Last year I reviewed the 1977 Rankin/Bass cartoon adaptation of The Hobbit. Today I’ll be taking a look at another such cartoon: Ralph Bakshi’s 1978 attempt to bring The Lord of the Rings to the screen. As I did with the Hobbit cartoon—and as I’m planning to do with the final instalment in the cartoon trilogy—I began by live-tweeting as I watched Bakshi’s film, the highlights of which can be found here. As I had feared going into this, Bakshi largely failed to capture quite what he needed to capture with this one.
Bakshi vs. Rankin/Bass
I regret to say, however, that although I will try to keep this review orderly, I cannot review Bakshi’s The Lord of the Rings in the same format as I did the Rankin/Bass Hobbit. This is because the problems with Bakshi’s version are not only less numerous than those of Rankin/Bass, but they’re also entirely different problems. Whereas Rankin/Bass gave me a new reason to complain with each passing scene, the things wrong with the Bakshi adaptation are constant but don’t really increase much as the film progresses. Only at a few points was I struck with an utterly ridiculous choice on Bakshi’s part. I almost wish this cartoon had been worse, because at least then I could have felt something while watching it other than a dull boredom as it merely failed to live up to what it needed to be—what Peter Jackson’s film would eventually succeed in being.
A Film for Adults
In case it wasn’t clear, let’s get this straight; Bakshi’s version is many times better than the Rankin/Bass version. There’s no comparison. Rankin/Bass got almost everything wrong because they tried to make the story appropriate for children; they removed all the character development, dark themes, and emotion from the story, and all we were left with was a half-formed I-can’t-believe-it’s-not-a-holiday-special. Bakshi, on the other hand, did at least treat the source material as a story for adults, and the result is just about the best one might expect of a Tolkien adaptation from a New York hentai director.
What Can a Hentai Director Accomplish?
I also think Sir Peter Jackson had the advantage of being from New Zealand, part of the British Commonwealth; I think that helps when working with great British literature. So, what can a director of American cartoon porn really accomplish?
The late John Hurt, who played Kilgharrah in BBC’s Merlin, gives the film’s best performance as Aragorn, although parts of the script have him laughing like the psychotic Sir Lancelot in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Most of the cast, in fact, does a good job. Butterbur, the innkeeper at the Prancing Pony, was the best-adapted character in the cartoon, and one might even argue that he was closer to the book than his New Zealand counterpart, which would make him the only thing Bakshi did better than (or even equivalent to) the live-action film. The scenes with Butterbur are the only ones that stood out to me while watching this. This is why I can’t review this in the same way as the Rankin/Bass cartoon; were I to go through every scene, I’d just be repeating, “this scene was okay, but Peter Jackson did it better” ad nauseam, because apart from Butterbur there’s nothing here that leaves much of an impression.
Now it comes time to do what you’ve probably been waiting this whole time for me to do—talk about all the things that Bakshi’s adaptation gets wrong. Although they are fewer and less severe than their Rankin/Bass equivalents, there are a few that stood out to me. The first of these was the music. You see, when a film is set in a fantasy world that came into being through the music of the gods, it had better have a damn good score accompanying it! Howard Shore’s score for Peter Jackson’s movies was perfect in every way, beautifully capturing the Great Music of the Ainur, the beating of orc drums, and everything in between. Leonard Rosenman composed the music for the Ralph Bakshi’s ‘70s adaptation, and what this cartoon got was a score that even the director hated!
The orc chanting during the solarized battle at Helm’s Deep was alright (nowhere near as good as the Howard Shore equivalent), but everything else about Rosenman’s score is awful. Aside from getting the emotions wrong most of the time, the score is the most clichéd ’70s fantasy score I’ve ever heard, which on its own would have made it unworthy of Tolkien’s work. Unfortunately it gets worse. The derivative and upbeat main theme is best described with a quote from My Little Pony:
“Of all the worst things that could happen, this is the worst possible thing!”
Rosenman really couldn’t have picked a worse six notes to serve as the score’s central motif—especially bad when you think of Howard Shore’s “Fellowship Theme,” a sequence of perfectly-placed notes, nine of which represent the nine companions.
The Man in the Moon Stayed Up Too Late
It’s not just the score that the cartoon gets wrong; the songs too are wrong. While at the inn of the Prancing Pony, Frodo sings a song called “The Man in the Moon Stayed Up Too Late.” Now, Tolkien had an amazing talent for making the rhythm and melody of a song clear as day even if all you’ve to go on are the lyrics. Nowhere is this more apparent than in this song:
There is an inn, a merry old inn
beneath an old grey hill,
And there they brew a beer so brown
That the Man in the Moon himself came down
One night to drink his fill.
Of course, Peter Jackson’s films got this song right despite changing who sings it, which character wrote it, and a few words here and there. In the end, all such changes were unimportant because the song was essentially the same song in the movie as in the book—many cover versions change more about their sources. More important than the exact words is that it still sounds like a pub song. Guess what happened in the cartoon… That’s right; they completely screwed it up!
There is an inn, a merry old inn
beneath an old grey hill,
And there they brew a beer so brown
That you would never believe it
So pass the beer all around.
This doesn’t sound like a pub song, and it certainly doesn’t sound like the song from the book. The tone is too gentle for a rowdy drinking song. While this isn’t nearly as much of a problem as the cartoon’s score, it’s still irritating that they couldn’t even manage to get this one song right.
Aruman the Red
Now we come to the next big problem; Bakshi mispronounces almost every name in the story when there’s a perfectly good appendix at the back of the book that could have told him everything! The first we hear is “Soron” instead of Sauron, followed by “Ihzldur” instead of Isildur, and it doesn’t end there. Then we hear the worst one of them all: Aruman the Red! Because this film has to fail at just one more thing, they decided that audiences were too thick to tell the difference between the names of Sauron and Saruman. Therefore they changed Saruman’s name to Aruman—instead of doing what any sensible person would do and picking from his already extensive list of alternate names (perhaps “Sharku” or “Curunír”?). Then to make things confusing they don’t actually say Aruman every time he’s mentioned, so we wind up with a character who’s called by his right name only half the time; the rest of the time we flinch as they shout “Aruman!” On the subject of Aruman the Red, he wears a red robe instead of white or many-coloured. He also has a squeaky Monk Gyatso-type voice that projects about as much power as Fluttershy’s.
If you want to know a few more names this film gets wrong, there’s “Sellaborn” instead of Celeborn, “Thiodan” instead of Théoden, “Graima” instead of Gríma, and “Bélin” instead of Balin. I’m sure I’ve missed a few.
The way the characters look is almost universally wrong. Very few characters or costumes resemble their descriptions, including elves all wearing the wrong colours, Elrond looking like Gaston (and one can assume being especially good at expectorating), Legolas dressing in white instead of shades of green and brown, Legolas’s bow looking stupid, Gimli being the same height as Legolas, Boromir (who comes from the most technologically advanced place in Middle-Earth) looking like a Bronze Age German berserk, and (my personal favourite) almost no one wearing pants even when they’re freezing to death!
Most of the hobbits look horrible, and almost none of them have pointy ears. In fact, not a single hobbit in this cartoon has pointy ears all the time, though some ears vary from frame to frame. This is where the problems with animation begin. You’d think the elves, at least, would have pointy ears, but the dwarves are six feet tall so why should the elves fit their descriptions? Fewer elves have pointy ears than hobbits in this thing! Most of the character designs, for that matter, just look odd. I’m not the first to point out that the orcs in this look like the Sand People from Star Wars, and I won’t be the last. The wargs don’t look scary at all. Worse than that is that everyone keeps smiling and tilting their heads at inappropriate times, and it ends up feeling like none of the characters are taking this seriously.
Few of the settings look like the book’s descriptions; Hobbiton, for instance, looks like Buckland. Treebeard looks like something out of Loony Tunes. The Eye of Sauron, also called the “Red Eye,” is described in the book thusly:
The Eye was rimmed with fire, but was itself glazed, yellow as a cat’s, watchful and intent, and the black slit of its pupil opened on a pit, a window into nothing.
Well, in the cartoon it’s a psychedelic design of blue and green:
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this film is the animation. As I understand from the “making of” documentary, Bakshi didn’t know how he was going to animate a film like this till he discovered the technique known as rotoscoping (shooting the film in live-action and then tracing over it to make a cartoon). Now, rotoscoping doesn’t have to look terrible; some of the best animation I’ve seen was done in a similar way. The rotoscoping isn’t the problem. The problem is that cuts to the film’s budget led to the animators cutting corners, which led in turn to the film being littered with animation errors—a character’s ears being pointy in one frame and round in the next, for instance. It doesn’t help that many of the character designs are horrible. All this can make the film hard to watch, but it’s nothing compared to the biggest problem with the animation.
In addition to cutting corners in the rotoscoped frames, many shots in the film aren’t even rotoscoped at all. Instead, to save money, these shots were solarized, leading to an unpleasant red cast that makes it bloody painful to watch. It’s hard to see what the characters look like due to the horrible contrast. This becomes a big problem in the Battle of Helm’s Deep, as the solarized scenes take up the majority of the battle. The worst part of this is that one shot might consist mostly of blue tones and the next of all red. It’s incredibly jarring.
What I don’t understand is why it had to be a cartoon at all. All that did was force them to cut corners by solarizing certain scenes, which looks awful. They had actors in costumes, and from what I’ve seen of the shots before they were rotoscoped and solarized, they were far easier on the eyes. Had they been able to make it look good, then I might be able to see where they were coming from, but as it is, I think sticking with live-action would have resulted in a better-looking film than what they ended up with. If they shot it in live-action, then why on earth did they have to go to all this trouble to make it look so horrible?
Samwise the Stouthearted
Now all that’s out of the way, I think there’s just one thing left to discuss. Unfortunately, it happens to be the worst thing about Ralph Bakshi’s adaptation: the main character! You see, in the book, Samwise Gamgee is brave, humble, and above all loyal to the end. He’s not exactly the wisest in the Fellowship, but he’s got enough wisdom to get both himself and Frodo to Orodruin—and strength enough to carry his friend up its slopes. So what does Bakshi do with the greatest hero in all of literature? Why, he turns him into a blithering idiot, of course!
Samwise Pumblesnook the Troll
In stark contrast to the chief hero of the book, the Sam of the cartoon is a strange mix of Mrs. Pumblesnook (from Philip Ardagh’s A House Called Awful End) and Stanley the Troll (from Don Bluth’s worst movie, A Troll in Central Park). He is unhelpful and annoying, always shouting things like,
“Ooooh! Oooh, Hooray!”
Michael Scholes, whoever he is, does an absolutely terrible job at voicing Sam. Even if Sean Astin hadn’t nailed the role, this version would still have been bad—really bad. Scholes reads lines from the book the way Denise Richards read lines about nuclear physics in The World is Not Enough—that is, he audibly doesn’t understand them. He’s also probably the worst-animated character in the cartoon. Almost all the characters in Bakshi’s version flail their arms like Lelouch vi Britannia on drugs, but Sam is the worst. Unlike Lelouch’s grandiose gestures, however, the movements in this cartoon are erratic and don’t make sense. One scene ends with Sam randomly walking off to stage-right and out of the shot, which left me confused as to what purpose this served. Bakshi’s character design for Sam is terrible; as I said, he looks like Stanley the Troll.
Peter Jackson’s adaptation isn’t perfect, but it’s still a great movie and a great adaptation. Bakshi’s, on the other hand, is exactly what you’d expect from a ‘70s fantasy cartoon. I feel sorry for Ralph Bakshi because despite all his hard work and passion, forces outside his control conspired to make his adaptation less than it could have been. That is not to say that it was all out of his control, as a low budget cannot be blamed for turning the subtle hero of the book into a buffoon. It can, however, be blamed for the horrible ending. As the Battle of Helm’s Deep draws to a close, Théoden shouts,
Obviously Gondor isn’t involved in the battle so I can only assume that Théoden just forgot what kingdom he’s the king of. After a truly laughable battle scene, Gandalf throws his sword into the air, and we get the final narration:
“The forces of darkness were driven forever from the face of Middle-Earth by the valiant friends of Frodo. As their gallant battle ended, so too ends the first great tale of The Lord of the Rings!”
Not a single thing about this makes any sense whatsoever! “Driven forever from the face of Middle-Earth”? Apparently the people in charge wouldn’t let Bakshi release a sequel because “people aren’t going to pay to see the first half of a movie,” so they forced him to end the story at Helm’s Deep. Also, “the first great tale…”? If the forces of darkness have been driven forever from the face of Middle-Earth, then there’s not exactly going to be a second great tale, is there? The ending is definitely one of the worst things about the film, despite the title of “worst” going to Bakshi’s portrayal of Samwise.
A Cartoon’s Impact
This is what happens when you make The Lord of the Rings into an American ‘70s cartoon. I wouldn’t exactly call it “terrible,” but it’s certainly bad, whether or not Ralph Bakshi was to blame for it. Despite Bakshi’s apparent passion in interviews, the result comes across as rather soulless, following each plot-point without much flare or passion shining through. In the end, having watched this, I was left feeling nothing, because that’s likely what most of the people involved felt while making this. At least Rankin/Bass’ was something to be hated!
The only good scenes I remember from this are scenes like the one in which we first see the Nazgûl, which clearly served as the inspiration for scenes in Peter Jackson’s version. Indeed, it is doubtful that the twelve-hour film that I love would have ever come to be without Bakshi’s having come before it. For all the things it does right or wrong, however, it leaves little impression. Really, all this cartoon did was pave the way for Peter Jackson to make his movie, for which I am eternally grateful.