Thursday, December 4, 2014

The Lord Of The Rings (1978) - Jim Dietz

The Lord Of The Rings
Director: Ralph Bakshi
Starring: John Hurt, Christopher Guard, William Squire, Simon Chandler, Dominic Guard, Anthony Daniels
Rated: PG

Legolas: So all you had to do was say friend...and enter.
Gilmi: Those were happier times...

Our first guest up to join the Fellowship, is the legendary Jim Dietz.  Jim runs the HHWLOD Podcast Network where you can find the show I co-host, The IchaPod CraneCast was well as PLENTY of shows to keep you entertained.  And if you listen, you'll know I love doing commentary tracks with this guy.  In addition to the incredible Walking Dead TV podcast, Jim now does the DCTV podcast focusing on all things DC Comics on television.  I don't have to tell you that its great too.  Anyway...I should shut up and let Jim do the talking.

In 1978, it was unthinkable to adapt JRR Tolkien’s beloved trilogy The Lord of the Rings to the silver screen in any medium but animation as the special effects that made Peter Jackson’s adaptation of the books possible were decades away.The venerable animation studio Rankin/Bass had had some success with an animated version of The Hobbit as a television special (animated by Topcraft, a precursor to the legendary Studio Ghibli), and Ralph Bakshi of Bakshi Studios had been trying to produce an animated feature of the Lord of the Rings trilogy for years and finally in 1978 was able to secure the funding through producer Saul Zaentz and United Artists in the wake of post-Star Wars speculation.
Bakshi wanted animation to reach a larger audience, for it to have the same or similar cachet anime has in Japan, for animated features to no longer to be considered merely a medium for children’s fare. Of his earlier works only his adaptation of R.Crumb’s Fritz the Cat had been a breakout hit and his next two films, the bohemian ensemble comedy Heavy Traffic and the highly racially-charged satire Coonskin, had made enough money on the college and arthouse circuits to fund his next projects, but were far from box office successes. His sci/fi fantasy followup to Coonskin, Wizards, was almost a dry run on Lord of the Rings, as it borrowed much of its fantasy setting from Tolkien, and partially utilized the rotoscoping process that so pervades his version of LOTR. The modest success of Wizards was enough to convince Zaentz to put up the money that Bakshi needed to tackle the trilogy, not only getting the rights to the books but also the capital to fund the level of production they felt this property deserved. Bakshi was looking for validation both for non-Disney feature length animation and his studio in particular, and UA and Zaentz were hoping for a “toyetic” franchise to exploit that would connect with audiences.
The Lord of the Rings covers all of the first novel, The Fellowship of the Ring  and a great deal of the second novel of the series, The Two Towers, ending with Gandalf turning the tide with the riders of Rohan at the battle of Helm’s Deep. The script by The Last Unicorn author Peter S. Beagle, while admirable in its attempt to adapt so much material in such a short amount of screen time, is more of a road map of plot points than a story. Very little time is spent on characterization, and the dialogue, some of it taken verbatim from the books, can be stilted and stiff. Massive passages of exposition are often read in front of static matte paintings or extras in silhouette. While the matte art itself is at times quite nice, it lacks the charm of the Rankin Bass Hobbit cartoon and often only serves to contrast how substandard most of the rotoscoped animation looks
Unfortunately, the grand ambitions of this adaptation of The Lord of the Rings are overwhelmed by problems.. First and most obvious are the poor choices for the voice cast. John Hurt’s voice is the most un-Strider-y voice I can possibly think of; reedy and effete, especially incongruous as Aragorn is drawn as a burly warrior with almost Native American features. Anthony Daniels’s Legolas is similarly unimpressive, giving the elven warrior an almost sing-songy quality to his voice at times. The character designs are kind of strange as well. For example, Boromir is depicted as a Viking, horned helmet and all, and Saruman looks like evil Santa Claus. The rotoscoping (animation hand drawn over live-action footage) works well when paired with actual pen-and-ink drawings but the minions of Sauron (orcs, ringwraiths,etc.) are extras in costumes shot with a high-contrast lens over which a minimum amount of paint is applied, usually just red eyes and shadows. The effect comes off looking cheap rather than foreboding and undercuts any menace the threats may have. The most egregious example how this effect doesn’t work is the portrayal of the Balrog which is truly laughable, looking more like a theme park mascot than a terrifying demon. Its not an effective technique most of the time and the few times the process does work to make the evil minions appear creepy it almost seems to happen by accident rather than by design. Finally, the script stops and starts with such a weird rhythm that it is kind of jarring.  It’s serviceable considering the impossible task of adapting so much of the trilogy into the format of a 2 hour movie, but the script alternates so wildly in tone and has so much ground to cover so quickly it never quite clicks. The randomly placed abstract backgrounds (usually starbursts or high-contrasted clouds)and interminable chase scenes didn’t help the film either. I can well imagine anyone who had seen this movie without first reading the books would find it a slow, jumbled mess of exposition and broken story punctuated by confusing dialogue.
Bakshi made this movie under the auspices that it would be titled The Lord of the Rings Part 1, and that a subsequent film would allow him to finish the story, but not only did UA take the “Part 1” appellation from the film because they were afraid audiences wouldn’t pay for half a story, but Zaentz didn’t purchase the rights to the concluding chapter The Return of the King; they were still owned by Rankin Bass. One would assume that Bakshi’s plan was to leverage the profits from the first movie to get the rights to the second, but this adaptation was only moderately successful and its lack of broad appeal made that plan impossible. The movie was budgeted at $8,000,000 and grossed just $30,000,000: a success but hardly a blockbuster. A line of toys was introduced by Knickerbocker but didn’t do that well either, and have subsequently become collector’s items due to their scarcity. The rights to The Return of the King stayed with Rankin Bass and Topcraft and they went ahead with an animated adaptation of that novel which aired on American TV in 1980 to a lukewarm reception.
While incredibly ambitious, Ralph Bakshi’s The Lord of the Rings falls short of its lofty goals in many ways, and exists for LOTR fans as either an object of nostalgia or a curiosity, but can probably be skipped by more casual fans of Middle-Earth. The inconsistent animation, questionable casting choices, and overstuffed exposition all serve to derail at various points whatever momentum the script might have achieved. It’s not so bad you will want to drop it in Mount Doom, but its definitely not good enough to give as an eleventy-first birthday gift.

NEXT TIME: The not Academy Award Winning RETURN OF THE KING!

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