The Lord of The Rings (1978)

The Lord of the Rings by Ralph Bakshi, 1978
The Lord of the Rings by Ralph Bakshi, 1978

The Lord of The Rings (1978)

Forget Peter Jackson. Forget Elijah Wood. Forget dozens of guys running around in rubber prosthetics.

Instead feast your eyes on Ralph Bakshi‘s glorious animated failure, ‘The Lord of the Rings’. Okay, how can you have a glorious failure, you ask? Well, it’s what happens when you take one of the greatest Fantasy trilogies of all time, squeeze the first two books into an epic animated version using innovative film techniques over the course of two hectic years, release the first part with the promise of a sequel, and then falter exhaustedly at the mixed critical and audience reaction.

A failure, yes, but what a failure.

In fact the movie recouped its budget several times over on its premiere in 1978, and most critics regarded it as a flawed but masterly effort to bring to the big screen a subject many believed could never be given cinematic form. But the effort and strain of producing the film version of the first two books of the Lord of the Rings nearly broke Bakshi, financially and otherwise, and he never returned to a project that left him with a bittersweet legacy. Which is truly a shame. Despite all its problems, its veering away from the original source materials, its compressing of the storyline and editing out of key sections, the movie remains an imaginative and enjoyable vision of Tolkien’s great epic.

The film looks beautiful with lushly drawn landscapes and interiors that are a feast for the eye. The characters are artistically realised and distinctive, animated with a real-life verve. The voicing is pitch perfect, with a host of notable British actors and actresses contributing some fine performances. Yes there are a few fumbles or quibbles (not least the infamous tendency to pronounce ‘Saruman’ as ‘Aruman’) but otherwise all is well here. The music too deserves a special mention being far and above the average animated sound track, the result of proper orchestration and direction.

Some of the special animated techniques, in particular the rotoscope effect where real persons are filmed and then carefully drawn over, work surprisingly well. Though some animation purists criticized the rotoscoping it more than justifies itself. In some scenes, in particular those featuring the Black Riders, they are undoubtedly rendered more effective and lifelike than any traditional animation techniques could have achieved. However this only added to cost and labour of what became an exhausting movie to produce for all involved (it should be noted that a young Tim Burton was one of the animators).

Though initially denying any inspiration from Bakshi’s movie Peter Jackson did later admit that the animated version was the cinematic source for his own later (and much more famous and successful) live-action ‘Lord of the Rings’ epic. In fact he saw the film long before he read the Tolkien books. Today Ralph Bakshi’s ‘Lord of the Rings’ is regarded as one of the better and more innovative animated movies of the last forty years and remains a favourite among many fans of both Tolkien and Fantasy, despite its admitted flaws.

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