The Lord of the Rings

(Check out my previous Ralph Bakshi animated feature film review here: Wizards)

By late 1977, Ralph Bakshi had shown himself to once again be a profitable director of animated features. His 1977 film Wizards had turned a profit in a pretty big way despite the previous feature Coonskin being a controversial picture that resulted in a box office flop. Bakshi was still interested in creating more fantasy films at this time. So when he heard that the live-action fantasy director John Boorman had just written a script for an adaptation of Lord of the Rings, and that the project was in production hell and would probably never be produced, he talked to the studio heads at United Artists and had them buy the property from Boorman for $3 million USD.

Bakshi then secured a financing deal for an animated film trilogy of the Lord of the Rings cycle for which he would produce all three collectively for $8 million USD. After some deliberation, the studio decided that Bakshi should only make two films instead, but with the same budget. The first being called Lord of the Rings Part 1 and being based upon The Fellowship of the Ring and the first half of The Two Towers. The second would be based upon the second half of The Two Towers and all of the Return of the King. However, the studio objected to the film being called part one as they believed no one would come out to the theaters to watch half of a movie, and as such, the first film was called merely The Lord of the Rings. 

Bakshi used a novel approach to animating on his second fantasy film. He had experimented previously with rotoscoping, but decided this time to rotoscope almost all of the human characters in the film. As a result, Bakshi went to Spain to film almost all of the scenes in the film with real actors, who were then animated over to give them an extremely life-like performance. These shots were overlayed on top of either experimental footage and psychedelic backgrounds, or, for the majority of the film, traditionally animated cels as backdrops and scenarios. The process was almost the exact opposite of Bakshi’s methods on his film Heavy Traffic where he animated his characters and placed them within real-world backgrounds from photographs that had been underexposed and copied multiple times to give them a real, lived-in look.

The total rotoscoping approach had never been tried at the same scale as it usually yielded extremely ugly animation and wasn’t particularly liked by audiences. However, Bakshi managed to change the entire formula by directing his actors to act as naturally as possible instead of acting broadly and cartoony as in the Fleischer Brother’s rotoscoped film Gulliver’s Travels some forty years prior. The result is a very natural rotoscoping, which creates beautiful performances often indistinguishable from traditional animation. However, rotoscoping is much cheaper and had the added benefit of saving time and money in the process. Don Bluth would later use this same approach to masterful effect on his 1997 film Anastasia. 

The rotoscoping in Lord of the Rings also allowed Ralph Bakshi to do what is normally impossible in an animated film: create battle sequences with dozens or even hundreds of people. Typically, this approach is functionally impossible through traditional animation as each person has dozens of separate key animation frames for any thirty second sequence. Further, in-between frames must be made in the dozens to connect the actions from frame to frame. One or two animators could work on such a sequence for just a few characters and keep each action in mind without confusing anything in the process. But one or two people creating a battle sequence of hundreds of characters strains credulity and is virtually impossible. And when dozens or hundreds of animators are employed on such a sequence, the budget begins to bloat, inconsistencies run rampant, and the whole sequence is bound to turn into a shit show. Through rotoscoping, the actions and key frames and in-between actions are all already completed, and the process is much simpler. As such, Bakshi was able to create the largest battle sequences in any animated film until the CGI age (which suffers from a flaw Bakshi’s film does not: repetitiveness of characters).

Rotoscoping also made the sequences with Orcs and Wraiths particularly frightening and akin to the demons from Wizards. This adds some continuity between the two films and makes them into a perfect pair for a cult film viewing with friends, Bakshi fans, fantasy junkies, and cinephiles.

The voice actors in the film are mostly British film actors and include great performances from John Hurt as Aragorn and Anthony Daniels (C-3PO) as Legolas. The production was a star work that critics and film writers latched onto from the start and which attracted all kinds of people to it, including Mick Jagger, who wanted to provide a voice for the film, but was turned down by Bakshi. The film’s score is noteworthy not for the orchestral score that eventually made it into the film, but for the original plan of Bakshi’s to include Led Zeppelin music throughout. And although admittedly not the biggest Led Zeppelin fan, I can imagine how amazing a Lord of the Rings battle scene would be when accompanied by Immigrant Song.

Ultimately, the film was a box office success and made back $30.5 million USD on a $4 million budget. It was Bakshi’s biggest success in this regard since his feature film debut as director on Fritz the Cat. Though the idea of the studio to release the film as The Lord of the Rings, and not as The Lord of the Rings Part 1 backfired and ended in the film garnering many bad reviews. Viewers thought the film was meant to encompass all of the Lord of the Rings cycle, and when it didn’t, they often became confused and annoyed that someone would choose to only adapt half of it and call the entire work Lord of the Rings. Misunderstood critical backlash to the film made the studio wary of financing its sequel, and consequently none was ever made, except if you count its spiritual successors in the Rankin/Bass animated films The Hobbit and The Return of the King.

For all of the grandiose, epic quality of the 2000s Peter Jackson version of The Lord of the Rings, I would still call Bakshi’s film my favorite of all the film adaptations of the epic fantasy property. Peter S. Beagle, author of The Last Unicorn, did an amazing job condensing The Lord of the Rings down to less than two and half hours length in his screenplay for the film. I could rationalize and debate constantly about why this version is my favorite, but at the end of the day it’s probably mostly because of the nostalgia with which I hold it in high regard as the first version I ever saw of the classic Tolkien trilogy. The one that sparked my interest in Middle Earth, motivated me to later read the books, and to finally read books within the fantasy genre broadly (C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia was a major influence as well). I just wish Bakshi made the sequel.


Cody Ward

[Next up: American Pop]


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