Features, Humor, Opinion

Roto-Orcs & Invincible Doors: Ralph Bakshi’s 1978 ‘JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings’ Reviewed

07.12.10 | Kunochan | 24 Comments

MC 500 Foot Gandalf. That, or Hobbits are three apples tall.

I first read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings in the 3rd Grade, probably some time in 1975. (Yes, my reading level was always way ahead of the rest of the class. I made up for this by consistently failing math.) My devotion to the Narnia novels ended instantly, never to return; and Tolkien’s novels have been my favorite fiction works throughout my entire life.

Three years later, in 1978, my father took me to see controversial animator Ralph Bakshi’s feature-length adaptation of The Lord of the Rings.

We hated it.

In my current role as a (barely) paid (semi-) professional writer of Tolkien news, reviews and other ephemera, I took it upon myself to view again, for the first time since 1978, Bakshi’s JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, and give it a second chance with an adult perspective.

What did I learn? First, that the film is bad, but not nearly as bad as I remembered. Second, that a few of Bakshi’s choices were superior to those made later by Sir Peter Jackson in his live-action trilogy. (Don’t get me wrong – I absolutely love Jackson’s trilogy. But not everything in it was perfect.)

And third? Rotoscoping as a replacement for traditional animation SUCKS.

If you’re familiar with my style of film reviews, I usually begin with my patented Bitingly Sarcastic Plot Synopsis, and then get into the meat of the review. But I cannot start here without discussing Bakshi’s choice to use roto in his film.

According to Wikipedia, rotoscoping is “a technique in which animators trace over live-action film movement, frame by frame….” Max Fleischer invented the technique to provide live-film reference for the motions of cartoon characters. Animation godhead and McCarthyite douchebag Walt Disney used the technique the same way.

Today, rotoscoping is used extensively in digital visual effects, and the position of roto artist is a common entry-level job in that industry.

Sometimes, rarely, “animated” films are made using rotoscoping; for instance, digital interpolated rotoscoping was used to make Richard Linklater’s 2006 Philip K. Dick adaptation, A Scanner Darkly. Linklater’s decision to use roto to give a live-action film an “animated” look was an artistic decision; whether it was a successful choice is up to the viewer.

Robert Downey Jr. “animated” in A Scanner Darkly.

Bakshi’s motives for using rotoscoping were largely financial. At 133 minutes, JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (hereafter JRRTLOTR) is probably the longest American animated feature ever made. (Miyazaki Hayao’s Princess Mononoke is 134 minutes; Otomo Katsuhiro’s Akira is 125. Disney’s Fantasia is 120 minutes; Pixar’s Cars is 116. Compare these with Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, generally credited as the first animated feature, at 83 minutes; and Dumbo at a mere 64 minutes.)

To bring in his film on time and within budget, Bakshi decided to use rotoscoping for the battle scenes, and for any scene with a large number of characters. The practical effect was to create a large number of shots that look nothing like the rest of the film. Some reviewers considered this avant-garde, but really it was just terrible.

Bakshi later said he regretted using rotoscoping as an on-screen replacement for animation, rather than as reference, in this and several of his subsequent films. I know I regretted watching it.

Here now is my…

Bitingly sarcastic plot synopsis

The credits begin with “Fantasy Films Presents.” Is that like “Action Films Presents,” “Horror Films Presents,” or “Shitty Rotoscoped Animation Presents?” The opening credit music is the haunting “March of the 70s Television Movie themes.” Good work, composer Leonard Rosenman, best known for TV incidental music. (Yeah sure, he wrote the scores for East of Eden (1955) and Rebel Without a Cause (1955) – but apparently the creative juices dammed up around the time of Fantastic Voyage (1966).)

Prince Isildur = Robin Hood

First, the back-story – a simplified version of the forging of the Rings of Power and the Last Alliance of Elves and Men. No animation here, or even rotoscoping – just silhouetted actors covered by what in the future will be known as the Canvas Photoshop filter. Also, everything is red. Get used to this, brother.

Okay, this is just straight-up live action. If adding a red filter makes a film animated, then Red Planet is the finest animated feature film ever made.

A fully-animated Deagol swims down to find the Ring; cut to a live-action silhouette of Deagol being killed by Smeagol. The rest of the flashback cuts back and forth between traditional animation and live-action so swiftly, I got whiplash.

Now we get to Hobbiton, which looks like a Smurf village. It’s all traditional animation – choppy, messy traditional animation. The Hobbits are cherub-cheeked little monsters, like the infernal love children of E.T. and a Monchichi. The crowd action is frenetic and nonsensical.

ET + Monchichi = Frodo

Here we meet Bilbo, suddenly transformed into an animated character, as he is giving his famous “I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve” speech, minus the crowd reaction, which just makes the old Hobbit seem like a total dick, rather than a playful old scamp. Gandalf, who is Caucasian, is chatting up Frodo, who seems to hail from the Punjab region of India and Pakistan.

This is Bilbo. No, really.

Bilbo pulls his prank, and reappears inside Bag End. Now the animation cleans up and smoothens out, perhaps because there are only two characters in this scene, or perhaps because Bakshi’s dealer had the better stuff that week.

Bilbo leaves the Ring to Frodo – with no indication whatsoever of (1) who is Bilbo; (2) who is Frodo and how is he related to Bilbo; (3) who is Gandalf other than a wizard, and how does he know Bilbo and Frodo; (4) where is Bilbo going, and why did he leave the Ring behind? The film has also failed to explain what a Hobbit is, where the Shire is located, where we are in time and space in relation to the events in the prologue; and has given the mistaken impression that the Ring caused Bilbo to teleport, which begs the question of why Isildur didn’t just teleport back to his Merry Men when the silhouette Orcs attacked.

Unlike in the Peter Jackson version, a respectable 17 years pass. For the first time we can see that the ceilings and doors of Bag End are man-sized rather than Hobbit-sized, and Gandalf passes through them easily. Say what? Also, Gandalf promised Bilbo he would look after Frodo (we don’t know why), but now we learn that Gandalf never came back during the entire 17 years. Say what?

The revelation of the truth about the One Ring is bizarrely truncated, in that Gandalf seems to have known about it all along. He throws the Ring into the fire, but never shows the fiery elf-letters. He dances around the room bug-eyed and threatens Frodo. Then Gandalf and Frodo go for a walk around the neighborhood at night, where a brand new character is trimming the verge.

“What have you heard, and why did you listen?” Gandalf demands of Samwise. “You were discussing matters of world-shattering import and great secrecy outside, at night, at full volume, you old dolt,” Sam replies. No, actually he doesn’t.

Sam talks about hearing about Elves, and how he wants to see them. This is straight from the book. But in the film, Frodo and Gandalf never mentioned Elves, not once. Anyway, I’m still trying to decide if the character design for Sam was a step forward or back for the Down’s syndrome community.

For the first time, we hear that the book’s Saruman has been renamed “Aruman.” This is because Bakshi assumed the American moviegoing public was so dense, they would not understand the difference between “Saruman” and “Sauron.” As the Peter Jackson trilogy demonstrated, Bakshi was absolutely right.

(There’s a cute bit of business here – as Gandalf turns to leave, he lunges a bit at Sam, for the sole purpose of startling him. If there had been more of these moments, and a lot less rotoscoping, this might have been a salvageable movie.)

Anyway, the whole segment drags a bit – but it does prove that Peter Jackson’s extreme truncation of Frodo’s journey from The Shire to Bree could have been slightly less truncated to better effect.

Gandalf’s meeting with Aruman is confusing. We know nothing about who Aruman is, of course – just another wizard, who lives in a rocky tower (no one ever designs Orthanc to match the description in the book). They argue, and Aruman summons a bunch of lens flares with his squiggly staff. Then suddenly Gandalf is trapped at the top of the tower.

For some reason, everyone in this movie walks with their legs akimbo. Maybe they have giant balls in Middle-earth?

Frodo and Sam have joined the briefly-mentioned Merry and Pippin, and the four Hobbits are on their way to the briefly-mentioned Buckland. They hide from an approaching Ringwraith which, based on its appearance, is on its way to the Skywalkers’ moisture farm to sell some stolen protocol droids and R2 units.

I think I’ve seen this scene before.

Frodo almost puts on the Ring (we don’t know why); the Ringwraith makes a noise like he needs a glass of Metamucil; and Frodo puts the Ring away. End of scene.

Frodo uncovers Merry’s and Pippin’s (and Fatty “Not Appearing in this Film” Bolger’s) conspiracy, proving again that Peter Jackson didn’t have to cut it.

Bing bang boom, they’re in Bree. Sorry, Tom Bombadil, you lose again.

Now we see our first example of the “animation” technique that will ruin the rest of the film – not live-action silhouettes, as in the prologue; nor traditional animation that uses filmed actors for reference, which we’ve seen with Gandalf and the Hobbits. No, now we get rotoscoping – real actors with traced drawings and various camera effects layered over them. It sucks. Hard.

This Spanish extra has no idea he’s been scribbled over by an underpaid American animator.

The four main characters still look traditionally animated, so nothing matches stylistically. (I just noticed Pippin sounds just like one of the Beatles, perhaps a young George, a tribute maybe to the 1960s live-action version of the Lord of the Rings that was mercifully never made.) Frodo sings part of “The Man in the Moon Stayed Up Too Late” — not enough of it to thoroughly enjoy it, but still, a genuine “thank you” to Mr. Bakshi for including it.

Meanwhile, two Ringwraiths use their fart powers to incapacitate Merry. No, really.

One of these things is not like the other.

Now the Hobbits encounter that great Indian chief, Strides-Without-Pants. I find it hard to believe the Númenóreans never invented trousers. And good lord, that’s John Hurt doing the voice. I expect a chestburster to explode out of that tunic any second.

Speaking of bursting, Chief Strider snaps at the unnamed, befezzed barkeep you and I know to be Barliman Butterbur, betraying a temper rather unbecoming of the scion of Númenórean kings. But honestly, Hurt’s vocal performance is the best of anyone’s so far. Oh, I forgot to mention – everyone in this cast is British. You hear that, Peter Jackson? English, Scottish or Welsh. Did you know that Elijah Wood is now doing his terrible British quasi-accent now in other films?

Five Ringwraiths – animated, thankfully – attack the empty beds at the Prancing Pony. Frustrated, they make the noise your kitchen garbage disposal makes when it’s clogged, and we see this:

You got me.

One Midgewater Marsh later, and the cast arrives at Weathertop. Aragorn actually tells in brief the tale of Beren and Luthien, not only presaging his love for Arwen “Not Appearing in this Film” Evenstar, but also giving me reason to kiss Bakshi square on the lips.

Now look at this. Chief Running Strider describes the love of Beren and Luthien, and here is the reaction from Frodo and Sam:

Yeah. Bakshi gets it.

The group is attacked by the rotoscoped, semi-transparent Ringwraiths. Frodo puts on the Ring, and is stabbed by a Ringwraith that switches from live-action to animated from shot-to-shot. It’s still not really clear that Frodo is compelled to put on the Ring – he just seems like a suicidal idiot. And the Ringwraiths here are kind of easy for Casino Bingo Strider to drive away.

Okay, enough with the “Strider looks like an Dime Store Indian” jokes.

Hurrying to get the wounded Frodo to Rivendell, our heroes encounter Glorfindel Arwen Evenstar Legolas! Yes, Legolas, because all Elves are the same and come from the same country. Legolas is played by Anthony “C3PO” Daniels, making the character even gayer than if he’d been played by Orlando Bloom, if that’s possible.

Anyway, sorry again, Glorfindel.

Look, I can put my leg behind my head!

Legolas knows about the Ring, which makes no sense. It’s not much of a secret if everyone in Wilderland wearing leggings knows who Frodo is and what he bears.

Now, the way Bakshi composes the encounter between the party and the Ringwraiths at the Ford is just weird. For precisely 52 seconds, NOTHING HAPPENS – Frodo and one of the Ringwraiths just stare at each other. Finally, Frodo gallops off – but the Ringwraith, not bothering to give chase, uses his Level 4 Spell of Equine Somnolence to put Asfaloth, Glorfindel’s Legolas’ horse, to sleep.

Asfaloth gets back up, and the Ringwraith spends another half-minute or so not killing Frodo, not capturing Frodo, not stealing back the Ring, not doing anything but hissing. If I were Sauron, I’d be pissed. Gandalf’s voice yells “Run you fool, run!” and everyone finally does.

Frodo crosses the Ford of Bruinen, and one of the Ringwraiths uses Lord Vader’s force choke on him. No, really. The Ringwraiths begin to cross the river, but don’t notice when all the water recedes to form a wall of foaming horses. These guys were Kings of Men? Idiots.

We see a horse drown, which is kind of uncool.

Celebrían didn’t go to Valinor; she fell off one of those balconies.

Rivendell isn’t so much a riven dell as a bottomless pit. When Frodo wakes in the House of Elrond, Gandalf is there, to inform the Hobbit that the Morgul Blade almost turned him into a Ringwraith. This is a ridiculous misreading of the book, but whatever. (Can you imagine Frodo the Tenth Nazgûl, Witch-Mayor of Michel Delving?)

Now at this point I’m absolutely certain that sometimes they say “Saruman” and sometimes they say “Aruman.” The change must have come late in production. Here, as Gandalf tells of his escape from captivity, it’s “Saruman.” There’s no moth here, but no Radagast either – Gandalf uses his Bigby’s Rod of Eagle Summoning to get away.

Inexplicably, Gandalf tells Frodo “the War of the Ring has begun” – quite a surprise, I imagine, to the peoples of Gondor, Rohan, Rhûn, the Haradwaith, and even to Sauron. Give it a few months, Gandalf. Don’t be so hasty.

Frodo finds Bilbo, who is actually giving us some of Tolkien’s poetry. Their encounter struggling over the Ring is quite well done.

Now for the Council of Elrond. Here we meet Boromir, who for some unfathomable reason is dressed as a full-bore Viking – and not a realistic Viking, but one from Wagner, a costume-shop Viking with a fur shirt, a ridiculous beard, and horns on his helmet. Remember, Gondor is the most advanced civilization in Middle-earth, having inherited its culture and technology from the Atlantis-like Númenóreans. And Boromir is a prince of that realm, and the heir to its stewardship. But here he wants to rape your women and eat lutefisk.

The other salient fact we learn at the Council is that Elves wear pants and Men don’t. Also, Elves wear their bows and quivers to meetings, because you never know when you’ll have to shoot someone.

While Peter Jackson’s Council is more dramatic, I think Bakshi’s does a better job of explaining the plan to the audience; how Sauron expects one of the Wise to use the Ring, and will not expect someone to try to destroy it.

Frodo’s farewell scene with Bilbo is touching. I wish we knew Bakshi’s Bilbo better – Sir Peter did an excellent job of introducing him and his importance to Frodo.

Cut to Caradhras. One of my favorite shots in the film trilogy was Legolas walking on top of the snow while everyone else waded – no such luck here. Gandalf and Aragorn bicker over whether to enter Moria; and the argument between the members of the Fellowship, and Frodo’s decision, will make it all the more bitter when Gandalf is seemingly killed. This scene is also better than the Jackson version.

Here at the Gates of Moria is where I noticed something astonishing for the first time – Gimli is the full height of a Man! Bakshi hired Billy Barty to provide reference action for the Hobbits, but he couldn’t find someone to do the same for the Dwarf?

The Watcher in the Water attacks, and we get our second equine tragedy – Bill the Pony. Ralph Bakshi hates horses.

The first thing we see in Moria is an enormous, many-storey tall stone statue of the skull of a fanged, four-eyed creature with giant horns. What is this, a Dwarven city, or a Yngwie Malmsteen album cover?

And suddenly in the next shot, for no reason whatsoever, everyone is (for the first time, for these characters) in rotoscoped live action. Why? What did we, as the audience, do to deserve this? Was it Friday, and Bakshi wanted to go home for the weekend?

Pippin drops his stone down the guardroom well, and gets nothing but a cranky Gandalf and bizarre snapping in return. In the Chamber of Mazarbul, Gandalf reads aloud from the Book. William Squire’s performance is dramatic, but would benefit from some incidental music. Wake up, Mr. Rosenman.

Here is one of the things I hated the most back when I saw this in 1978 – the Orcs. First of all, they’re always rotoscoped. Second, they look absurd. A veritable horde of them – six – attacks the Fellowship, along with a hairy, ridiculous cave troll.

Over the course of four seconds, Legolas goes from an animated Elf with a curly-cue bow to a rotoscoped one with a regular bow.

And now we get to the worst piece of design in the film. Bakshi said he wanted to take artistic license, but this is ridiculous. The Balrog of Moria is a Kzin with buttefly wings, there I said it. The Flame of Udûn, the horrifying vestige of the War of the Jewels that terrifies Legolas and takes the life of Gandalf the Grey, is a lion-fairy-man.

(And let’s be clear – whatever some idiots on the Internet may tell you, Tolkien never wrote that Balrogs had wings. Not once. Not ever. And this Balrog’s plummet to the deepest pits of Moria 14 seconds later helps to belie the ridiculous Balrog Wing Hypothesis.)

Words escape me.

Anyway, Gandalf falls and the rest of the Fellowship escapes.

We teleport to Lothlórien, where Galadriel doesn’t know how to pronounce “Celeborn” (it’s like this: Keleborn). Also, she looks like a Disney princess.

We must suffer through an original song, representing the Galadhrim’s lament for Gandalf. It sounds like a children’s choir mangling a particularly saccharine Christmas carol. Why are Tolkien’s adapters so prone to adding songs? You people know he wrote about a thousand songs and poems, right?

As we endure the song, the characters frolic and enjoy the rest and peace of Lorien. But soon it’s time for Galadriel’s mirror; and in this version, as in the novel, both Frodo and Samwise are tested (as opposed to Peter Jackson’s FotR, where only Frodo looks into the mirror).

All of Sam and Frodo’s visions are presented in the mirror – after all, this is animation, so there’s no reason we wouldn’t see what they see – right? Right?

We see nothing. Frodo and Sam just describe what they see. And when Frodo looks troubled and tries to touch the water, Galadriel explains for our benefit that he saw Sauron in the mirror.

Galadriel reveals her Elven Ring, which appears to have the power to turn into a Roman Candle, so she’s got that going for her.

Frodo offers the Ring to Galadriel, and here is another excellent opportunity to compare this film with Jackson’s. In the 2001 film, Jackson felt the need to convey with visual effects ideas that could have been presented by the actors. When Cate Blanchett’s otherwise excellent Galadriel warns that with the Ring “all shall love me and despair,” she transforms briefly into a cold and hideous doppleganger.

But Bakshi just lets actress Annette Crosbie sell the idea herself, and I think it works better. There’s no special effect; in fact, Crosbie has Galadriel half-laughing as she considers what anyone well familiar with Tolkien’s Legendarium knows is the most important and momentous decision in the life of a woman older than the Sun and Moon. But it works.

Bakshi quickly dispenses with the River Anduin and the Argonath, and gets us right to Amon Hen. Here Hagar the Horrible – I mean Boromir – tries to steal the Ring. We get Boromir’s argument in its entirety, not the truncated version from Peter Jackson.

One of the things I criticized in the trilogy was the extent to which Jackson foreshadowed Boromir’s treachery – I thought it was too much. But Bakshi does not prepare us at all; and now I think Jackson had it right. Furthermore, in both the book and in Jackson’s LOTR, when Boromir awakes from his madness, we believe that he was under the spell of the Ring and was not himself. When animated Boromir says it, he seems to be lying (although I doubt that was Bakshi’s intention).

Unlike in Jackson’s film, events here follow the book. Sam finds Frodo and they head across the Anduin towards Mordor. (And we get a half-second of an angry, bug-eyed creature in pursuit. Does anyone who hasn’t read the books even remember Gollum from the prologue, where we only saw him in silhouette?) By the way, some incidental music would have been nice here.

Meanwhile, the suddenly rotoed Merry and Pippin run into some rotoed Orcs; Boromir is slain (he really should have purchased armor and a ranged weapon during character creation), and the Halflings are taken.

This looks just like the rest of the film, right? Right?

So Aragorn the Pantsless, Legolas the Disco King, and Gimli the World’s Tallest Dwarf take off running after the Roto-Orcs, who are driving Animated-Merry and Animated-Pippin along with them. I know this chase is significant in The Two Towers; but it just goes on and on here (for a full three minutes, in fact).

I like that the Roto-Orcs don’t solely speak English or Westernesse or whatever, but babble to each other in a Black Speech invented for the film. There’s real no difference between the Mordor Orcs and the Uruk Hai here, however.

The Roto-Rohirrim attack the Orcs – any scene involving many extras or a battle is going to be rotoed, which means we’re going to be seeing a lot of it from this point out.

Meanwhile, in the other storyline, Frodo and Sam wander through another heavy metal album cover.  And… heeeeeres Gollum!

What is it with Gollums and their little loincloths?

In my review of the animated The Hobbit, I thought the Gollum voice work was pretty good, although the actor simply said “gollum” instead of actually making a throat noise; but I said that Andy Serkis had owned the character forever, and no one would ever match his performance. Well, English actor Peter Woodthorpe doesn’t try. Not only does he speak “gollum” like it was a word, his entire delivery is that of a literature professor politely reading Gollum’s dialogue – “I daresay, we hates the yellow face, ol’ chap” – and conveys no sense of being a creature, much less a miserable, tortured, 500-year-old creature. This performance is simply terrible. He doesn’t inhabit the character at all.

This Gollum is also a little wacky for my taste, lacking the menace that dwelt beneath the piteousness of Serkis’ or even Brother Theodore’s versions.

There’s a lot going on here that someone unfamiliar with the books might not follow. Why is Gollum now called Smeagol? What is “The Precious?” These are new terms to us.

Back in Rohan, there’s a bizarre scene, with the Rohirrim in a standoff with the Orcs. Both sides are literally standing in rows, waiting. Why? What’s the point? What happened to the ambush from the book? We learn that there are indeed Mordor Orcs bickering with Isengard Orcs, but what does this mean to someone unfamiliar with the novels? Why does the Mordor Orc have a Jimmy Durante nose? Why is Bakshi taking up this extra time, when we’re one hour and 38 minutes into an animated film, and no one has even mentioned Helm’s Deep yet?

One of the Rohirrim inexplicably rushes the Uruk line, and when he’s killed, this pisses the other Men off enough to finally attack. Again, what was the point of all this? Now we get a battle – an “animated” battle that amounts to a dim, hard-to-see live action battle buried under filters and lens effects.

Merry and Pippin, now free, make their way into Fangorn Forest, where they meet Treebeard.

Oh. My. God.

No other character in this film screams “Ralph Bakshi” like Treebeard. In fact, if the old Ent reminds you of a John Kricfalusi character, remember Kricfalusi trained under Bakshi.

Budda bing! Aragorn, Legolas and Mega-Gimli are in Fangorn, trying to track the Halflings. A wizard appears with a bag over his head – but it’s Gandalf! (Peter Jackson handled this better.) As in every version of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien’s included, we get no real explanation of Gandalf’s miraculous return from the dead. You have to read The Silmarillion for that.

Bakshi provides a brief flashback of Gandalf’s battle with the Balrog, similar to the one Jackson included in The Two Towers film, but presented in static paintings, which is fine. But this flashback, perhaps unintentionally, suggests Gandalf survived the battle and walked to Fangorn, which is a bit of a cheat.

Then they’re off to Edoras, to help a bunch of people unknown to us in a country of which we have never heard. Condensing Tolkien can have that problem, so perhaps it’s unavoidable. (Making three movies instead of in-intent two certainly helps.)

To catch us up, Gandalf and Aragorn discuss the situation as they gallop to Edoras on horses that appeared out of nowhere. They both know things they shouldn’t, but again, we’re condensing.

We see Saruman – I mean Aruman – giving a speech to his Roto-Orcish troops as Wormtongue (It’s pronounced “Greema,” Gandalf, not “Grime-uh”) looks on. Gríma Wormtongue looks like a Belgian version of Muttley the Dog.

Gandalf and friends confront Theoden King, and here we meet Éowyn, who looks exactly like Galadriel. So, good job differentiating the only two female characters in the whole movie. (By the way, Arwen Evenstar has never been mentioned. Not even once. At least in the novels, Aragorn talks about her; and Peter Jackson’s decision to make her a more integral character was certainly the right one.)

This scene is closer to the book than Jackson’s, which had Gandalf using magic to break Saruman’s spell over Theoden. Here Gandalf uses words to convince Theoden that Wormtongue has unmanned him, although Theoden’s release seems a bit quick. But Bakshi’s Theoden is rather pitiable, turning his neediness on Gandalf after Wormtongue is gone. It made me miss Bernard Hill’s willful, proud, wise and charismatic Theoden.

Everyone heads to Helm’s Deep except Gandalf, who leaves to locate Éomer the Briefly-Mentioned.

Many miles away, Frodo, Sam and Gollum encounter a Ringwraith mounted on a flying Fell Beast. Tolkien described his Fell Beasts as bird-like, and Jackson’s resemble dragons; Bakshi’s belong to the Order Pterosauria. Tolkien said he specifically did not imagine them as pterodactyl-like.

Wargs! That look like Wargs!

Gollum tries to convince Frodo to give him the Ring, to predictable effect. Later, Gollum talks to himself, arguing over whether to help Frodo or kill him. The corresponding scene in the film trilogy, where Smeagol speaks to Gollum’s reflection in the pool, is handled much more dramatically and deftly. Here Smeagol decides to take the Hobbits to Cirith Ungol (eliminating the journey to the Morannon entirely).

Guess how many red filters Bakshi went through to make this film, and win a 1978 AMC Gremlin!

The Battle of Helm’s Deep! The Orcs appear, singing some kind of chant in the Black Speech (kind of cool, actually). They still look like poorly-photographed Tusken Raiders, though.

A protip for the Rohirrim – when the Orcs all crouch in a line and simultaneously fire their arrows, duck.

Legolas utterly fails to surf on his shield, so hooray for Ralph Bakshi.

Then, bizarre weirdness. Saruman, I mean Aruman, fires squiggly sparkly death beams directly from Orthanc, all the way to Helm’s Deep. Well, he is a wizard — but that seems pretty powerful. What’s next, Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles? Aruman knocks a neat circular hole in the walls of Helm’s Deep, and the heroes have to retreat.

This must violate some kind of international agreement. I suggest sanctions against Isengard, and a strongly worded letter from the UN.

Everyone runs through a door into the Glittering Caves, and Aragorn shuts the door, locking out the Orcs. Yes, this one door does more to protect the Rohirrim and confound the Orcs than all the defenses of Helm’s Deep. That is quite a door.

Theoden King decides he wants to make a final suicide assault on the Orcs, despite the fact he could spend the rest of his days comfortably behind Mordenkainen’s Impenetrable Door of Orc Confounding. Aragorn glumly agrees to accompany him.

Wherever Frodo and Sam are, there are humanoid skulls and bones littered all over the place. I know I tend to avoid areas like that. Even when trying to reach the colossal stronghold of a godlike demonic evil.

Frodo admits he has no exit strategy for after the Ring is destroyed; although he does have a large “Mission Accomplished” banner in front of which he would like to stand.

The Orcs are still trying to break down the Ultimate Door of Closedness when horns call out. The Orcs rout – why?? – and Theoden, Aragorn, and the Rohirrim ride not out of the door, but out of Bakshi’s ass, apparently. The battle goes on for much too long, until Theoden in his Devo hat faces off against the remainder of the vast roto-Orc horde.

There’s a lot of staring; then the Orcs slowly approach while the Rohirrim back away nervously. The music swells, just as if there were something going on. Then… wait for it…

Wait for it…


Did I mention this was the longest American-made animated film ever?


Theoden yells out “GIIIIIINNNNNNNNDOOOOOO,” which means “Gandalf!” And roto-Gandalf comes riding over the hill, followed by roto Éomer and his Éomerry Éomen.

The Orcs rout again, despite the fact they still outnumber the good guys. Boy, Orcs suck. The music becomes a jaunty sea ditty, for some reason. Then Gandalf goes all Quentin Tarantino on us:

I guess Gandalf went medieval on his ass.

“The forces of darkness were driven forever from the face of Middle Earth, by the valiant friends of Frodo. As their valiant battle ended, so too ends the first great tale of The Lord of the Rings.”

Yep. That’s where it ends. Done, We’re not even finished with The Two Towers, much less The Return of the King.

End of bitingly sarcastic plot synopsis.

It’s not Bakshi’s fault there was never a proper sequel to finish the story. He always intended to shoot the second film; but despite JRRTLOTR’s box office success, his financial backers refused to finance a second installment. So this is all we get. (There was a sequel, an animated television special called The Return of the King, from the same people who brought us The Hobbit, and made in the same cheap, cartoony style. It’s the next thing I’m going to review, and I’m not looking forward to it.)

There are two factors that kept Bakshi from achieving what Sir Peter did with his Academy award-winning The Lord of the Rings film trilogy.

Bakshi inherited the project from Stanley Kubrick and John Boorman, which is like Dosso Dossi inheriting the Sistine Chapel project from Michelangelo and Leonardo. (Wow. A Dosso Dossi reference! I’m in top form today!) Bakshi, creator of Fritz the Cat and Cool World, is no Kubrick and no Boorman. He simply lacked the storytelling chops to create a truly epic film, even with a Peter Beagle screenplay. (Of course, who could have known that Peter Jackson, director of Bad Taste and The Frighteners, had an epic film in him? But he stepped up to the plate and hit it out of the park.)

Second, JRRTLOTR was made quickly and on the cheap, in relation to the scope of the story and what the source material deserved. Besides the rotoscoping, which I have already criticized to death, Bakshi hired a lot of young and inexperienced animators (he has a known animus against older union animators who like to support families and take bathroom breaks). Much of the traditional animation is sloppy and uneven; and despite using live action for reference, the character action is often unsubtle and ridiculous.

Bakshi spent a lot of time and money shooting the live action scenes, resources that I think would have been better spent animating. But in the end, it’s possible that $4 million 1970s dollars just wasn’t enough to properly make this film.

More info: JRRTLOTR and Rotoscoping on Wikipedia; JRRTLOTR on Amazon.com. See also: “Ugly Elves & Inflatable Orcs: Rankin/Bass’ 1977 ‘The Hobbit’ Reviewed.”

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