Sunday, November 20, 2011

Ralph Bakshi's The Lord of the Rings

On a whim I borrowed Ralph Bakshi’s animated Lord of the Rings from the library last week and watched it over two nights. I can’t say that it brought back memories, because I only watched it once, about twenty-five years ago. The predominant memory that did come back, though, was one of extreme disappointment.

Disappointed then, disappointed now.

However – and it’s a big however – the second time around, older, wiser, I appreciated more of what Bakshi was trying to do. Indeed, I found more than a couple things I liked about the flick, things that were buried by Young Me’s desire to see a faithful and most excellent adaptation of the original source material.

Released in 1978, the film is an experimental combination of animation with live action, the live action treated in such a way as to be rendered visually comparable to the animated sequences. The pure, traditional animation is of the quality and timbre of those old 1970s Justice League of America cartoons I watched as a youngling. The live action treatments are reminiscent of all those psychedelic SF book covers I read in grammar school. Both together don’t quite work. That’s primarily why, I think, the film fails.

But the major gripe I had the first time I watched it is the shock at the realization that the film only covers half of Tolkien’s trilogy, or three of the six books of The Lord of the Rings. That really ticked me off back then, though this time around I was grateful: the movie clocks in at two hours and fifteen minutes. And that seemed rushed.

(While the movie should have been advertised as The Lord of the Rings, part I, and I think Bakshi wanted it to be so, the studios balked, insisting that no one would pay money to see part one of anything. Gotta love that Hollywood wisdom.)

I actually think the “Justice League” animation is the weakest part. First off, the style doesn’t fit with the background matte paintings – which are, more often than not, excellent and evocative. Not as good as what Peter Jackson later did, or what I’ve seen in other Tolkien literature (such as the early 80s calendars), but alien and familiar enough to convey Middle-earth. The problem is the characters don’t mix well, stylistically and as they’re drawn. I could nit-pick, such as why is Aragorn drawn like Sitting Bull, or why do the hobbits resemble little old grannies. Boromir is quite amateurish, as are the bearded Gandalf and Saruman. The ringwraiths as animated villains are too cartoonish to be scary. Ditto especially with Smeagol.

The treated live-action figures, though, work. I think they’re the best part of the flick, and reason any Tolkien fan should see it. Particularly the scene where Frodo puts on the ring on Weathertop and enters this shadow world. “We come to take you to Mordor,” they hiss hypnotically, “take you to Mordor …” as we experience some sort of demonic acid flashback. The orcs, too, are portrayed in this evil trippy way, real men disguised as cartoon monsters, and they work in that the scenes they’re in are more interesting than the scenes dominated by straight animation, such as the Council of Elrond.

The fights scenes were well-executed, if a tad too lengthy. I enjoyed certain specific effects, such as the smoke that would appear to drift between the viewer and the scene on the screen, the desolation and destruction of war symbolized and not-so-symbolized. The weird Van Gogh-ish Starry Night kaleidoscope effects in the background as Gandalf is imprisoned atop Isengard is equally effective, though at first I resisted it. But, darn it, Ralph Bakshi, your 70s motifs won me over!

The plot and dialogue are very faithful to the books, although some scenes are edited out or severely cut short. That surprised me, but I appreciated the efforts toward fidelity. I recognized English actor John Hurt’s voice as Aragorn (Hurt was also Hazel, I believe, in the animated Watership Down). I did not recognize Anthony Daniels’, though, catching his name in the credits and only later realizing he was body and voice behind C-3PO of Star Wars. As a not-too-unimportant aside, I felt the musical score and soundtrack somewhat lacking, as if it was trying all-too-hard to get me up on my feet marching, inspired. On that note I think Peter Jackson’s movies succeeded much, much better.

So, some good, some bad. The time spent over those two nights watching it were not altogether poorly spent. I enjoyed it. The stuff I liked, I thought really cool. The stuff that I felt didn’t work, somewhat embarrassed me.

If I may be allowed to, I grade Ralph Bakshi’s The Lord of the Rings a B-minus. But only watch if you’re a Tolkien fan(atic).

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