Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Lord of the Rings (1978)

          Years before Peter Jackson adapted J.R.R. Tolkein’s beloved fantasy-book series The Lord of the Rings into an Oscar-winning film trilogy, a bad-boy animator best known for pushing the boundaries of good taste took a stab at the material that was smaller in scale but, in some ways, almost as creatively ambitious. Though ultimately a frustrating misfire, Ralph Bakshi’s movie, The Lord of the Rings, has many commendable virtues and a handful of memorable elements; it’s not difficult to see what the picture was trying to become, and its failure to reach a lofty goal shouldn’t completely overshadow the nobility of the attempt.
          After cutting his teeth as a hired hand on various mainstream projects, Bakshi became an animation rock star with his controversial movie Fritz the Cat (1972), the sex-drugs-and-rock-and-roll comedy that became the first X-rated animated feature. Suddenly in a position to get financing for his long-held desire to put Tolkein onscreen, Bakshi set out to film the author’s three Rings books as a pair of long features, to be titled The Lord of the Rings: Part One and The Lord of the Rings: Part Two. (Filmmakers including John Boorman had previously tried and failed to get live-action versions off the ground.)
          To execute his vision, Bakshi decided to use an elaborate rotoscoping technique in which live-action versions of scenes are filmed, and then drawings are traced from each frame of live-action footage to form the basis of each frame of animated footage. Had this massive project been fully realized, it might have been extraordinary. Unfortunately, all the usual problems got in the way.
          The script, by Chris Conkling and Peter S. Beagle, is a limp recitation of scenes from Tolkein’s novels, sort of a lifeless Cliffs Notes synopsis, so the absence of a distinctive point of view (either Tolkein’s or Bakshi’s) renders the narrative flat. The rotoscoping delivered some interesting results, but because not every character was animated in exactly the same way, the style of the picture is disjointed; the marauding Orcs look shadowy and surreal, as if comprised of moving Xerox copies, while the principal characters are standard hand-drawn cartoons. Arguably, the most unique and vivid scenes are the big-canvas battles featuring armies of Orcs engaging in bloody swordplay with dwarves, elves, and hobbits—Bakshi creates a weird vibe that’s neither pure animation nor pure live-action, but a dynamic hybrid.
          The biggest problem with the movie, of course, is that Bakshi never got to make Part Two. Therefore, this picture abruptly ends partway through the story, leaving the narrative unresolved. (For those who know the material, the film stops immediately after the battle of Helm’s Deep, leaving Frodo and Sam stuck on the road to Mount Doom.) Yet while the source material isn’t served well by truncated adaptation, some of what Bakshi puts onscreen works. The characterizations of hobbits Frodo and Sam are sweet and infused with lifelike movement (Billy Barty provided the live-action performances upon which the cartoon versions of both characters were based); John Hurt gives a rousing vocal performance as heroic knight Aragorn; and Leonard Rosenman contributes a big, romantic orchestral score. So, for fleeting moments here and there, this Lord of the Rings hints at the grandeur with which Jackson thrilled the world years later.
          FYI, this project should not be confused with an earlier animated take on Tolkein. Famed kiddie-entertainment outfit Rankin/Bass made a dodgy version of Tolkein’s The Hobbit for television in 1977; Rankin/Bass also adapted the final Rings book, The Return of the King, for a theatrical cartoon in 1980, as a sequel to the Hobbit project.

The Lord of the Rings: FUNKY

1 comment:

Kevin Mac said...

It should be mentioned that several scenes from this were clearly used as full on storyboards for some scenes in Jacksons epic (which, as a Tolkien fan since childhood I loved - not so much the more recent, overblown Hobbit films). The Nazgul looking for the halflings who are hiding in a log is exactly the same, angles and all...