the surround speakers or the subwoofer channel. I accidentally watched a good chunk of the movie with the subwoofer turned off, including sequences like the mines of Moria and the battle at Helm’s Deep that should have benefited from low-bass goosing, but rewinding and turning the subwoofer on produced no discernible difference. The Blu-ray combo pack also includes a DVD of the movie and a code to download a Windows-only digital copy.
The one bonus feature is “Forging Through the Darkness,” which promises a “in-depth interview with the director” on “the Ralph Bakshi Vision for The Lord of the Rings.” Sadly, this turns out to be a marketing claim so exaggerated that it borders on false advertising. I was hoping for Bakshi free-associating in his typically uninhibited manner for a half-hour on making the movie, but instead we get more of a retrospective on Bakshi’s career from a wide variety of sources, including some film crew members, Bakshi associates, and even his own children (but nothing from producer Saul Zaentz or Peter S. Beagle, the latter for obvious reasons). Interview footage with Bakshi himself ranges from “making of” films from the time all the way up to recent appearances at the San Diego Comic Con, and we get precious little new footage shot for this documentary. To call this an “in-depth interview” is unreasonably generous. The featurette completely soft-pedals the troubled production while failing to give any great insight into Bakshi’s vision for the film. It also ends rather abruptly, skipping from a handful of production anecdotes straight to Bakshi’s current art career. What little bits of information we do get are quite interesting, especially the anecdotes that hint at how hard it was for Bakshi to simultaneously manage live-action shoots in Spain and animators in New York in the days well before e-mail or easily available computing technology more advanced than an Apple II. In the end, this bonus is just a puff piece from the Hollywood mindset where everyone’s a genius and nobody ever has a bad idea, and there is no such thing as a personal or professional conflict. I believe there is a fascinating and frustrating story behind the making of The Lord of the Rings, but I wonder if it will ever be fully told.
The greatest frustration of watching The Lord of the Rings now is recognizing what could have been. When the movie works, it works so beautifully that it’s easy to think it could have changed the face of mainstream American animation in almost the same way that Snow White did in 1938, or the way Tolkien’s original books essentially defined a fictional genre. Unfortunately, what might have been must always give way to what is. Warner Home Video is to be commended for giving The Lord of the Rings a remastering and re-release on Blu-ray at all, but in the end it’s still a movie that’s must be commended for its ambition even if its reach so far exceeded its grasp. While I can’t find it in my heart to denigrate The Lord of the Rings for being so audacious, it is still more interesting to talk about than to watch.