The Lord of the Rings (1978) (part 1 of 11)
[Webmaster’s Note: Special thanks to frequent contributor Jason Sartin for helping to edit this recap. Since I’m one of the few people in the world completely unfamiliar with The Lord of the Rings (the books and the movies), I had to insist that Jet and Jason come up with a recap that would be accessible to non-LOTR fans. So, even if you’ve never read a word of Tolkien, I think they’ve come up with a recap you’ll still enjoy. —Albert]
Well, here it is. The first attempt to bring Tolkien’s famous trilogy to the big screen. And before I attempt this recap, it’s confession time: I didn’t like the Lord of the Rings books.
Why? Well, the short answer is that, in my humble opinion, Tolkien lacked restraint and bogged down a potentially thrilling, involving tale with seventy-three textbooks’ worth of unnecessary, extraneous information. And if, like me, you found the Lord of the Rings novels confusing, under no circumstances should you attempt to use Ralph Bakshi’s lame cartoon adaptation to clarify any of the convoluted plot points and character backstories.
Oh yes. Lord of the Rings, the Animated Version. Oh dearie, dearie me. Where do I even begin describing what went wrong in outline, let alone in detail? Not only does it twist Tolkien’s elaborate world all out of coherence and make his characters as goofy and grating as possible, but it doesn’t even look any good. Yes, in addition to being impossible to follow, the animation is utterly hideous. I suspect if I hadn’t watched Peter Jackson’s infinitely superior adaptation first (which, admittedly, helped explain the books, too), I wouldn’t have had the faintest idea what was going on.
For a film where exposition is paramount, they hired a screenwriter who either knew nothing about the books, or expected everyone in the audience to know them by heart. Speaking as someone with only a passing acquaintance with the books, I found this massively irritating. Which is why I’ve happily jumped at the opportunity to apply my naturally bitter, sarcastic nature and show you exactly where this movie went wrong.
The movie’s biggest problem, of course, is they never actually finished it. Much like Monster A-Go-Go or When Time Ran Out… or any number of troubled productions, Bakshi’s LOTR was released uncompleted. It doesn’t end, so much as it just stops, with a few lines from the narrator hastily slapped on to give the impression that it’s a finished film.
And it’s not just the story that’s unfinished. The film was animated using rotoscoping, a technique where actors are filmed going through the motions, and then animated characters are drawn over them. Sadly, the budget obviously ran out about halfway through, because the process of animating was never finished. Hence, animated characters will suddenly become live actors with outlines drawn around them, and tinted really drab, hideous colours. And these changes don’t just happen from scene to scene; they often happen during a scene.
Hammering the nails even tighter into this movie’s coffin lid is the fact it was made in the ’70s. There were a lot of good things about the ’70s, but this movie chose to preserve some of the worst. In this case, that means lots of weird, psychedelic, pot-influenced imagery, and huge hair on every character that looks like a bouffant the size of a watermelon. It doesn’t get much more ’70s than that.
The movie opens with a blast of loud—and very dated—orchestral music. This is the sort of music they used in ’60s Disney movies, only scratchier, cheesier, and a thousand times more lifeless. It mostly puts me in mind of the famous theme from The Great Escape.
Most oddly, the opening scenes aren’t even animated. They’re just shots of actors filmed in silhouette through cloth, and tinted red. Yes, Bakshi is such a great animator, he didn’t even need to show us any actual animation to convince us of this fact. We watch as several unimpressive silhouette-mation characters pound on anvils with cardboard hammers. And then the second cousin of the Opening Expository Crawl, the Obnoxious Patronising Narrator, arrives to wreak his cruelty on us.
The narrator, who shall henceforth be known as OPN, has an incredibly old-fashioned British accent. Seriously, he sounds like a newsreader from the 1940s. And as an added bonus, he rolls all his Rs.
OPN begins lecturing us about how the Rings of Power were made and distributed to various rulers of elves, dwarfs and men. OPN goes on to make the incorrect assertion that the Dark Lord Sauron (ye gods, that name sounds so cheesy nowadays) learned how to make Rings after everybody else. Sorry, guys… that’s not what the books said. So, right off the bat, the scriptwriters tip us off that they didn’t bother to do much research. How bad is that? Right out of the gate, the movie’s getting stuff wrong that even I know, and I didn’t even like the books.
Anyhow, we’re briefly told about the One Ring and how it was made to control all the other rings, while some incredibly lousy “battle” scenes play out, still performed by live actors behind red cloth. It’s just a bunch of guys shuffling vaguely around in funny costumes, and here we get our first (and as it turns out, only) look at Sauron, basically a guy with a pair of horns on his head. Say it with me, everyone: “The Dark Lord demands… a shrubbery!“
Then some other guy (who looks exactly the same as every other guy: a humanoid shadow carrying a flimsy sword) saves the day by cutting the ring from the hand of the Knight Who Says “Ni”.
I’m sorry, but I’m at a loss to get across to you just how unconvincing this all looks. Mister Silhouetted Hero makes a really slow, weak swing with his sword, and the Knight Who Says “Ni” starts hopping around and clutching at his hand like he’s just been rapped across the knuckles with a ruler (yeah, like that). After which, we cut to the Ring itself rolling merrily around on the floor. What, no blood?
Mister Silhouetted Hero wanders around with the ring, while OPN rabbits on about how he should have destroyed it but didn’t, and how the Dark Lord’s (snicker) spirit lived on because of it. Much to my satisfaction, a bunch of orcs show up and shoot him (Mister Silhouetted Hero, not the narrator, sadly), causing him to fling his hands in the air like he’s had enough. I think I know how he feels, and we’re only five minutes into the film.
We’re then told briefly about the creation of the Ringwraiths (or, as OPN calls them, the Rrrrrrringwraiths), the now-evil owners of the other magical rings, who became Sauron’s slaves. A line of silhouetted horsemen ride over a silhouetted hill against a red sky. Sorry, guys, not buying the sinister nature of all this.
Then the weird, tinted background (no longer clothy) turns blue. (Wow! This movie has everything! Except more than two colours!) A couple of guys called Sméagol and Deagol find the Ring. These two are hobbits, which in this movie basically means they’re hairy-footed midgets. OPN describes how Sméagol killed Deagol for the Ring. Oh no! They just killed someone whose only defining attribute was his terrible acting!
The background becomes Red Cloth again, while Sméagol, now twisted by the Ring’s power, becomes the evil insane monster Gollum. The way OPN informs us of this is ludicrously overdone; To approximate the effect, read this out loud in your best William Shatner voice:
|“They grew to despise the creature, and they began to call him… Gollum!“|
Cut to the Ring deciding to ditch its new owner, and it bounces over some rocks. It’s now fully animated (the Ring, that is; everything else stays in silhouette), and I gotta say, it looks more like a tap washer than a piece of jewellery. So, in order to stop insulting Tolkien (I did like The Hobbit, and I probably owe the man a modicum of respect, which the filmmakers assuredly did not give him), I’m going to stop calling it the Ring and start calling it the Tap Washer of Doom.
The Ring—sorry, the Tap Washer—lands on the ground and is picked up by a silhouetted shortarse in a cape with a hood. Anyone care to guess who it is? Yes, it’s Bilbo Baggins! Yay! Bilbo gets chased away by Gollum, who’s now a tall, skinny silhouette with the shaggiest pigtails ever.