Ralph Bakshi Retrospective Part 5: Lord of the Rings (1978)

by tigermanifesto

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Up to this week, we’ve covered Bakshi’s most personal films. Fritz was an adaptation, sure, but it was based on material with which he was highly sympathetic and allowed him to produce a feature as a series of linked episodes. His original scripts––Heavy Traffic, Coonskin, and Wizards––all worked in an even more personal mode despite their varied subject matter. In hindsight we can see that Coonskin marked the end of Bakshi’s career as an in-demand artist in the mainstream industry––his Heaven’s Gate.

Wizards, meanwhile, was a transitional work in two ways. First, it marked Coonskin as the last of Bakshi’s street-level, episodic explorations of American urban life (with the caveat that Hey Good Lookin, our feature for two weeks from now, was in production before Wizards). Second, it functioned as a sort of audition or test for his ability to handle a fantasy property as mammoth as Lord of the Rings. It takes us from New Hollywood to the filmmaking world that prevailed after Star Wars. Fantasy and science fiction were in. This is the period that gave us the operatic travesty that was Flash Gordon, after all.

Given the last four films we’ve reviewed, it’s striking how completely Bakshi disappears into his adaptation. Though his Rings has the unenviable task of compressing two volumes of a gigantic historical fantasy epic into a two-hour running time––lengthy for an animated movie but far short of Jacksonian––Peter S. Beagle’s script cuts only when necessary and almost exclusively uses Tolkien’s dialogue. His approach to the material is thus both pragmatic and reverent: cut when you have to, but keep the spirit and tone of the book intact. It’s as far from Coonskin as you can get. Hell, The Last Unicorn is more countercultural. Those looking for Bakshi to subvert Tolkien’s barely concealed reactionary ideology or his antiquarian idealization of Old Anglo-Saxon England will be disappointed.

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Animators handle heavily populated scenes with aplomb.

Of course, Lord of the Rings was not quite mainstream at the time, though it was a canonical text in mainstream fantasy, the venerated Primordial Source of a thousand hack knockoffs. And despite the author’s own antipathy for scruffy hippies, the latter embraced Rings as their own, interpreting it as an allegory about The Bomb or the onset of technological dictatorships in the twentieth century. It’s easy to see how wispy commune types would enjoy fantasizing about a Shire populated by hairy-footed pipe smokers. So it’s not difficult to understand why Bakshi ended up loving the book as well, given that Wizards is a magic-vs-technology story much in the same vein as Tolkien’s body of work. Bakshi the iconoclastic writer is nowhere to be found here.

We can’t, however, say that the film is anonymous. While giving himself over to Tolkien in the script and concept, Bakshi makes himself known on the aesthetic level. Given a restricted budget of under $10 million and the prospect of staging scenes of huge armies massing and clashing and a large ensemble cast travelling through varied locations, it’s no surprise that he employs rotoscoping here. Lord of the Rings has become perhaps the most famous example of rotoscoping in feature film history, and the team of animators do a wonderful job with the technique. The opening scene (after a short prologue) at Bilbo’s birthday/going away party features a huge number of animated characters on screen, all with unique faces and costumes. Later scenes, including Saruman rallying his troops at Isengard and the Battle of Helm’s Deep, feature hundreds of rotoscoped figures in the frame, all in motion at once. These are triumphs of technique and resourcefulness, and are absolutely necessary to making an animated Rings work at all.

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Nazgûl rendered as almost pure black against a lightning bolt background.

This sense of scale is combined with a well-wrought illustration style of animation to replicate the grandeur of the original book. Characters aren’t rendered as cartoons but as relatively realistic human figures, simplified but animated in minute detail by tracing over live action footage. In motion, the technique isn’t quite seamless but it provides both a measure of dramatic realism and a spontaneity that sells the key scenes. Granted, when you pause the video you can always find an awkward in-between frame with a character making a funny face, but the same is true of more traditional animation as well. Rings’ humans have nothing in common with the ragged drawings in Heavy Traffic or the weapons-grade caricatures in Coonskin, and while it certainly looks “of its time” the style has aged well. Part of the reason for that is the fine work put into the backgrounds, which take cues from old book illustrations. The atmosphere is just the right mixture of dark and childlike, with looming Isengard and bleak Moria alternating with the rustic or mystical aesthetic of The Shire and Lothlórien.

What makes Rings especially identifiable as a Bakshi film is its collage effects. While they’re kept to a relative minimum in the movie, they’re evident in his decision to use different styles of rotoscoping for the evil and good armies. Orcs and, most of the time, the Nazgûl, are rendered in a style closer to the original live action footage, often simply existing as fields of black in twisted shapes. This aligns with Tolkien’s intention to completely “other” the orcs, with all of the racial and imperial implications that attend this. Bakshi never wastes an opportunity to liven up a scene: Isengard is hyper-saturated in red when Gandalf approaches it, and the scene atop Weathertop when Frodo puts on the ring has an eerie green background and off-kilter style to it. To be sure, the focus is on the more realistic and even naïve style that befits an adaptation of Tolkien, but there is enough Bakshi madness here to establish a continuity with his other work.

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Unfortunately, the film ends long before its story is complete. No sequel was ever produced––and the Rankin Bass Return of the King does not count––which means we are left with a fragment rather than a whole. Despite some of the kinks that are visible in the direction and the animation––a notable example is Gandalf’s wild gesticulating when he’s telling Frodo about the One Ring––the film is for the most part an effective if rather obvious adaptation of Lord of the Rings. It doesn’t suffer from any major structural flaws not inherent in the source material, and it manages to pull off exciting action scenes with some unconventional techniques. It also has John Hurt’s perfect performance as Aragorn, the highlight of a generally impressive cast. And while epic fantasy and large-scale battles became a grinding cliché after Jackson’s Rings, this film (which was quite successful at the box office), was part of the end of the New Hollywood and the turn towards franchising and corporatized studio filmmaking we’re still living through today.

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The obligatory screencap from this film. You’re welcome.

In the final calculation, I can’t say that I’m all too inspired by a faithful adaptation of Tolkien. It’s far from a favourite of mine, but it’s an entertaining and well-constructed film that keeps the pace up and manages to make some technical breakthroughs along the way. Genuinely daring for its time, it’s far from the laughingstock it’s sometimes made out to be in our post-Jackson world. In fact, it’s probably Bakshi’s most conventionally entertaining movie, with the possible exception of next week’s. And sometimes we need a little unadulterated nostalgia and romanticism to leaven our bleak cynicism.