Animator Ralph Bakshi’s ambitious, uneven, incomplete stab at The Lord of the Rings suffers from a number of limitations — most notably that it’s only half the story. Originally intended as part one of a two-film adaptation, the cartoon was released and marketed as the whole deal, and, despite financial success, Bakshi never got funding for the sequel.
Notwithstanding this and other weaknesses, this Lord of the Rings is in some respects quite impressive and remains worth a look, especially for Tolkien fans, and perhaps younger viewers not quite old enough for Peter Jackson’s more intense adaptation — though even the Bakshi is darker and more intense than most cartoons. (Younger viewers might also be interested in the animated Rankin-Bass versions of The Hobbit and The Return of the King.)
At its best, Bakshi’s visualization of Tolkien’s world can be startlingly effective: the genuinely creepy Black Riders; the emaciated, spidery Gollum; Frodo’s wraithworld vision at Weathertop. Just as often, though, Bakshi is disappointingly wide of the mark, from unbeautiful elves to an unimpressive Balrog to a risible Treebeard. Then there are things that are just inexplicable, like the fact that the name "Saruman," presumably to avoid confusion with "Sauron," was changed to "Aruman" — but only about half the time.
Bakshi’s heavy reliance on an animation technique called rotoscoping is at times impressively lifelike, but palls with overuse in the disjointed final act. Even so, Tolkien fans will appreciate what Bakshi managed to get right, and Jackson fans especially will note with interest notable parallels between the two interpretations — most obviously in Bakshi’s best scene, with the four hobbits on the road hiding in their first encounter with a Black Rider.
Character design is a mixed bag: Gandalf looks very much himself, but Bilbo is rather cherubic, and the dwarves are uninspired. Worse is Gollum, disappointingly bloated and stiff rather than agile and emaciated, and the dreadfully goblin-like Wood-Elf King. (On the other hand, the Elf-lord Elrond, with his distinguished features and strange crown-halo, is far preferable to Bakshi’s dismally graceless version of the same character.)
The film hits the most critical plot points, but is clearly aimed at the younger set, with little to interest even the most avid adult Tolkien and/or animation buff. Unfortunately, this style works even less well here than in The Hobbit, which really is a children’s story. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is a much more adult work, but Rankin-Bass essentially makes a kid movie out of it. Even so, for kids too young for the Jackson or even Bakshi versions, the Rankin-Bass cartoons might be just the ticket.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.