Bakshi and The Ring
Well, everyone, it’s happening, we’re coming up on the 20th anniversary of Peter Jackson’s adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, which means it’s the season for comprehensive retrospectives on all things Tolkien. Jackson’s adaptation is an undeniable triumph: both a lushly realized, cohesive vision of the text, and a masterpiece of savvy fandom marketing.
Jackson made extremely effective use of the internet during production, curating an official fan club that lent the production a sense of authority and consensus. Whatever disagreements over adaptational decisions, the boxed set Extended Edition DVDs still stand as a masterpiece of filmmaking and an undeniable set of bonafides, the display of a passion project wrought on a scale that comes along once in a lifetime, with dozens of hours of documentary combing over every minute detail of the process and effort that went into lovingly rendering the world. But, before we all get swept away in that fervor, like Nazgul in the river, I wanted to turn some attention towards Ralph Bakshi’s 1978 adaptation.
[Swelling Music] Now, I’m not setting out here to pit these adaptations against each other, but comparison is unavoidable. The Jackson trilogy looms large in culture, monolithic even. Not only is it the first version of the story an entire generation was exposed to, it has effectively mediated an agreed-upon interpretation of the text by virtue of its success as an adaptation, by virtue of looking and feeling “right” to the audience’s eye, whatever that nebulous word means in this context. Bakshi’s version is undeniably far more fraught. It is less cohesive, more reliant on an existing familiarity with the source material, frustratingly paced, and ultimately incomplete. It is often more accurate, more strictly faithful
to the text, but just as often more hollow, with details that are true to the literal words on the page while missing the underlying point of those words. But it’s not without its merits. Many of the adaptation decisions are interesting or excellent in their own right, presenting an interpretation of the text that is wildly different, but just as compelling as Jackson’s. It is technologically decades ahead of itself, biting off far more than it can chew in pursuit of technological solutions that are now standard practice.
This is a source of a lot of the film’s inconsistency, but it’s definitely a fascinating inconsistency. There is, all-in-all a lot more to it than just being a weird early crack at a fantasy epic, and I think that’s worth talking about. So let me tell you the story of a coked-out pervert from Brooklyn and the movie he so desperately wanted to make. [Bombastic orchestral music]
First of all, The Lord of the Rings, the book, was not a runaway hit in the United States. While the component novels were published in the US within six months of their respective UK releases, the publisher, Houghton Mifflin, under-estimated how popular the books would be. The Hobbit had been successful, but that was a children’s book released almost twenty years earlier. A lot had changed in America since 1937, and so the initial print run of Fellowship was only 1500 copies. Now, if you only print 1500 copies it’s hard to sell more than 1500 copies.
So even though that print run did sell out it’s not a clear indicator of the actual audience for the book and doesn’t really give you a good idea of how many you should have printed. Consequently it took years for sales to ramp up as Houghton Mifflin opted to trickle import copies from the UK instead of issuing new print runs. Somewhere in the early 1960s this triggered a protectionist policy in US copyright law that, at the time, mandated a domestic manufacturing quota.
Failing to meet the quota, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings fell into the public domain in the United States where they sat until a law was passed in 1994 to restore the copyright to a number of similarly odd cases where otherwise still-copyrighted foreign works had fallen into public domain in the US as a consequence of noncompliance with formalities like manufacturing requirements. But, point is, even though sales of the books had picked up dramatically over the course of the 60s, particularly gaining traction with the counterculture crowd who identified with Tolkien’s pastoral environmentalism, many of these publications, like the 150,000 copy Ace Books paperback printing in 1965, weren’t licensed and paid no royalties back to Tolkien. This sparked a publicity battle over the issue, with Tolkien working with Ballantine books to produce an authoritative authorized paperback edition, but is also when the books finally surge in popularity, a decade after their initial publication.
By the 1970s the Tolkien estate was actively courting adaptations of JRR’s work, since a licensed adaptation would actually pay royalties, and interest was finally there. In 1969 United Artists purchased the international film rights to Lord of the Rings directly from Tolkien and they started trying to get a viable script and interested director. The idea of a film version of Lord of the Rings had already been floating around for years, with various speculative projects dating back to the 50s, but while the counterculture crowd that had latched on to the books was increasingly proving to be a viable economic bloc, it was still not quite mainstream popular, which limited the possible budget of any project. United Artists didn’t have much luck, their attempts to get a full Lord of the Rings project rolling largely fell apart as the books developed a reputation of being “unfilmable,” not because it was impossible, but because the budget would never be there to do justice to the book’s many grand locations and fanciful sets. The story was simply too long to realistically compress into a single film, but setting out to make multiple films without assured success was folly, and surely audiences would revolt over an incomplete story. Any attempt at the time would be too compromised to satisfy the book’s fans, and too cheap looking to satisfy anyone else.
Then along comes an animator named Ralph Bakshi. Born in Palestine, but raised in Brooklyn, Ralph Bakshi is, ya know, a bit of a character. Everyone else is behind. I’m not ahead. I’m doing what’s right for an artist who’s
doing what he believes in. I'm not ahead of my times. What I am is honest. What they are is dishonest. He cut his teeth as an animator in the 1950s and 60s at Terrytoons and Paramount working on television shows like Mighty Mouse, Deputy Dawg, and Spider-Man before pivoting to feature films in the 1970s.
The Lord of the Rings was Bakshi’s fifth feature film as a director and it is notable as both a culmination of his technical interests as an animator, utilizing mixed media as both a cost saving and aesthetic tool, and the ways in which it deviates from Bakshi’s normal narrative style. Bakshi was raised in the densely urban Brooklyn neighbourhood of Brownsville, a historically poor neighbourhood that while originally dominated by Jewish factory workers saw a heavy influx of Black residents through the 40s, 50s, and 60s. This multiracial urban milieu forms the foundation of his early theatrical work, his first three films are all considered part of the urban street film genre, but, before that, alright, to put this career in context we need to back up to the sixties again. The sixties were not kind to theatrical animation in America. Owing to shifts in the way that movies were exhibited, starting in the 50s, shorts became less financially viable, and so most of the money for animation shifted to the rapidly expanding market of television, which Hanna-Barbera and Warner Brothers dominated.
Theatrical animation was largely the domain of Walt Disney, both the company and the man. Walt had been an absolutely titanic figure in the medium for decades, but on that front things were not great: his health was declining, and the output of the studio dropped precipitously leading up to his death in 1966. While the studio had managed to put out a new animated feature approximately every fifteen months on average over the course of the 40s and 50s, they only managed to complete three films in the 60s: One Hundred and One Dalmatians, The Sword in the Stone, and The Jungle Book, the animation studio relying mostly on reissues of their back catalogue for the decade. While these films performed commercially well, The Jungle Book in particular being a huge hit releasing in 1967 as Walt Disney’s final film, they were not particularly challenging. These were interwoven with re-issues of Bambi, Pinocchio, Cinderella, Snow White, Fantasia, and Peter Pan. And the follow up, the first feature after Walt’s death, is 1970’s The Artistocats, which is just the absolute pinnacle of Disney’s historical reputation for anodyne garbage.
So this is what feature animation looks like if you’re a twenty-something in 1970, this is what you’ve grown up with. There’s other stuff, of course, there’s always something on the periphery, but overwhelmingly the legacy of theatrical animation is safe, bright, unscary, trapped decades in the past, and slowly dying. In 1968 Ralph Bakshi, moving into his 30s and frustrated with the stagnant status quo of the industry, broke away and formed his own animation studio in Brooklyn. Initially the studio found work on shows like Rocket Robin Hood and Spider-Man, but Bakshi had ambitions to move into feature films. He had a number of projects already in mind,
including The Lord of the Rings which he had fallen in love with after the books really broke out in the 60s. While he would spend years working on a half dozen projects in parallel, particularly trying to get in good graces with United Artists who held the film rights for Lord of the Rings, the first film he was able to secure full funding for was an adaptation of comic artist Robert Crumb’s underground hit Fritz the Cat. Released in 1972 with an X rating the film was perverted, juvenile, rambling, gratuitously violent, unfocused, aggressively political, and a huge success. Despite the rating limiting distribution options, the spectacle of a cartoon that was the opposite of all things Disney drew in a worldwide audience to the tune of $90 million dollars against a budget of somewhere between $700,000 and $1.3 million.
Following the success of Fritz the Cat Bakshi was able to fund and distribute the animated quasi-autobiography, pseudo-crime film Heavy Traffic, released in 1973. While not the astronomic success of Fritz, Heavy Traffic made decent money against its comparably slim budget and is considered a box office success. Both of these films did well with critics and remain artistically relevant. Personally I think Heavy Traffic is the better of the two, and certainly Bakshi’s best film from the era, though it does encapsulate Bakshi’s overall sensibilities as a creative.
There is a fixation on Black culture, the complicated racial identity of being Jewish in America, a deep and total distrust of police, disillusionment with the results of the counterculture movement, and a keen sense of the ways the structure of society is arranged to maintain an underclass. Artistically there is a fascination with the idea of capturing reality. Photographs of real locations are used as trace references for backgrounds in Fritz, and many backgrounds in Heavy Traffic are just stylized photographs. Both films use some documentary recording for secondary dialogue, captured by Bakshi while walking around Harlem and Brooklyn or interviewing people he met on the streets or in bars.
>> Man 1: Look, I’m paying my taxes. >> Woman: The money is what’s happening. >> Man 1: Hey! >> Woman: See what I mean? See what I mean? >> Man 1: No, what I’m talking about >> Woman: It all counts, that is what’s happening, I’m talking about as far as, like, if you wanna be revolutionary you get some bread first, and then you can talk trash. >> Man 2: Whitey blind us with religion. There’s also a pervasive horniness as it’s rare to go an entire scene with a woman without a breast popping out for no reason, the slapstick humour of Terrytoons is often extended into bloody hyperviolence, and there is a complicated relationship with queer characters. While Bakshi’s eye as a director is certainly
sympathetic to drag queens, trans women, and gay men, they clearly form an integral part of the real spaces and communities that he tries to simulate in his art, narratively they tend to be present just long enough to be physically brutalized as a condemnation of police and bigots. While these two films demonstrated that adult-oriented animation could be financially and critically successful, not much really changed in the wider perception of animation. These films were still essentially novelties. While there was some attempt by others to capitalize on the success of Bakshi’s films in America, this mostly took the form of distributors quickly repackaging English dubs of adult animation from Japan and Europe. Bakshi would follow this up with his most controversial film, Coonskin, an adaptation of the Uncle Remus stories transplanting them from the rural American South into a gangster story in Harlem. While this movie occupies something of a place alongside contemporary blaxploitation films like Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, Dolemite, and Shaft, and has been praised for the depth of the references in its adaptation, such as including details from the African myths that predate Uncle Remus, it also heavily utilizes historical racist caricature and minstrel imagery. There’s a lot of debate about the artistic intent behind the film, whether or not the use of this imagery is intended to shock and shame the white institutions that created the imagery in the first place, how effective it is at that, and whether or not protests of the film in 1975 were justified, but reflecting on it 45 years later the main thing that stands out to me is a sort of fixation at play, like Bakshi just wanted to also make a blaxploitation film, a genre that sprang out of the kinds of neighbourhoods that he grew up in, and out of a community that he saw himself as a part of.
And reception was far from universal. The Congress of Racial Equality protested it, the NAACP supported it as a “difficult satire”, and according to Bakshi the Wu Tang Clan love it. It’s a very complicated intersection of politics and influences that ultimately hinge on the question of whether or not this was Bakshi’s story to tell. Modern commentators have compared it favorably to Childish Gambino’s “This is America” And I guess at the end of the day the meat of the film is that the cops and the Mafia suck. [Indistinct Italian Noises] Coonskin was not successful, and did slow the momentum on Bakshi’s career, but it was still a relatively inexpensive film and the failure was not a fatal blow to his career as a director.
During post-production on Coonskin Bakshi came up with the concept for Hey Good Lookin’, another street film, this time set in the fifties, but one in which animated and live-action characters would interact. Warner Brothers agreed to finance the film in 1973, and the live action footage was shot, largely improvisationally, in early 74. However the film would never be completed as originally conceived, as the process of having live action and animated characters interact proved to be too labour intensive to complete on the film’s budget of 1.5 million. A rotoscoping rig was built at Bakshi’s Brooklyn studio to try and speed up the animation process, but a series of conflicts between Bakshi and Warner Brothers led to the film’s release date being pushed back several times before being shelved indefinitely. While Hey Good Lookin’ was trapped in post-production hell, Bakshi would release his first “family friendly” feature, Wizards, which is also a departure from his urban-life focused films into an explicit genre film. “Family friendly” is a bit of a weird misnomer here, though, as the film is still deliberately aimed at adults rather than an all-ages crowd, but it’s also a lot tamer with less sex, gore, and profanity.
The film was moderately successful, enough to keep it from being considered a flop, which is somewhat impressive given that the movie is quite bad. Aside from some notable iconography and some compelling backgrounds the flow of the film suffers from all the disjointed scene composition of Bakshi’s earlier films. While that works for Heavy Traffic, a film about powerless characters trying to find their way in a disjointed world, it really works against a film that’s so plot-heavy there’s an entire movie's worth of story dumped on the audience in the prologue. Illuminating history bearing on the everlasting struggle for world supremacy The first blast was set off by five terrorists It was a big day in Montegar Delia felt a pull from the sky The older fairy knew instantly that these were not ordinary twins The day will come, my brother, where I will return and make this a planet where mutants rule Politically the film is bizarre. It is clearly working through a lot of opinions about the anti-war movement, the protagonists are mostly twee fairies from a literal fantasy land of mushrooms and rainbows who are mowed down by machine gun wielding mutants hopped up on Nazi propaganda until the bearded wizard ends the war by shooting skeleton Hitler, but those opinions haven’t been worked enough to make them coherent or interesting, and the end result flips rapidly between unbearably treacle and deeply cynical.
It’s not cohesive in style, the characters look like they’re from completely different films, it’s horny in a way that’s leering and uncomfortable rather than sexy, and it’s pretty boring. The most notable elements of the film are all historical trivia. The film was being financed by Fox, and Bakshi found himself in budget meetings with George Lucas, who was working on Star Wars at the time, and the two became professional acquaintances. George asked Ralph to change the working title
of War Wizards to avoid conflict with Star Wars, and Ralph agreed because George let Mark Hamil take time off from Star Wars to record a part in Wizards. I’m Shaun, leader of the Knights of Stardust and protectors of Dolan, king of the mountain fairies. It’s also the first film where Bakshi really experimented with mixing in stylized live action footage, utilizing various rotoscoping and xerox techniques, to save budget on animating large battle scenes. The film was moderately successful, but Ralph’s goodwill towards George Lucas came to an end when Star Wars, released three weeks after Wizards, largely replaced it in theatres. Parallel to the production of most of these films Bakshi pesters United Artists, who have been stalling out on all their attempts at getting a Lord of the Rings film rolling.
Bakshi says he pitched UA on an animated Lord of the Rings in 72 and 73, but they didn’t bite. Then in 75 he convinces Mike Medavoy to give him a chance, and Medavoy agrees, loosely, to two or three films plus something Hobbit related. Problem was United Artists already had a script written in 1970 by then-tv-writer John Boorman, who at this point in 1975 had just written and directed Zardoz.
The gun is good There was some conflict over the script, because, [coughing] well, it is absolutely buckwild with a Galadriel/Frodo sex scene, Aragorn and Boromir kissing passionately with Arwen’s blood on their lips, the history of the ring presented as a rock opera at the Council of Elrons, and Gimli is rebirthed in mud to recall the ancient ancestral password to Moria. Bakshi convinced Dan Melnyk at MGM to buy out the project so that they could throw the script out and start over, which they do. So Bakshi starts over on the script with novice screenwriter Chris Conkling, but when Dan Melnick gets ousted from MGM in 1976 the new producer, Dick Shepherd, doesn’t seem to know or care about the project at all, so Bakshi gets in touch with Saul Zaentz, who had helped him finance Fritz back in 71, and convinces him to buy out the project from MGM, thus landing the thing back at United Artists. Incidentally Zaentz goes beyond this, buying out the entirety of Tolkien’s film, stage, and merchandising rights, which starts a chain reaction that would eventually lead, decades later, to the troubled production that resulted in The Hobbit: Battle of Five Armies Why does it hurt so much? Unsatisfied with Conkling’s work Bakshi and Zaentz sideline him and hire Peter S. Beagle, author of The Last Unicorn, to do a rewrite, which Bakshi and Zaentz are mostly happy with, and finally in 1976 a theatrical Lord of the Rings film is full-steam-ahead. Before the movie even hits theatres, though, it has two complications.
The first is obviously Bakshi’s reputation and style. Is Gandalf going to whip his dick out and piss off the bridge of Khazad-Dum? Will pipe-weed be some dank bud? Who knows. The second is Rankin/Bass, an American production company that mostly made seasonal television specials by outsourcing animation to Japan. Rankin/Bass had been working on an adaptation of The Hobbit as a TV special since 72, and it was looking to broadcast by 77. Additionally they had already storyboarded a sequel to their Hobbit film utilizing large chunks of The Return of the King. Both of these would conflict with any Lord of the Rings film United Artists produced, particularly once Bakshi convinced them the film could be done justice if it were animated, since audiences would assume they were all related.
But, since the books were still public domain, Rankin/Bass could do whatever they wanted, at least within the US, and a lawsuit to intervene succeeded only in securing a broadcast agreement in Canada. Mm, my precious, will it taste delicious? Bakshi’s production, even after settling down at United Artists, was tumultuous, but mostly in a way that’s probably better described as indecisive. The script was overhauled several times, mostly because of arguments about how much of the books should or could be adapted into a single movie.
Bakshi and Beagle ultimately pushed for two movies, the first encompassing Fellowship and Two Towers, and intended for this film to be subtitled Part 1, but United Artists waffled on committing to a second film. They didn’t outright say no, in a way that would have pushed the production to commit everything to one film, or make it more conclusive, but they also left the fate of Part 2 in the hazy realm of “let’s wait and see what happens.” Of course as history has already borne out, the sequel was never produced, and the film ends with a disorientingly quick resolution where Gandalf implies that the Battle of Helm’s Deep is in fact the deciding moment of victory, end of story. Released in 1978, reaction was lukewarm, but broadly positive and not terribly harsh. Most of Bakshi’s idiosyncrasies as a director are either absent or under control. Sort of. It’s certainly the least juvenile, no one
whips their dick out, everyone’s tits stay inside their shirts, there’s no random comedy skits inserted haphazardly to pad runtime, and the adaptation is certainly faithful in the sense that the vast majority of the dialogue is copied directly from the books. But, and this is probably its greatest flaw, it still exhibits Bakshi’s inability to focus on the story at hand. Jackson’s films, especially Fellowship, are an illustrative comparison here.
Jackson’s films are focused and cohesive. It’s an adventure story about big events and big emotions, the unbreakable bond of friendship forged in adversity, the pain of loss, and swelling moments of triumph. You bow to no one. Jackson gets how the characters and plot interweave, that it’s explicitly a story about how this big adventure changes the characters, and if you don’t have both then you don’t have the whole. So here’s the problem: Bakshi just isn’t very good at plot or pacing.
He learned his craft working on slapstick cartoons, and his first three films are effectively just a series of vignettes. Heavy Traffic is an urban slice-of-life film and Fritz the Cat and Coonskin are both adapted from explicitly episodic material. This is not strictly a criticism, it works in Heavy Traffic, it’s not a bad style, there’s nothing wrong with vignette storytelling, it just needs the right material. But then you get Wizards, which is supposed to be this really plot-driven adventure story, heavy on worldbuilding, and it’s just a meandering mess.
Unimportant skits drag for minutes, action scenes repeat stock battle clips endlessly, and important moments resolve in seconds. While less extreme than Wizards, this is unfortunately the main failing of Lord of the Rings. Bakshi was, for most of the 70s, both extremely busy, juggling multiple productions simultaneously, and also allegedly on a lot of drugs. It’s just not a state of mind that’s really conducive to making a film that maintains a tight focus for two and a half hours, and it shows.
The film has a lot of content to try and fit into its runtime, and yet the flight at the ford is an interminably long prog rock jam session of Frodo falling off a horse. The story is presented very literally, lifted straight from the novels, but with little weight for how it all connects together. This creates a notable problem when the film transitions from Fellowship into Two Towers, because the adaptation is so faithful to the books that it feels like you’re at the end of the movie, but it just keeps going.
Also the second half of the film is pretty weak. The sequences get really muddled, a lot of threads are dropped, presumably to have been picked up in part 2, and there are more and more animation shortcuts taken as the production ran up against budget constraints. On one hand, the sheer volume of roto done on the battle of Helm’s Deep is already immense, but on the other hand there’s a lot of shots like this where you can just outright see that it’s a guy wearing rubber orc gloves.
While otherwise the backgrounds in the film range from gorgeously stylized paintings to evocative abstract non-landscapes, for most of the Battle of Helm’s Deep any background or distance is filled with stock footage of clouds regardless of camera angle. On top of the shortcuts, Bakshi is just generally not very good at keeping track of the action and geography of his fight scenes, making them really hard to follow, and the muddy, high contrast artwork doesn’t help. Then at the end Gandalf rides in and the narrator implies that this battle defeated Sauron, but also maybe stay tuned for part two? The forces of darkness were driven forever by the valiant friends of Frodo. As their
valiant battle ended, so too ends the first great tale of The Lord of the Rings. It’s not a strong ending. The film mixes animation styles in a way that reads like Bakshi was constantly experimenting on-the-fly and how a scene ends up looking is dictated by what seemed like a cool idea that week, and while this mixed media style is interesting in its own way, the inconsistency of it contributes to a sense that there wasn’t a committed idea everyone was working towards, that the ultimate creative vision was driven mostly by momentary fascinations. For The Lord of the Rings Bakshi utilized a hodgepodge of animation formats predominantly based on rotoscoping, modifying live action footage to various degrees. Some of this involves using the live action footage as a trace-reference, the final product being a complete replacement, sometimes it’s a paint-over, effectively just augmenting the original footage with details like eyes or fangs, and sometimes it’s effectively just a colourization of a xerox of the original footage.
And, no, that’s not being snide, an actual process that was in use in the 60s, 70s, and 80s involved photocopying line work done on paper onto cellophane allowing rougher pencil lines to be used without inking. Earlier versions of this technique is what gives One Hundred and One Dalmatians its distinctly ragged look. If used on a photograph, however, it crushes most of the greyscale tones, flattening the image to solid blacks and whites.
The second major technique used is solarization, which was recommended to him by the film’s cinematographer Timothy Galfas. Solarization, more accurately pseudo-solarization, is a tricky process where the black and white film is partially developed, then instead of being sent through a process called fixing, the part of development that stabilizes the film so it can be handled, the image is re-exposed to light, and sent through the entire development process a second time. This technique, applied to photochemical film, is extremely difficult to control, largely relying on trial and error to get desirable results, but the successful end product is a partially inverted image, with a common artefact being a strong border across high contrast boundaries, which can look kinda like an inked outline. Bakshi felt this stylization process was sufficiently animation-like that it would fit within the movie and allow them to use footage of large scale battles, which were ultimately faster and cheaper to stage with actors in costumes than to hand-draw frame-by-frame, even from a reference.
All of these different techniques are combined to various degrees over the course of the movie. Sometimes solarized footage is painted over, sometimes it’s merely colourized, sometimes it’s just played as-is over a coloured background. The extensive amount of rotoscoping and re-purposed footage ultimately required the production to shoot basically the entire film as live action first, with reference performers, stunt performers, and the extensive battle scenes, so the two year production involved essentially making the entire movie twice, first in the live action shoot in Madrid, and second in the animation.
There’s a somewhat apocryphal story in all this. In shooting the footage they didn’t really bother to clear backgrounds of things like telephone wires, cars, airplanes, bicycles, and other obviously out-of-place elements, because it didn’t really matter, it wasn’t the finished film anyway. According to Bakshi the Spanish developers who were handling the camera negatives didn’t understand that the footage was a reference that would be animated over top of, thought that this was, instead, incredibly sloppy filmmaking, feared that it would give Madrid a bad name, and attempted to destroy the film.
I’m repeating the story because it’s kinda cute, but also it’s a bit too weird and sensational, and the only source is Bakshi himself, who is, let’s just say, prone to exaggeration. Like he’ll say they had six hundred animators working on Lord of the Rings when in reality it was more like fifty. I was over in Spain shooting major live action footage, got three thousand people in the studio back in New York animating, I’m fielding five hundred calls a day from the problems at the studio, I’m shooting an entire live action movie, and I’m trying to eat dinner with Zaentz at night who wants to be talked to. Or this bit from a 2006 interview with Underground Online.
“I had the X rating on my films and that should have been enough to protect me. It was all a misunderstanding of me being too far ahead of the curve. Now they do as much on The Simpsons as I got an X rating for Fritz the Cat.” And, like… no? No Ralph. No they don’t. What… What do you think happens on The Simpsons? I am very curious what Ralph Bakshi thinks happens on The Simpsons. On the whole the film is a mixed bag, there’s a lot of jank, but what works? What does it get right? A lot, actually.
Whoah, Sam Gamgee, your legs are too short so use your head The vocal performances, in particular, are generally good, often great. The voice actors do well with Tolkien’s words, with an interpretation that is both distinct and appropriate. One thing that’s often cited as a stand out, though, is John Hurt’s performance as Aragorn, and for good reason, it’s fantastic. “It matters. We still have a long road and much to do.”
“Why? We have no hope without Gandalf, you know that Aragorn.” “Then we must do without hope! There is always vengeance!” Gruff, yet warm, there’s a lot to love about this performance. John Hurt was a great actor and he absolutely has a world-weary charisma that really works here. It’s fantastic. I love it.
And it meshes well with Bakshi’s naturalistic filmmaking sensibilities, this version of the characters that are not so much the protagonists of a fantasy epic, but just some dudes trying to solve a problem. “We have no choice, Aragorn!” “We might go by way of the gap of Rohan” “That would take the ring too close to Isengard and Aruman, we dare not risk it.” “And yet you would risk the mines of Moria” While Bakshi is bad at pacing and action, he’s got a good sense for the interplay between characters, and the film’s best moments come in snippets from these interactions, the dynamics of conflict in dialogue, and the small physical actions that punctuate those moments. Scenes like Boromir’s death hold sufficient dramatic weight, the reference acting, animation, and vocal performances all come together and really work, in a way that shows off the film at its strongest. Just the clink and clank of equipment, the subtle atmospheric wind, and a mature tenderness as the three pay respect to a fallen comrade. And there’s little moments, just great touches of detail, like Sam and Frodo paddling in opposite directions as they debate the next course of action where the rhythm of it is spot on, a fantastic little flare that communicates the emotion that underlies the dialogue. It’s a keen physical detail that a lazier
production would miss. The twitchy, feral movements of the black riders is a weird creative decision, but I think it works. It’s unsettling and menacing in an unusual way, though it does get a little odd when the Nazgul simply stop behaving like this after the Prancing Pony. Again, consistency is a problem. There’s also small adaptational decisions. Lord of the Rings is so big and sprawling
that basically any cinematic adaptation will have to pick and choose what it includes and what it doesn’t. For as comprehensive as the Jackson films are there’s a lot they had to leave behind. Like this little moment, after Gandalf opens the door to Moria. “so all you had to do was say ‘friend’ and enter” “Those were happier times” It’s a great little touch to include, because the whole joke of the door to Moria, for the reader, is that they’re over-thinking the problem, that the troubles facing the Fellowship, the rise of Sauron in the East, has created a culture of fear, a culture of security and paranoia, that leads Gandalf to assume the answer is more complicated than it really is.
It’s a melancholic point about how the people of Middle Earth have grown apart, distrustful, and isolated, to the point that even being asked to say “friend” feels like a trick. It’s a good detail to include. Bakshi’s film is basically the only adaptation to include Frodo’s defiance of the Ring Wraiths at the ford. “By all the Shire, you shall have neither the ring, nor me!” I also really like the introduction, presented as a shadow play. It’s cheap and poorly acted and looks like community theatre, but that’s what I find endearing about it, like it could just as well be an in-universe performance of myth.
You’ve got actors who are clearly trying to avoid hurting each other with their prop swords, and miming slow-motion instead of actually shooting the footage in slow motion, and it’s clearly taking place on a stage, but the fact that it’s so evidently low-budget, I dunno, I find it charming. Now, unfortunately, for all the things that I do enjoy about this movie, all the things that I think work, or are at least admirable for their ambition, there’s a lot that doesn’t, either failing entirely or just not quite coming together into a cohesive whole. Like, for example, the Balrog. Alright, so, a bit of a side-track with the Balrog here. One of the biggest running arguments in Tolkien scholarship is this: does the Balrog actually have wings or does it merely have a form that is evocative of wings? Or does it have neither wings nor a form evocative of wings, but an incorporeal aura of darkness that projects the impression of wings without being a component part of the substance or form of the Balrog’s essential self? The relevant passages from the book are in The Fellowship of the Ring, where first Tolkien writes about the Balrog “... the shadow about it reached out like
two vast wings...” and a couple paragraphs later “It stepped forward onto the bridge, and suddenly it drew itself up to a great height, and its wings were spread from wall to wall;” This apparent conflict between a stylistic description and a literal description has formed the foundation of a half-century long debate over the intended physical properties of a mythological demon. As of June 2021 the Tolkien Society FAQ still has, as the top entry, “Do Balrogs have Wings? Can they Fly?” which they summarize with “that’s up to each individual reader to decide.” Quora, the spiritual successor to Yahoo Answers, has multiple threads on the subject. Bakshi, perhaps unknowingly, stepped right in this when he gave the Balrog big old bat wings, with a Balrog that’s definitely reminiscent of the Hildebrandt brothers’ Balrog from the 1977 Tolkien art calendar.
The 1987 calendar featured a wingless Balrog painted by Tolkien scholar Ted Nasmith. John Howe’s 1996 painting “Gandalf Falls With the Balrog” features a distinctly bat-winged demon. Peter Jackson threaded the needle with a Balrog that is as much a smoke monster as it is physical, though it still definitely has wings. Video games also alternate between wings and no wings. Tolkien hack David Day’s “A Tolkien Bestiary” indicates no wings, while Robert Foster’s authoritative “The Complete Guide to Middle Earth” is mum on the subject. The online Encyclopedia of Arda, dating back to 1997, spends four fifths of its word count for the entry on Balrogs summarizing both the pro- and anti- wing arguments, though ultimately errs on the side of no wings without taking a definitive stance.
The start of this argument, naturally, just spurs further arguments. The Balrog were created with intent by Melkor, therefore vestigial wings would be illogical, and if the Balrog has wings then surely it wouldn’t just plummet when the bridge collapses, which leads to arguments about the nature of wings themselves, since, after all, even if it has wings it’s not a helicopter or a hummingbird, and probably couldn’t just hover. Penguins, chickens, and emu all have wings, but they would plummet. Even flighted birds like condor, and albatross can’t just take off from a standstill. But this argument also neglects to consider that both Melkor and the Balrog were created with intent by one honourable mister Sir Jolkien Rolkien Rolkien Tolkien and wings are both rad and badass, functional or not.
And anyway if Balrog have wings why couldn’t they just fly the ring into Mordor? Now, the wings are not something that particularly bothers me. The Hildebrandt painting is actually my earliest memory of Tolkien, period, as it’s the cover of the book Art of the Brothers Hildebrandt, and we had a copy kicking around the house when I was a kid, so this is already a formative vision of the scene for me. Clearly the actual fact of wings is secondary to the narrative functionality of the evocative image of Gandalf as a point of light standing off against an enveloping darkness.
The actual problems with the Balrog here in Bakshi’s version aren’t wings, in and of themselves, but that the design just doesn’t come together and, most importantly, is really poorly animated. Bakshi, as an animator, is not particularly good at momentum. Motion and momentum are core elements of animation, and it’s something that Bakshi has always struggled with. Part of his experimentation with rotoscoping was tied to this. It’s a cost-saving measure, but also it
means the momentum problem solves itself. You have real footage to work from, the momentum is already real, it’s done for you, boom. Of course animated momentum and real momentum aren’t the same thing, and your rotoscope is only going to look as good as your source footage, which is going to be really hard to get right if you don’t have a twelve foot tall Balrog to shoot some reference footage of. This is a moment where the realism of rotoscoping is absolutely undermining the final product because we are, unfortunately, seeing through to the underlying reality of man in a costume trying to mime being really big by just moving slowly. It’s not dynamic, it’s not threatening, and it comes off as unfortunately goofy. This is a running thing through the film, most of the action scenes lack a sense of weight to their movement. The actors are just lightly swinging their
prop swords at each other, pulling their punches because, you know, it’s just a reference. But since the reference is being traced frame-by-frame that performance carries through to the final animation. Sometimes the rotoscope inherits a really effective sense of weight and sometimes it ends up looking cheap and fake. This also leaves behind a number of strange artefacts in how shots are framed. They’re few and far between, but there’s the occasional shot where the framing is oddly tight, where characters drift out of frame in a way that’s highly unusual for animation, where the positioning of characters is normally extremely deliberate. The pitfall of a rotoscoped film is that the final results depend heavily on your references.
The reference performers aren’t simply providing something to help the animators get the right idea, their performance is the performance, and there’s a definite inconsistency here. And that’s really the word of the day, isn’t it? The biggest failings of Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings are matters of inconsistency. Sometimes the reference actors are giving it their all, and sometimes they’re just loosely miming the actions. Sometimes footage is shot in slow motion and other times the actors just swing their swords slowly. Scenes change style and grain and texture on the fly, and characters are animated in multiple different styles across the film as a whole.
Heck, sometimes characters switch techniques multiple times within the span of a few seconds, as with Aragorn running down this hallway. There’s also a thing that happens a few times where the scenes were too complicated to fully animate, like Merry and Pippin fighting the orcs before their capture, but the underlying footage is in really bad shape: super high contrast, super under-exposed, super grainy, and the whole image just turns into an indecipherable blob. A much-commented on quirk of the movie is that a lot of characters wave their hands around really aimlessly. This is going to come down to a direction
issue, as it’s a very community theatre kind of quirk of acting, with untrained actors over-using their hands. The Nazgul and orcs being mostly paint-over work, with much of the actual costumes still visible, works, but is undercut by the fact that the fellowship, too, are often animated as paint-overs, with their live action counterparts being extremely visible. Even the full replacement trace-overs aren’t without their own oddities, as the style is so chaotic, with linework that squiggles a lot between frames, that it’s extremely intrusive when characters stop moving entirely, becoming unnaturally still for a few frames, between actions. That’s a limitation of budget, yes, and I don’t begrudge the animators for saving those frames, but the style very much accentuates the effect and calls attention to it.
Treebeard is pretty much the only character in the film that’s entirely animated from scratch, which places him out-of-place at the other extreme end of the spectrum, being very fluid and morphy, traditionally cartoonish, looking more like an outcast from an Atkinson production like the Racoons than the comparably heavy animation of the rest of the film. And while that heavier animation generally looks really neat, the increased fidelity will, again, work against the film, as any time the lip sync is off it feels really off. “Whereout I to start?” There’s also an issue with the dialogue that, well, descriptively the dialogue in a lot of places is stilted, and the recording is thin. The micro-pacing of dialogue that makes it feel natural, that makes it flow, it’s not always there, and a lot of unspoken vocalizations are missing, which can make conversations drag and feel unnatural.
“I’ll give it to you Gandalf! You’re wise and powerful. Will you not” “No! Do not tempt me!” This is a result of the production process. There’s two factors here: for I guess budgetary reasons they apparently didn’t have a multi-track recorder, and also the voice actors are ultimately having their performance superimposed on the performance of the live action actors, which is substantially different from other methods of animation where either the animators work from the actor’s performance or the actor matches the performance created by the animators. And so while the production opted to do the
recording sessions with the cast as a group, according to Anthony Daniels the actors were required to leave a long two-second pause between each other’s lines so that the editors could try and line the two performances up. I mean, I can see the logic there. Like you assume you’ve got this process that affords you a lot of freedom, you don’t need to wait for one part to be done so that the other half can match it, you can just do both halves whenever it’s convenient and then merge them later, but, you know, it’s the details that get lost in that process. On the whole the film’s pacing is just really off. Some sequences, like the flight to the ford mentioned before go on at seemingly an interminable length, while the entire second half of the film is incredibly rushed. Even odd one-off moments will end up bizarrely
truncated, like the smoke trailing out of Moria behind the Fellowship, which flashes on screen so briefly I wasn’t sure if I had bumped the remote and skipped a scene. Merry and Pippin vanish from the film entirely after meeting Treebeard, a casualty of the unproduced sequel, but regardless of the intent their exit is undeniably sudden. Likewise Sam and Frodo meet Gollum, set off towards the Dead Marshes, and are never seen or mentioned again.
One particular oddity is that Saruman is alternately called either Saruman or Aruman. “I must go south now, to consult with the wizard Aruman” “I have come for your aid, Saruman the White, in troubled times” This bizarre inconsistency is the result of Saul Zaentz’ insistence that the names of the antagonists, Saron and Saruman, sounded too alike, which is fair enough as an adaptation change, but then during fairly routine rewrites mid-production Beagle began swapping the names back to Saruman. “Saruman of Many Colours!” If there is something you can say is missing from Bakshi’s Middle Earth it would be Middle Earth itself. This is, perhaps, where the comparison between
Bakshi and Jackson is the starkest. While much of this is an argument of adaptational preference, which lines and details were included, which phrases and character traits were stressed, one area where the older film is undeniably weaker is in the presence of the world. And this is a meaningful absence. Place is critical to the story of Lord of the Rings because Lord of the Rings is as much a story about violence against the land itself as it is about violence against the people who live on it. And while Bakshi’s artists are able to visualize many iconic locations, both the fantastic and the quaint, just as often the background dissolves away into an abstraction, into nowhere in particular. Though there is an isolated artistry to these compositions, as a storytelling mechanism, as an expression of the text, they just don’t compete with Jackson’s camera turned towards the beauty of New Zealand. This gaze, importantly, retains the essence
of the message: the world is good, the world is beautiful, the world is worth saving, and not just the so-called “important” parts. Tolkien’s notoriously florid descriptions are just as reverent of grassland and marsh as they are of forest and mountain. This is the biggest missed step of the old adaptation, the vision of Middle Earth not just as a land under assault from a malevolent spirit seeking power, but a land besieged by the smog and consumption and poisonous runoff of industry. Ultimately the biggest flaw of the film is that it’s kinda boring. Not uninteresting, but all these issues add up to long stretches of the film that just aren’t particularly noteworthy. There is, at least in my opinion, very little after the death of Boromir that’s really worth it, and given that his funeral is eighty-five minutes into the movie, not only is it a clear demarcation point between two parts of the story, it’s already a decent feature length, so if you kinda check out there I don’t really blame you.
There’s also a deeper issue that kinda cuts two ways, and it’s that the film relies a lot on an understanding of the source material. Now, I don’t think this is a conscious reliance, I do think that Bakshi and Conkling and Beagle tried to create a telling of the story that’s self-contained, but there’s enough holes, enough things that are breezed past, that there’s definitely the sense that things are missing, the keen awareness that this is an abridgement of a much larger book, and so bits are included for the sake of being comprehensive rather than because they make the best version of the story for the medium. I said this cuts two ways and that’s because while this can make for an unsatisfying viewing on its own, it can also, potentially, make for a satisfying companion to the novel, where the viewer’s own knowledge of the text is able to fill the gaps and their imagination is able to do the heavy lifting of fleshing it all out, using the movie as an aide in their own internal visualization and realization of the story. Part of the trouble in researching the film is that based on Bakshi’s own recollections of the film it’s not even entirely clear when they decided to animate the film, or if the whole film was meant to be conventionally animated with only a bit of rotoscoping but then they decided to rotoscope nearly the entire thing, or if at one point they were even considering cutting the animation entirely and just making a live-action film. These were, apparently, decisions that were made more or less on the fly in 1976, a reflection of the problems plaguing the still-unfinished Hey Good Lookin’.
I don’t want to say that this is a film made by filmmakers who didn’t care, who didn’t get the source material. It is a film that’s lovingly made, it is a film made by creatives who cared, the script is clearly intimately familiar with the source material, but it also seems like a film that was made by creatives who were very distracted, who didn’t have a strong vision, and were focused principally on working quickly and making whatever compromises were needed just to get things done. And, to be clear, that’s not a moral failing, it’s not a sin to be more concerned with getting the film done, getting it in front of audiences, than picking fights with the studio. They turned around a two and a half hour animated film in two years. That’s insane. It’s amazing that the whole thing didn’t entirely self-destruct, that the final result is not only reasonably watchable, but often interesting and occasionally brilliant. That’s impressive. So, the movie comes out with the title The Lord of the Rings, no “part 1” subtitle.
United Artists felt that no one would want to pay to see half a story. Of course that seems ridiculous today, what with film being so thoroughly dominated by serial franchises, but in 1978 the concern was still sensible. The two part film didn’t really exist yet, and even franchises were sparse, and more along the lines of James Bond, a loosely connected episodic rather than a single cohesive story with meaningful continuity. But, still, a “to be continued” would not have seriously shocked audiences. While Bakshi had done some press where he was able to talk about how they’ll hopefully get to make the rest of the story with part 2, the media landscape is entirely different in 1978. There isn’t a massive ecosystem of entertainment news, there’s no widespread internet, there’s no fan blogs hanging off every detail of production, so the general audience impression going in is that this is the whole thing.
Fans of the book are, of course, caught off guard by the ending, the story just stopping after the Battle of Helm’s Deep, and they’re not super happy about that, but on the whole audiences are pretty receptive and the film does well. Critics are lukewarm but consensus is ultimately positive. Roger Ebert’s bottom line summary is, I think, right on the money. “In sum, Bakshi has succeeded better at bringing Tolkien's characters to life than at bringing his story to fruition.” And that’s kinda where things have stayed. Critical reevaluation hasn’t really changed over the decades since. It’s flawed, mostly boring, but not entirely
devoid of charm. It’s quieter and stiffer than Jackson’s high-intensity action/adventure, but that’s not wholly inappropriate as Tolkien’s books are, themselves, so very often quiet and stiff. The film was successful, it turned a reasonable profit, but it wasn’t a runaway success. Bakshi was feeling burnt out on working on someone else’s story, and leadership changes at United Artists in 1978 proved to be enough of an interruption to the momentum of the project that attempts to get Part 2 moving just fizzled out. Bakshi would continue to use rotoscoped animation for three of his next four films, though audience interest waned as the style grew increasingly dated compared to the lush and intricate animation of its big budget contemporaries and as Bakshi seemingly ran out of energy and ideas.
Hey Good Lookin’ was eventually released in 1982 in a totally overhauled format, the film having been essentially re-made as a totally animated feature over the course of seven years, financed by Bakshi himself, though little of the rotoscoping remained. It is, for the most part, just a worse version of Heavy Traffic, lacking the incendiary politics and righteous anger that gives that film its bite. I dunno, maybe it was just Bakshi getting older, maybe you just couldn’t sell an anti-cop movie in Reagan’s America. He eventually retired from feature films after the flop of Cool World in 1992, a film that was, ironically, not nearly as crass as audiences had hoped. But as a pure quirk of coincidence the animated legacy of The Lord of the Rings isn’t entirely incomplete, because Rankin/Bass, leveraging the public domain status of the books, aired the sequel to their Hobbit adaptation in 1980, and it just so happens to more or less pick up shortly after Bakshi’s film ends. The specifics here are disputed, since the Rankin/Bass Return of the King had been storyboarded years earlier, but it also didn’t really start serious production until 78.
So while the film wasn’t intended to capitalize on the cancellation of Bakshi’s second film, it still did. Mostly bad in an annoying way and very cheaply made, this TV movie is largely unmemorable save for the absolute banger “Where There’s a Whip There’s a Way” “where there’s a whip [whipcrack] there’s a way” Of course then, a little over twenty years later, Peter Jackson, that guy who makes perverted puppet movies, would finally get to make a no-holds-barred adaptation of The Lord of the Rings and it’s really good. “Come on Mister Frodo, I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you!” Ultimately the legacy of Bakshi’s film is in technology. Techniques that were odd and unique are, today, routine. He didn’t invent any of them, strictly speaking, the underpinning technology was already decades old, but the haphazard, experimental, ambitious way that they’re applied, the mix of success and failure, is ahead of its time, presaging the ways that filmmaking was changing and would continue to change. This isn’t to say that Bakshi and his animators changed the arc of history, but rather they saw what was inevitable about the way that these technologies would be applied, and bit off far more than they could chew decades before the tech was actually ready.
Bakshi understood that the greatest limitation of realizing the world of Tolkien was the world itself, and he solved this problem by cutting out photographs of actors, maybe painting on them a little, and placing them into animated environments, and that right there describes basically every Marvel movie. For twenty years now it’s been routine for actors to work against worlds that they can’t see, that are created out of whole cloth by animators. The modern look of films is defined by actors on set wearing some combination of costume that’s limiting or suggestive of the final look before artists go in and paint the rest of the costume on.
Taking a physical performance and duplicating it with an animated simulacrum, once the odd fixation of a few weirdos from Brooklyn, is now ordinary. In a weird way Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings is a twenty-first century blockbuster made with 1970s technology. And, in the end, he would ultimately be vindicated. The argument that animation could be more mature, could be dramatic, could be adult, could be a perfect medium for a story like The Lord of the Rings, was absolutely true, and Bakshi’s work wouldn’t be relegated to mere novelty status. Despite the waning attendance to his own films,
his work in the 70s more or less set the tone for feature animation in the 80s, which was dominated by the dark, often sombre films of Don Bluth. Because everything is connected, Rankin/Bass worked with Peter Beagle and turned his book The Last Unicorn into a haunting and mature film in 1982. Even Disney, on the verge of bankruptcy, would try to play to the trend with their own adaptation of a midcentury fantasy epic with the notorious flop The Black Cauldron. Then, of course, The Simpsons would begin airing in 1989, in 1993 MTV began a late night block of adult animation that ran the whole gamut from crass to cerebral, and over the course of the 80s and 90s anime would go from being a niche import to a staple pillar of modern animation. So, that’s the story of Bakshi and the Ring. I think what I find compelling about his Lord
of the Rings is a summary of what I find compelling about the man himself and his career as a whole, one that is deeply flawed but undeniably bold and occasionally brilliant.