Usually when we write a feature for a film’s anniversary, it’s because that film has some sort of artistic or cultural significance, as well as being an impressive achievement in its own right. So it’s unusual to be writing about one that... well... isn’t actually that good. In fact, when you tell people that there was an animated version of ‘The Lord of the Rings’, they either think you’re joking or stare in disbelief. It’s a film that has effectively vanished from our collective memories. This could be for two reasons: firstly that it’s so mediocre that there’s little about it worth remembering, filing it away as an oddity, a barely-admirable attempt at the impossible. And secondly that, decades later, Peter Jackson’s adaptation would become one of the most acclaimed achievements in cinema history, further relegating it to the back shelves of film history.
So why write about it at all? Why would anyone care about the 40th anniversary of a film most people don’t even know exists? As a piece of entertainment, it fails on many levels, and yet there’s something strangely fascinating about it - something that brings a small group of people back to it again and again. Perhaps it’s the kitsch factor. Perhaps it’s nostalgia. Or perhaps it’s just the fact that the thing even exists at all.
I was first introduced to Tolkien’s novel when I was eight. It was a life-changing moment for me, and introduced me to what is still my favourite work of art in any form. I was eight though, and couldn’t read the damn thing, so I had two ways of connecting with Tolkien’s work. The first was the 1981 BBC radio adaptation, which I still think is a masterpiece in its own right. The second came when my mother told me in passing that there was a movie of ‘The Lord of the Rings’. “What??” I replied in shock. So began our quest to all the video stores in Melbourne to find anyone that had a copy, and after a day of searching and calling (this was 1995, after all), we found a dusty copy in the back of a store, and I greedily, eagerly brought it home, beside myself with excitement. We put the VHS in the player and settled in to watch.
Now, I was far from a film critic at that age (I still thought ‘Hook’ was a good film), but even then, I could tell there was something off about this one. It started off well (quite well, actually), but it looked weird and the story was getting all convoluted, the romance and melancholy of the story was gone, and then it just... ends. Mid-story. Just like that. I knew it wasn’t very good, but refused to accept this. I so badly wanted it to be good, and kept returning to it, hoping I was missing something. The truth was, there was nothing I was missing. What I was watching was an act of hubris, an attempt to control something uncontrollable, by perhaps the only person mad enough to even consider trying it in the first place.
'THE LORD OF THE RINGS' TRAILER
Released in 1978, ‘The Lord of the Rings’ was the first in what was planned to be a two-part animated adaptation of Tolkien’s trilogy by cult American director Ralph Bakshi. He had been attempting to mount his adaptation since the late 1950s, but while Bakshi was convinced it would work best in animation, many other filmmakers attempted to realise it in live action, including ‘Excalibur’ director John Boorman and the legendary Stanley Kubrick. Tolkien had sold the rights to United Artists in 1969, believing that any attempt would fail, and when Boorman’s production fell apart, Bakshi threw his own hat in the ring.
Bakshi had begun his career as an animator for Terrytunes, a company whose characters and works are now mostly forgotten except by animation enthusiasts. Around the same time that UA were acquiring the rights to ‘The Hobbit’ and ‘The Lord of the Rings’, Bakshi had established his own company, and in 1972 released his first full-length animated film ‘Fritz the Cat’. Despite being the first X-rated animated film ever made, it was also a huge box office success, and that success (along with his second film ‘Wizards’ in 1977) gave him the collateral to mount his dream project, one he was convinced could only be realised through animation.
Regardless of its failings, Bakshi’s ‘The Lord of the Rings’ is an enormously ambitious undertaking. Epic storytelling of this kind had never been attempted in animation before, and Bakshi and his team had to find ways of achieving this on a limited budget. Their plan was to use a process called rotoscoping, where live action footage is shot and the animation traced over it frame-by-frame. This allowed for much more realistic movement, and saved time and money in the animation process. It wasn’t a new technique (it had been used in small instances all through the history of the form), but this would be the first film where it was used as the primary technique. Working with screenwriter Peter S. Beagle (who wrote the beloved novel ‘The Last Unicorn’), Bakshi condensed the novel into two parts, and began work in earnest creating the first part.
The results were a mixed bag. While the rotoscoping gave a much more fluid range of motion, it was a fluidity that seemed to lack any dynamism or grace. The only way to describe it is like watching a film shot at 24 frames per second with motion smoothing on. It doesn’t look how we’re used to animation looking, and while perhaps more resources could have made it into something uniquely special, in this instance it just looked uniquely off-putting. There’s a roughness to the animation that is occasionally quite charming and works for individual characters (such as the wonderfully roly-poly quality of the hobbits), but when the visual scope of the film opens up, it becomes so rough that it’s hard to actually follow the action on screen, and the limitations of the film become shockingly obvious. The adaptation also doesn’t serve the book in any capacity - while it rarely strays from the book, none of the heart or emotional depth is there, instead jumping between major plot beats, making it feel confused and episodic.
That said, there are some wonderful things about it. The Black Riders are superbly realised, crumpled and gnarled and genuinely frightening. The sequence covering the hobbits' fleeing of the Shire, meeting Aragorn and racing to Lothlórien moves beautifully, and features perhaps the best animation in the film. In fact, Peter Jackson would reference it often in his own film, from the narrative deception of thinking that the Nazgul have killed the hobbits in Bree (a deception that originates from Bakshi’s film) to recreating many of the finest visual moments from the animated film (such as the iconic moment of the hobbits under the tree while the Black Rider smells for them). Much of how lacklustre the bulk of this film feels can be attributed to how well this sequence works, because the rest of the film never matches it. There’s also some great vocal performances, including John Hurt as a menacing, dangerous Aragorn and Peter Woodthorpe’s superb work as Gollum (who he would later playtime character again to even greater impact in the BBC radio version). The film also has a wonderful score from Leonard Rosenman, which combines lush orchestrals with the kind of unsettling dissonance specific to 1970s cinema.
What I was watching was an act of hubris, an attempt to control something uncontrollable, by perhaps the only person mad enough to even consider trying it in the first place.
Surprisingly, ‘The Lord of the Rings’ was actually a box office hit, making over $30 million. However, Bakshi’s plans for the sequel never eventuated, leaving the film frustratingly unfinished. UA had refused to label the film as the first of two parts, believing audiences wouldn’t want to see only half a film, and the critical and audience response to the unfinished nature of the film was negative. When you watch the film now, it ends at Helm’s Deep, where a voiceover tells you that at the end of this battle, the forces of Sauron were destroyed. It’s unclear whether this was hastily added at the end when it became clear there would be no sequel, or if it was added much later, but it just adds to the feeling that you’ve watched a film stuck in the deep end and struggling to breathe. It ends a narrative and visual mess, all of its storytelling totally confused. There eventually was a sequel, but it was made by Rankin-Bass in 1980, adopting the same fairytale style they had used in their 1977 animated version of ‘The Hobbit’, in no way visually consistent with Bakshi’s film. By the time this film was made, Middle-Earth on film was a mess, one that was very quickly fading into obscurity.
So I guess the question should be asked again - why on earth would you write about it? In its own way, ‘The Lord of the Rings’ does have significance as a cultural artefact. For all its failings, Bakshi is still an important figure in the history of animation, and this was his most high-profile project. Its failure is in its inability to fully comprehend the scale of its undertaking, and it’s a fascinating act of ambition and hubris. The craft itself may be lacking (Bakshi himself later said that he thought amount of rotoscoping was a mistake), but it forms a piece in the history of the form, and many of the techniques used in ‘The Lord of the Rings’ would be developed and perfected later. It also has a pretty solid cult following, and whether out of curiosity or childhood nostalgia, many people have fond feelings for the film. I even have a bit of a soft spot for the dumb thing, remembering the experience of popping the VHS in for the first time and seeing a version of Middle-Earth playing out before my eyes.
In the story of the journey of Tolkien’s masterpiece to the screen though, ‘The Lord of the Rings’ also represented a major turning point, one that would have repercussions in adapting Tolkien’s two major works in the future. As Bakshi was mounting his project, he asked producer Saul Zaentz to help him. In 1976, United Artists sold most of the rights to the two Tolkien novels to Zanetz, who would later set up Middle-earth Enterprises to control those rights. When Peter Jackson and New Line Cinema began work on their Oscar-winning trilogy, they had to navigate the rights through Middle-earth Enterprises, which itself still didn’t own all the rights to ‘The Hobbit’. This resulted in major legal battles over revenue from the Lord of the Rings trilogy and caused major headaches and delays for the eventual Hobbit trilogy. All of this traces back to the back-and-forth exchange of ownership during the making of Bakshi’s film, meaning that, while it might not be a good film by any stretch, this does make it an important part of the history of Middle-Earth on film.
If you’re curious to see this odd little film, it’s not impossible to track down. You just might still have to dig around the back shelves of libraries or any surviving video stores. As much as we might have all collectively brushed it to the side, Ralph Bakshi’s animated version of ‘The Lord of the Rings’ is still there, and the fact that it even exists at all might be all the more reason to still be talking about it.