Today this movie is often seen as an unofficial sequel to the Rankin/Bass "Hobbit" that was aired on NBC one year earlier. But Ralph Bakshi's production actually had nothing to do with that adaptation, and the two movies coming out so close together is probably a coincidence. Ralph Bakshi had been working on his adaptation of "The Lord of the Rings" since the mid-Seventies trying to convince United Artists (a now-defunct* studio that owned the rights at the time) that his vision would be the best fit for the audience. Bakshi's main rival at the time for the opportunity to adapt "The Lord of the Rings" was John Boorman**, who turned into a 700 page treatment which left UA executives completely dumbfounded - though its doubtful any studio executive in 1978 really could appreciate Tolkien's work for its importance. Boorman was trying to adapt the entire three-part novel in one movie, but Bakshi promised a much smaller cheaper animated production which would only adapt the first half of the three-part novel, which a sequel coming to finish the second half. Unfortunately, even though "The Lord of the Rings" was a financial success, bringing in thirty million dollars above its merely four million dollar budget, United Artists decided not to make a sequel, leaving the story half-finished. They also removed the words "Part 1" from the title, leaving audiences in 1978 extremely confused as to ending. Rankin/Bass, as disappointed as anybody by the ultimate failure of Ralph Bakshi's production, in 1980 went ahead and made "The Return of the King", finally finishing the Tolkien mythos - which is the movie I'll be reviewing come the final "Hobbit" film next year.
As for the movie itself, "The Lord of the Rings" is mostly a historical curiosity, and I can't say it adds up to very much more. The Rankin/Bass movies were very clearly made with children in mind, thus the whimsical mood and use of songs, Ralph Bakshi however wanted a tone not that dissimilar to Peter Jackson. Its animated, but its very serious, with often dark imagery and frequent action scenes. "The Lord of the Rings" was probably the most violent cartoon ever seen in the West in 1978, the only problem being that Bakshi was heavily overreaching his means. Most of the movie is animated using Rotoscope, but the budget was so shoestring that much of the animation is actually unfinished, leaving muddy live action figures standing in the place of where animated characters should be. So its hard to judge an adaptation so badly unfinished, especially when its heart wants to be in the right place. Tragically that heart is flopping on the floor because Bakshi couldn't finish animating the chest cavity, and the film's lifeblood is staining the carpet. I can't say I personally enjoyed this movie, and I really cannot recommend it to anybody wanting to actually have fun seeing a film. But if you're really interested in the roots of Tolkien, this is something you have to see one day.
Rotoscoping is an animation technique where live action actors are filmed performing the motions of the characters, and later those motions are traced over by the animators and made into a cartoon cel, which is then finally animated and made into the movie. It was a decades-long method when Bakshi used it in 1978, even being used by Walt Disney several times, most notably in "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs". Bakshi particularly liked rotoscoping because it cut down costs, allowing for a rapid creation of fluid motion, which was needed if you want to say, animate hundreds of characters fighting the Battle of Helm's Deep. The final result is indistinguishable from cel animation to an untrained eye. For "The Lord of the Rings", Ralph Bakshi rounded up a huge live action filming session in Spain, using extras in simplistic cheap outfits to create the model from which his animators could make the real movie. The resulting footage was, unsurprisingly, awful, and the Spanish developing lab was so horrified by the results they tried to burn the footage, out of fear that the final product would humiliate their country. Luckily they were stopped.
Less fortunately, however, the rotoscoping translation was never actually finished for the movie. About 70% of the movie is final cel animation, with the remaining 30% being faded live action actors interacting with the cartoon. The orc armies of Sauron are entirely live action figures, along with the Black Riders and the Balrog of Morgoth, which is a floating pig-nosed prop with wings. At time this is actually a rather successful technique, making the Black Riders appear to unearthly creatures beyond the dimension of good cartoon heroes. There is a grungy darkness to the live action figures which make them properly terrifying - I can imagine the children of the Seventies had many nightmares about those orc things, and it adds to the chaotic mood of the combat. But most of the time it looks very silly with a weak filter used to cover up the hilariously awful looking costumes. "The Lord of the Rings" at times looks as bad as "Turkish Star Wars". Then very obviously the animators just did not have time to finish certain shots, so the Fellowship of the Ring will jump from cartoon to live action to cartoon again between cuts.
Muddy live action, unfinished.
Finished cartoon scene.
The finished cel animation is rather well-down, though there too somewhat limited by the technique employed. Most of the characters wear very simple clothing, Aragorn is dressed in a fantasy miniskirt. Occasionally Ralph Bakshi will throw out some truly gorgeous landscapes, but they are just static establishing shots which the characters do not interact with. The actual characters are very traditional fantasy figures, what today we would call hopelessly cliche, but at the time was fascinating artwork. The background is pleasing and very accomplished for the time. I also have to say I prefer the facial animation in this Bakshi version over the Rankin/Bass movies, as these characters have far fewer facial lines and seem somewhat cuter for it. Frodo is nearly animesque. But other characters are less well-served: Sam looks like an old crone, and Aragorn is for some reason middle-aged and Native American. Another interesting addition is how wonderfully psychedelic this movie gets occasionally, with all kinds of wild light effects and freaky imagery.
Storywise, its a very straight adaptation of Tolkien, with just about every major scene fully recreated. Moria, Helm's Deep, even the Ents are all here, exactly as J.R.R. imagined. Out of pragmatism and because the movie is already two hours, massive for a 1978 cartoon, Tom Bombadil and his lovely wife Goldberry are both gone, so true Tolkien fans can give this movie a rating of "boo! Zero stars". Bakshi is even faithful enough to basically leave the entire story a huge sausage fest aside from Galadriel, being poor Aragorn must remain a bachelor as Arwen does not exist. Another strange change: the evil wizard Sauruman is consistently called "Auruman", as the studio thought having today villains with names starting with "Saur" was too confusing. And calling one of them "Sauruman" or "Auruman" is just the height of simplicity.
Theoretically the Bakshi duology of "The Lord of the Rings" would have worked perfectly if United Artists had decided to fund a sequel. And I'm sure lost of UA executives really regretted choosing Michael Camino over Ralph Bakshi, especially once they had to find a way to write out "sank a fifty-year-old film studio to fund a bloated hopelessly self-indulgent Western" on their resumes without seeming like the most incompetent fools on Earth. The unfortunate state of "The Lord of the Rings" means that none of the plotthreads are actually answered. Frodo and Sam are left alone at the gates of Mordor with Smeagol, Aragorn and company have just defeated an entire goblin army but clearly have not won the war despite the narrator's claims that "evil was forever vanquished in Middle Earth", and perhaps worst, Merry and Pippin disappear from the movie a half hour before its conclusion, hanging on the back of a tree monster whose alignment is entirely unknown. Those trees either went on to defeat Isengard, or they had roast Hobbits for dinner, illiterate filmgoers would not know for decades.
Speaking of the illiterate, this movie is very far from helpful to strangers to "The Lord of the Rings". Names are dropped constantly, things happen suddenly, there's very little build-up. The opening narration names about five characters, three of which do not even appear in the movie. That the movie moves so much faster than Peter Jackson's only makes things far more confusing. Yeah, its weird as Hell that all of a sudden there's a giant fire pig fighting Gandalf, but at least the modern version builds that up, instead of just throwing it in your face.
But Bakshi wasn't interested in introducing "The Lord of the Rings", he wanted to be as faithful as possible - to the point that he actually hated making this movie, feeling like a slave to Tolkien's vision. Which might be why the movie has this unfortunate air of going through the motions. There clearly is a great deal of work on display, but the pacing and the characters are so... just there. Like Bakshi was just trying to get the project over with. He didn't even seem all that upset over losing the opportunity to make a sequel, instead he cheerfully went forward, returning to his grittier urban animation stories with "American Pop", and making one final original fantasy film, "Fire and Ice" in 1983. And that's really the problem with the 1978 "The Lord of the Rings". Ralph Bakshi loved Tolkien, but maybe loved it too much, to the point that he didn't feel like he could make a contribution to the mythos. The modern "Lord of the Rings" is a mixture of Tolkien's vision and Peter Jackson's, its a richer film for that collaboration. This is a movie made by a creative man deeply stifled and probably frustrated with the process.
I can't say I recommend "J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings", either to fans of the modern films or to Tolkien purists. You can definitely see several of the Bakshi film's creative decisions in the Peter Jackson epics, such as the design of Gollum, the battle of Helm's Deep, and the deeply homerotic relationship between Sam and Frodo. But nobody really wants to see a failed attempt, especially when there are three fantastic newer movies ready to be seen, again and again.
Anyway, see you all soon enough at "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug" when Watson kills a dragon Sherlock Holmes.
* United Artists (UA) is a studio with a very long and very unfortunate history. Its was founded in 1919 and managed to survive as 'mini major' throughout the Golden Age of Hollywood, a smaller studio that did not own movie theaters that mostly focused on independent productions. (The other two 'mini majors' were Universal and Columbia, below the 'Majors' of 20th Century Fox, Paramount, RKO, Warner Bros, and MGM, but above the B-movie producers.) However, UA didn't really managed to gain much significance until the 1960s, when it released such classics as "West Side Story", "In the Heat of the Night", "The Graduate", and even started the James Bond franchise. In the Seventies, United Artists was on the forefront of experimental New Hollywood, releasing some very controversial and acclaimed movies like "Last Tango in Paris" and "Midnight Cowboy". Unfortunately, it all came to end when they met a man named Michael Camino, and let him make a little movie called "Heaven's Gate", a four hour long fiasco of over-budget, pretentious, and utterly awful filmmaking. It was one of the biggest disasters in all of Hollywood history. UA died almost immediately, the studio and its rights to James Bond, Rocky Balboa, and Detective Clouseau all were purchased by MGM.
The UA brand continued to release movies occasionally (notably "Showgirls"), until the 2000s as the more arty branch of MGM. However, MGM filed for bankruptcy in 2009, where it had to sell off its rights to James Band and its stake in the Hobbit (which is why those movies were delayed as long as they were). Today there is no United Artists in any form, it has joined RKO in film studio heaven.
** Ten years earlier, Stanley Kurbrick very nearly direction a version of "The Lord of the Rings" starring none other than the Beatles. He finally dropped out claiming that the story was 'unfilmable', which at the time, was probably the truth.