Forgotbusters - The Lord of the Rings

[I wrote this reflection on Ralph Bakshi's adaptation of The Lord of the Rings as part of the Forgotbusters series at The Solute - "Forgotbusters re-examines movies that were among the top 25 grossing films the year of their release, but have receded culturally, in order to explore what originally attracted audiences to them, and why they failed to endure."]

In November 1978, an animated film was released, a sprawling adaptation of a challenging literary work that straddled youth and adult sensibilities. The film balances tones, is beautifully rendered, and remembered as a classic. Then, two weeks after Watership Down, Ralph Bakshi’s The Lord of the Rings was released, too.

At this point, it’s almost impossible for at least this viewer to look at Bakshi’s film with any level of objectivity. Between reading the source novels (though long ago) and rewatching the Jackson trilogy every few years, it’s tempting to constantly compare the film against more successful renderings of the same story. Revisiting Bakshi’s lunatic nightmare for the first time since college (when, being a smug teenager, I found it hilarious), I struggled to engage the film on whatever merits it might have, rather than playing a losing game of comparisons. Given that my final note on this viewing was, “Fuck this movie to the moon and back,” I may not have worked hard enough.

In a 1981 interview with Film Comment, Terry Gilliam was asked how he felt about Bakshi—a controversial animator known for X-rated films like Fritz the Cat—and his The Lord of the Rings. Gilliam’s response included the terms “a mess,” “sloppy,” “appalling,” and “I was really angry,” before admitting, “I think he’s quite talented.” And in the end, the Fritz lens may be the only way to redeem this film, both in design and tone. I had to remind myself constantly that this man had made legitimately groundbreaking animated fare, and that if he’d grafted his shambling, weird sensibility onto inappropriate material, at least we can imagine there’s method to his madness. But that charity can only extend so far in defending a trainwreck.

Of the choices that doomed the film, the clearest must be the attempt to condense The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers into one 135-minute story. This choice not only creates a storytelling style that’s simultaneously breathless and airless, more an illustrated summary than a coherent storytelling experience, but also feels haphazardly imbalanced—the vast majority of the film covers Fellowship, so that by the time essential Two Towers characters appear (Treebeard, Gollum, the Rohan gang) they come totally out of left field. Developments that would make sense as the beginning to act two feel lopsided when carelessly tossed off at the beginning of act three. The section of my notes labeled “issues with condensing the story” tips the scale at 800 words, but they mainly boil down to an inability to connect with this version of the characters. Any affection I have for them was brought in from other tellings, and these casualties are either disappointing (the roles of Legolas, Gimli, Merry, and Pippin are almost too minor to even qualify as afterthoughts), or catastrophic—rarely have I abhorred a character as much as I do this version of Sam Gamgee, a character who can bring tears to my eyes when played by Sean Astin, while here being relegated to bumbling comic relief, complete with goofy theme music.

But let’s get to the real heart of the matter: this film is a visual horrorshow. The main headline will always be Bakshi’s choice to rotoscope the film (i.e. shoot the footage with live actors, and then painstakingly trace the cels for animation). While a lot of design elements work—the backgrounds are often lovingly rendered in a storybook style, and in battle sequences and hallucinations we get a glimpse of how trippy a truly counterculture ‘70s animated Tolkien could have been—the character design is often unbearably grotesque. That word came to mind constantly as I rewatched—not only the designs of the characters, which often depict them as melting wax figures (none moreso than poor Sam) but in their consistently unnatural facial expressions and overly large gesturing that reflects actors trying to emote knowing their faces wouldn’t be seen. Another baffling choice is the decision to mix traditionally animated figures with tinted live action footage. While this could create a nice effect—and it occasionally does, though these incidents feel accidental—more often, it’s distracting, as when a shot pans from Aragorn and Legolas’ animated faces down to their tinted legs, or the unsettling sight of animated figures fighting tinted ones. And where to even begin with the orcs? To say their design evokes cheap Halloween costumes does a disservice to cheap Halloween costumes.

Yet even the bizarre design is nothing compared to moments that I could only label “what the fucks.” Some are odd tonal inconsistencies—Gandalf inappropriately bopping Frodo’s nose during a serious talk, the hobbits often giving expressions of blissful calm in response to terrifying threats. Many, though, are totally inexplicable, giving the viewer the impression of watching this film under the influence of strong mind-altering substances. In one, Aragorn tells the hobbits a romantic story, ending with the line, “But he was her love, as well,” at which point Frodo and Sam exchange an adoring expression and snuggle. There’s no way to interpret this moment as anything but homoerotic, and coming from the director of Fritz the Cat, it’s impossible to think it was unintentional, but this subtext is never hinted at again. I could choose so, so many more of these moments to discuss, but we only have so much time on this Earth, so I’ll just single out one more favorite: Treebeard, in his sole inexplicable appearance (in which he’s rendered as something like an angry burlap sack), tells Merry and Pippin he’s no fan of orcs, to which the hobbits applaud in delight. Then they stop for a beat. And then they begin to applaud again, unbidden. To quote my notes: “Everyone in this movie acts like they’re on drugs.” This is just a taste of the inexplicable behavior to be found, but I’ll leave the rest for intrepid viewers to discover.

In the end, the greatest tragedy of this film may lie in the fact that there’s no reason it couldn’t have worked. There are enough exciting design elements (generally in hallucinatory sequences, like Frodo’s Weathertop battle with the ringwraiths) that you can tell Bakshi could have been up to the task of an exciting Tolkien film if he’d let his freak flag fly. But it would seem that in attempting to be faithful to the source and please everyone, he wound up creating something that could please no one. It’s not just the design that demonstrates potential. As the climax approaches, it becomes clear that Saruman is the true villain of this piece (though characters constantly shift from that name to Aruman with neither rhyme nor apparent reason), and there’s no reason to think that you couldn’t successfully tell one story about defeating Saruman’s armies before moving into a sequel focusing on the rest of Sauron’s hordes. But that theoretically successful film would have required significant restructuring and creative liberty, which Bakshi was avowedly against—in an interview with a critic by the name of Tasha Robinson on a site called The AV Club, Bakshi discussed hearing of a previous script which featured changes to the story, and choosing not to even read it in favor of “[doing] the books as close as we can.” As with many dead-in-the-water literary adaptations, Bakshi was crippled by lack of artistic license.

And so we reach the ultimate question: why is this a forgotbuster? Why has it endured primarily as a joke among film buffs? The clear answer would seem to be Peter Jackson’s confident, thrilling rendering of the same material—a rendering that took many liberties in bringing the material to screen. Why would 21st century audiences turn to a lesser adaptation except as a curio? But I also have to wonder how much the general public would even be discussing The Lord of the Rings without Jackson’s adaptation. Of course the title would ring bells, but name recognition for characters like Legolas would likely be quite low. So Bakshi’s film may have been destined for forgotbuster status even without Jackson eating his metaphorical lunch.

I began this piece by citing Watership Down not only to be pithy, but also to remind others of what I constantly had to remind myself: this is far from the best you could hope for in an adult-oriented animated literary adaptation from 1978. But to use the Nathan Rabin paradigm (albeit from a different column), this film falls somewhere between failure and fiasco. Individual moments are fiascos in a way that defy belief (OK, one more: when Frodo despairs of how far Mount Doom seems, Sam gets visibly uncomfortable, pats his knees, then starts whistling and walks away uncomfortably. It’s impossible to overstate how clear this beat is, but in a way that’s so incongruous it seems not only Sam but the filmmakers have taken total leave of their senses), but the film is too dull and depressing to register as anything more than a failure. There are so many elements here that could work, but Bakshi was ultimately rushing an audacious experiment—as the director himself told Jim Korkis, shooting and editing a live-action film and then animating the same footage in just two years was “crazy,” lending the film a slapdash feel. As many critics observed at the time, Bakshi always seemed most at home exploring issues of the American dream, an interest he returned to in his follow-up, American Pop, labeled by Vincent Canby in The New York Times as “a dazzling display of talent, nerve […] and a marvelously free sensibility,” a marked contrast to Canby’s characterization of The Lord of the Rings as “numbing” and “difficult to recommend.”

But the film was successful, with a box office of $30.5M (about $112M today) on a budget of $4M (about $15.25M today), and landing at #20 in the year’s box office rankings (just above House Calls, on which Janet Maslin noted Walter Matthau’s inability to “set off fireworks” as a romantic lead, and two spots below the infamous Faces of Death). Surely, audiences were drawn to a screen adaptation of a famous but often impenetrable work. But the viewing experience must have been, to cite a word I used constantly in my notes, “baffling.” So after an abrupt ending to the Helm’s Deep battle, with a narrator declaring that “the forces of darkness were driven forever from the face of Middle Earth” while leaving several storylines totally untied, Bakshi’s dance with Tolkien ended (though Rankin Bass would pick up the torch with a different-in-every-way adaptation of The Return of the King).

In 1981, film scholar James Craig Holte wrote that Bakshi excels as “a deflator of dreams.” With The Lord of the Rings, he tried to create a dream instead. Unfortunately, viewing it feels a whole lot more like a nightmare.