The Lord of the Rings

The Lord of the Rings (1978) movie poster

(1978) dir. Ralph Bakshi
viewed: 12/23/02

It’s hard to believe that I hadn’t watched a single film on VHS all year until I borrowed this video from my nephew. The moment that the movie started, I remembered why I have switched over to DVD so permanently. This video was an old one, so it suffered from quality and degradation issues, but significantly, its pan-and-scan format cheapened the look of it considerably, which I think hurts the film quite a lot. So much of this film was trimmed down (as the pan and scan principles do trim), it looked more like an old Johnny Quest episode than as if it had ever been a theatrically released film.

Also rather startlingly, I realized that I had last seen this film twenty-four years ago (Good God!), at the age of nine, upon its initial theatrical run. Certain aspects of this film had struck me at that time and had stayed with me over the years. As through my university days, I began to take a more coherent interest in the films of Ralph Bakshi, I had been tempted to see it again, but had never gotten around to it. It was only after reminiscing about it with my sister, right after having just seen Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers in the theater, that she told me that they had a copy of this film on video at home.

Bakshi had made this film, which comprises the first two books of J.R.R. Tolkien’s trilogy, as the first of a planned two-film series, the latter of which was never made. At a 132 minute running-time (and actually, the video copy that I had may have been even more truncated than that), compared with Jackson’s two film interpretation of the same material that adds up to something like 360 minutes or something, the film manages to hit most of the major plot points with reasonable success. Still, it’s quite a bit more like a Reader’s Digest version of the tale.

The most interesting aspects of the film are some of the differing techniques that Bakshi employs to tell the story, some of which are quite effective in some ways. Bakshi relies heavily on rotoscoping for motion and design of all of the taller characters. For those unfamiliar with this technique, it was initially developed in the Fleischer studio (home of Betty Boop, etc.). Rotoscoping traces the live action film movements of actors, animating by virtual “tracing,” but enhancing to whatever extent (a modern rotoscoping method was used for Richard Linklater’s Waking Life film).

Bakshi employs different levels of animation on top of essentially rotoscoped images for different effects. It would be good to get a sense of the actual techniques used to create these effects, but I will have to guess at them. It seems that some characters are more traditionally rotoscoped, gaining their movements from the original film footage, but being more traditionally cel animated over the top of that. At other points, some of the rotoscoping seems to show more of the footage through the “animation,” possibly to the degree of almost simply tinting the film which seems like it was shot in high contrast. The orcs and the night wraiths are extremely creepy in their rendering this way. I had remembered finding them scary as a child, and the mental image of them had stuck with me over time.

There seem to be many degrees to which Bakshi utilizes the rotoscoping technique, though it was hard for me to pick out any real rhyme or reason to it. At one scene in a tavern, the actual people’s faces show through the animation/tinting quite strikingly. The opening sequence actually seems as though it is merely shot in silhouette, not animated at all. It seems that the high contrast footage may also have been shot to create the look of old silent film footage, moving a little more jerkily and with a reduced details.

These character renderings play out against a variety of backgrounds. In much of the film, the backgrounds are fully-rendered naturalistic fantasy landscapes. But at times of high drama and also significantly when the perspective changes when Frodo puts on the ring, the backgrounds become downright abstract. Sometimes it seemed like these abstractions were derived from photographic images, but others it seemed purely non-representational.

I have to say that the effect of some of these techniques is still quite spooky. Rotoscoping retains an “echo” of sorts from the naturalistic movement recorded by the traditional filming process, but the process of animating over it mutates it. This ghost-like effect seems apparent in all rotoscoped animation to some degree. By intensifying the contrasts in many of the applications of rotoscoping that Bakshi employs and by using the images to create a dissonant sensation (these are the scary, evil creatures often), the images are disorienting and unnerving. I would easily place this as the film’s greatest strength.

The overall execution of the film suffers from other weaknesses. The “acting” in it isn’t atrocious, but the film’s overall effect is not strong. I do think that it suffered considerably from being a poor and old video copy that also may have been trimmed from its initial theatrical release. And though some of the varying rotoscoping is strong and interesting, some of the traditional cel animation looks cheaper and more poorly executed. And at some points, I wondered whether some of the variances in technique were tied to production’s financial limitations, which I know plagued the film. Were all the decisions purely aesthetic, or were they monetary?

As a student of animation, or an aficionado, or what have you, the film certainly has merit.

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