Partially out of the sadistic side of me that both loves the new LOTR films yet is appalled at the rabid fan base of “We’ve been life-long fantasy fans since 2001” people that grabbed on to these movies after mocking geeks for years, and partially because I really enjoyed doing the mutant viewing of Dungeons and Dragons, do I now inject myself with the most foul cinematic liquid that animation director Ralph Bakshi could whip up in his demented underground lab.
If you’re not familiar with this 1978 version of Lord of the Rings, let me point you to our review, and if you’re too lazy to read that, here’s a brief summary. This appalling piece of film had a promising start: it was the first movie to really capitalize on the whole Tolkien craze, and its medium of animation was really the only option at the time to do the books justice. However, the end result speared most fans straight in the heart (except the blind and fanatical ones that clung to this flick for years, long after it rotted into dust) with a severely chopped-up version of only the first two books of Lord of the Rings (the end of the film becoming a weird cliffhanger that only another director would finish in the animated Return of the King). Not only that, but the film is wildly bad, from its decision to use rotoscoping (where live actors were filmed, then drawn over to make into animation), to blatantly change, rearrange and ignore large chunks of the LOTR books, and general campy weirdness that permeates this film through and through. It’s not a very good movie, and positively jarring when you compare it to the Peter Jackson version.
It’s a perfect candidate for a mutant viewing, in other words. So strap yourselves in, and let’s go for one extremely bumpy ride!
The first and most unavoidable thing we encounter in Lord of the Rings is the musical score. I won’t say much about it past this paragraph, but the score can only be described with two words: “bombastic” and “loud”. I’m definitely not a fan of these older movies that rented orchestras by the hour and demanded that every instrument play all the time, to get their best money’s worth. It turns out to be overwhelming and almost claustrophobic, causing the audience to want to scootch back from the noise and avoid any further contact with the audio homicide that’s taking place. Although I really thank my fortune that Bakshi had no intention of making this into a Tolkien musical, unlike the other animated movies. 0:13
The introduction scene of LOTR is done as… shadow acting. Yup. Actors doing shadow acting against a red cloth of some kind, while the narrator haughtily explains about the forging of the sparkly rings and the “Dark Lord” who made his one ring to rule them all. At this point, the actors get into a shadow battle, not just content to wave swords around and pretend to get run through, but to do so in SLOW MOTION. You’ve really never lived until you’ve seen shadow actors fighting in slow motion, and once you do, you’ll wish you hadn’t (with apologies to Fletch Lives). And with any introduction into Tolkien’s massive fantasy world, this scene practically bottoms out with the weight of the exposition and names and facts that make no sense to non-Tolkien readers, because we’re not really given anything yet to care about. Just them wacky shadows.
There is a smidgen of cel animation here, as the two hobbits are fishing and one (maybe our friend Smeagol?) gets pulled in and grabs the ring. Golly but I wish they had gone with cel animation for the entire film. The two shadow actors do their worst impression of novice stage performers, with exaggerated motions and silly voices. Sadly, not the worst we’ll see in the film.
Holy crap, I forgot how bad the rotoscoping animation could be. As the movie finally begins in Hobbiton, we’re treated to a pan of Bilbo’s birthday party. This scene features dozens of characters, each and every one doing something – moving, wiggling, jerking, slithering… it’s enough to make you seasick. The overanimation of gestures and movement turns this flick into a twitch-fest.
The panorama of Hobbits looks like a cross between the Cabbage Patch Kids and the Trolls toy lines. 5:20
Bilbo disappears with the ring in a flash of sparkly magic™, only to reappear in his home with a goofy smile. Bilbo actually looks fairly spot-on for his character, even with the off-mannerisms. Gandalf comes in to remind Bilbo about leaving the ring for Frodo, taking every opportunity to trill his R’s. Bilbo spazzes out, jerking ten ways from Sunday, and even draws a knife on Gandalf, who ends up scaring the jeebers out of the little guy. He finally agrees to let Gandalf pass the envelope on to Frodo, making the wizard the first Middle Earth Postal Carrier.
Now, if you’ve read the books or seen the Jackson trilogy, you’re not going to be too lost here. Put off and feeling slightly dirty, perhaps, but not lost. However, I have to feel incredibly bad for anyone who was introduced into the Tolkien world with this movie, because its sole purpose is to rush along, confusing its audience at every turn. Six minutes into the film and we’ve already had the equivalent of a history textbook crammed down our throats, along with abbreviated scenes that don’t let us get to know who the heck these people are, what they’re doing, or why. Why is Bilbo passing along the ring? Why is he leaving? Why is Gandalf such a grouch? Silly rabbit, don’t be asking questions. You’ll just end up frustrated. 6:20
Hilariously bad moment #1: As Bilbo jets off (Why? Where’s he going? Why didn’t he tell Frodo goodbye?), the narrator returns to tell us that “seventeen years passed in The Shire”. The screen shows a still painting of Hobbiton that changes from summer, to fall, to winter, to spring. Okay. And then, rapidly, it flickers through those four seasons about ten more times, which is (getting out my thesaurus and looking up alternate words for “strange”) aberrant. It’s a hefty dose of “HUH?” for your pleasure.
And no, the score hasn’t quit yet. It’s omnipresent.
Let me pause for another second to comment on another animation decision. Even a child knows that most animation consists of layers; there is the static background layer (usually far more detailed) and then the moving elements that are placed on top of it, like Colorforms (the characters and whatnot). A good animated show or movie will try its hardest not to make the contrast between the background and foreground too noticeable, because it just looks sloppy. Guess how LOTR looks? There’s another funky scene here where Frodo and Gandalf walk from the door into the house, but because the background is static, the camera doesn’t move. So the characters just get larger and larger, walking toward the camera, until we’re just looking at their knees while they’re talking.
The scene ends with Gandalf stalking around, arms flailing about, doing the whole “One ring to rule them all” speech, while Frodo revolves around him. Gandalf must’ve been practicing that whole speech for years (17 of them) to get it just right. 9:15
Walking outside, Gandalf continues to lower the boom on Frodo’s shoulders: Sauron knows the ring is found, he’s coming, it’ll mean the end of the Shire, and you’re pretty much screwed because I’m not going to help you much after this point. Frodo, done freaking out over Gandalf’s return and the ring being thrown into the fireplace, responds to this apocalyptic news by looking bored and kicking at a rock. Seriously. Frodo tries to give the ring to Gandalf, but there’s none of that to be found. Gandalf’s got a speech prepared for that, too, and overacts admirably to counter the sane suggestion. Frodo reacts to this, really, by looking at Gandalf and scrunching up his nose like he smelled poop somewhere.
While Gandalf continues to pontificate on how Frodo’s life is ruined and what he’s going to have to do now, he spontaneously reaches into a bush and pulls out Samwise. Now keep in mind that the scene is set at night, in the woods away from the village… so what’s Sam doing in a bush? Is he homeless or something? Married to a gopher? Sam’s character design looks a bit like Sloth from The Goonies and he talks in the manner of someone with severe brain damage. Gandalf, not missing an opportunity to screw someone else’s life up, throws Sam’s lot in with Frodo, and both of them don’t protest that they’re being told to effectively leave their lives and go somewhere to do something vague.
Gandalf leaves to go visit “Aruman” (a name change from Saruman, I suppose) and does a funny fake-out hand gesture that sends Sam skittering back. Gandalf is a big jerk, no kidding. Sam goes into full-fledged birdbrained mode: “ME? Me go see the elves? Oh MY! Oh hurray!” Yeah buddy, I bet the elves can’t wait to see you too. Bet they’re reading from a book called “How To Serve Hobbits” right now. 12:50
Gandalf rides and hobbles his way to see Aruman. “I have come for your aid, Saruman!” he says, forgetting the name change immediately. S/Aruman looks almost identical to Gandalf – a virtual garbage heap of white hair, red robes instead of grey, a grumpy expression. “Darkness approaches,” Gandalf screeches. “Black rrrrrrrrrriders!” S/Aruman looks Chinese and then reveals himself to be “Saruman of Many Colors!” Joseph is suing for name infringement. Shiny lights and glowy special effects burst out of S/Aruman’s beard. What does he keep in there? There’s no real fight after the betrayal, Gandalf just starts yelling at the other wizard and then magically™ ends up on a very high ledge. 15:36
“There’s someone coming up ahead!” Sam says. “Good!” Merry replies. “I’m tired of looking at my cousins all day.” Well, Merry (I’ll freely interchange Merry with Pippin because it’s impossible to tell the two apart), there ARE other things to be looking at than your cousins. Just saying.
The Nazgul shows up, and this scene is actually very similar to the Jackson version, with our heroes hiding under a tree root and the Nazgul shuffling like a zombie behind them. The movie went from a goofy road trip to a creepy horror fest in under a minute, which I admire, if nothing else than for its ability to adapt to stupidity.
Merry and Pippin then reveal they pretty much know all about the ring – some secret! – as they‘ve gotten info from Bilbo, Sam and Gandalf. Maybe their knitting circle, too. Frodo allows them to join him on his journey (but didn’t they already join him? Never mind.) causing them all to jump up and shout “Hooray!” Mordor doesn’t stand a chance with these crackerjacks coming its way. 19.59
The hobbits arrive at Bree, which is a still matte painting that the camera lovingly swoops and zooms all over on. The inn here showcases some of the worst examples of rotoscoping in this film, as it’s quite obvious that these are nothing more than live actors that someone doodled on with color pencils. All of the people are acting like complete buffoons trying to mimic a party scene – forced laughter, gratuitous hugging, fake drunkenness. Going over to the hobbits, I notice that the animators are so frisky, even their leg hair is constantly in motion, as if a small yet determined breeze is happening somewhere one foot off the floor.
Unlike the other two animated movies based on LOTR, Bakshi had little intention of making his epic masterpiece into a musical. However, some semblance of control slipped from him for a moment, because the second Frodo is approached to sing in the inn, he leaps up on the table and starts clapping and yammering out a ridiculous bar tune. Everyone’s fake-drunk enough to act like they’re enjoying it.
Just so you know, Aragorn calls the innkeeper “fat”. Frodo puts both of his hands to his mouth, Japanese girl-style, and giggles. It’s high humor country, here!
Nighttime. The Nazgul enter Bree, even though it’s been previously established that they’re already in town. In another scene quite similar to the Jackson films (which must’ve used this for some mild inspiration), the Nazgul enter the hobbits room, fail to check the beds for actual hobbits, and drive their swords down into the lumps. It’s an effective enough scene to understand why Jackson cribbed it. Meanwhile, the hobbits are in another building, cuddled up in a sleepover. 30:32
Fade to night. Aragorn is telling the story of a woman who gave up immortality to be with the guy she loved. The story sends the hobbits into romantic swoons, and Sam and Frodo tenderly touch foreheads afterwards. Um. Okay. Look at me. I am NOT saying anything here.
Although they’re just camping in the woods and not on Weathertop, this is where the Nazgul attack Aragorn and the hobbits. The camera does a cool circling pan of the hobbits standing defense and Frodo putting on the ring, the moron he is. The “ring on” effect here is to visually isolate Frodo and the Nazgul from everyone else, and the Nazgul become obvious rotoscoped animation. This whole part plays out with minimal sounds and (surprise, surprise) no music: the Nazgul draw their swords in slow motion, Frodo draws his sword in slow motion, and they fight in slow motion. Frodo gets some brutal deep stabbing but takes off the ring. Funky! 34:56
Frodo, in pain and delirious, finds out from Aragorn what just happened and why he’s in for a world of hurt. Concerned and loyal as always, Sam sputters, “What’s wrong with him? It was only a little wound!” Sam, from my vantage point, that Nazgul sunk in about three feet of sword into Frodo’s chest, so if you’re calling that a “little wound” I’d hate to see how you shave in the morning.
Remember the Peter Jackson Fellowship of the Ring, where Frodo is dying from his wound and his friends are rushing him along at all cost to the nearest elf hospital? Well, Bakshi doesn’t seem to be in a hurry at all – the party’s been slowly plodding along for a couple scenes now, and Legolas takes a smoke break to deliver some crucial exposition to Aragorn while Frodo’s brains slowly dribble out of his nose. Sam pitches a fit that they need to stop and let Frodo rest, and Legolas STOPS the party to explain that stopping wouldn’t help Frodo in the least, and they need to get him to Rivendell, Black Riders close behind them, etc etc. Maybe they’ll start walking backwards soon, with all the progress they’ve been making. 37:20
They reach the ford of Rivendell, but the camera does a bit of horse POV from the forest to let us know that the Black Riders have finally made up those 500 yards and are closing in. Aragorn leaps into action! By jumping in front of a Nazgul horse and letting it trample him! I knew the boy was good for something. But the Nazgul aren’t that interested in catching Frodo, apparently, as the movie shifts into the dream landscape and inexplicably has one Nazgul forcing his horse to trot sideways for a minute or so. I’m sure this was done to confuse the ringbearer. Good show. “Come back, to Mordor we will take you,” says the sideways-moving Nazgul. Frodo wakes up enough to remember he’s the action star in this piece, spurs his horse into action and gets the boogie out of there. The Nazgul quickly forces his horse to trot sideways, THEN makes it turn around in a circle. They really needed to shell out a bit more to the actors for horse riding lessons, I suspect. Proving that you don’t know much about Lord of the Rings, the Nazgul clenches his fist and does a Force Choke on Frodo and his horse, causing them both to fall (huh?). More Nazgul show up. This scene goes on, and on, and on. Pretty violent lights flash behind them. Frodo rides away. The Nazgul turn their horses in circles, then ride after him. Long and boring chase scene. The Nazgul keep stopping for no good reason. The whole scene culminates in a riveting standoff between the Nazgul on one side of the river (“Come back!” they say) and Frodo on the other side (“Go back!” he says). That’s gooooood drama! The Nazgul cross the Red Sea, and Moses… I mean Elrond, makes the waters flood them down about fifty feet downriver. 43:40
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