Tools of the Imagination – Lord of the Rings

Lord of the Rings
directed by Ralph Bakshi, produced by Saul Zaentz, written by Peter Beagle and Chris Conkling, based off the novel series by JRR Tolkein

The Rough Draft

(Image thanks to popdaddyvintage.com)

I’ve talked previously about the original animated version of the Hobbit. An exceptionally good film, it is not the only pre-Jacksonian attempt to bring Tolkein’s works to life. Underground animation superstar Ralph Bakshi would take a crack at the heart of the saga with The Lord of the Rings. But whereas Rankin & Bass took steps to make sure the Hobbit (and its follow-up, the Return of the King) remained family-friendly, Bakshi had no such interests.

The 1970s were a hell of a decade. In entertainment alone, Saturday Night Fever, Jaws, and Star Wars, would rewrite the rules of cinema and film. Home computers were becoming a reality. VHS and Betamax were feuding for the home video market
It’s during this time that Terrytunes director Ralph Bakshi would produce a string of underground and alternative animated films, geared at adults. His first work, Fritz the Cat, a film adaptation of the infamous underground comic, would be the first animated movie to receive an X-rating by the MPAA. Bakshi would follow it up with equally controversial films.

In 1977, Bakshi would venture into fantasy with Wizards. That success would galvanize him to take on the holy trilogy of fantasy, The Lord of the Rings. Bringing with him his experience using rotoscope (filming in live action, then tracing over the images on animation cels), he would end up producing one of the most ambitious fantasy films, and animated films, to date.

Story – 5 out of 5
Much like Rankin & Bass did with their adaptation of the Hobbit, and Peter Jackson would do with the live-action movies two decades later, Bakshi sticks pretty close to the original narrative, deviating only a little (see Bombadil, Tom). In fact, in many ways, Bakshi’s movie is even closer to the original books than the Jackson Trilogy. A few scenes are rushed here and there, but the vast majority of the Fellowship and the Two Towers is vividly displayed.

Art – 4 out of 5
The earthen tones of this movie, and its subdued color palette, may be a little off-putting at first glance, but they are actually in keeping with the descriptions in the books. Likewise, the characters are drawn very expressively, managing to capture a level of realism seldom seen in animation.

Animation – 5 out of 5
It’s hard to put into words what rotoscope art is like. It really must be seen to be appreciated. Very few types of animation ever compare to the smoothness of movement and the little nuances of a live-action performance, but rotoscope does just that. The subtly of life is truly depicted in every facial expression and every physical move.

Characters – 2 out of 5
Where the movie does fall a little flat is in the characterization. Much of the wealth of character information just isn’t present. There’s little if any explanation for who or what Gandalf is (aside from a wizard, despite him never casting any spells). The same is true for Frodo, Aragorn, and the rest. Very little is done to explain the motivations of the characters or for them to experience any real growth over the course of the story.

Acting – 4 out of 5
Much like the animation, the dialogue is noticeably richer than any other animated work of this time. The lines are far smoother and natural, giving the voice actors some real freedom with which to perform. And it shows. John Hurt, especially, delivers a fantastic performance as Aragorn. He’s far more human and personable than Viggo Mortenson’s portrayal in the live-action films. Likewise, the stellar portrayal of Legalos will really shock fans when they realize it’s Anthony ‘C3-PO’ Daniels.

Overall – 4 out of 5
Lord of the Rings fans need to watch this movie, as do animation fans in general. It’s really great to see a very different, yet still very loyal, take on the source material. Little things like the more-accurate depiction of the Balrog, Galadriel’s reaction to Frodo offering her the ring, and other differences are as charming to see as the similarities like Boromir’s equally badass death or the truly unsettling first-encounter with the ring wraith. This is a movie of rare distinction and worth seeing.

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