With all the hype surrounding the $270 million live-action Lord of the Rings trilogy—the first installment, The Fellowship of the Rings, opens Dec. 19—it's easy to forget that this isn't the first time hobbits have been captured on celluloid. In the 1970s, fantasy fans were treated to three trippy animated versions of J.R.R. Tolkien's books, all of which were hard to find on video until last month when Warner Bros. squeezed out quickie DVD and VHS pressings. Two—The Hobbit and The Return of the King—are cutesy, kid-friendly Middle Earth movies that don't rate much attention. But the other is worth a look: It's the infamous, ambitious 1978 epic The Lord of the Rings, directed by the cult animator Ralph Bakshi.
Unfortunately, anybody who's seen any of these is most likely to remember the made-for-TV Hobbit (1977) and its follow-up, The Return of the King (1980). Both are animated nicely if blandly by Rankin-Bass, best known for their stop-motion Christmas classics about Rudolph and Frosty. But they drip with G-rated, gee-whiz fantasy. (This clip from The Hobbit, of ravenous trolls, does no justice to Tolkien's darker elements.) These 'toons veer so far from the books' dark tone and sprawling story that they barely count as Tolkien films at all. The Return of the King portrays the trilogy's final battles with neutered evildoers, a psychedelic folk minstrel, and, worst of all, Casey Kasem. It's a sort of Yellow Submarine from the Dark Ages. (This clip of singing orcs from The Return of the King does little to convey the evil land of Mordor.)
Bakshi's LOTR is quite the opposite: troubling and—as animated movies go—important. Yes, it's universally loathed by Tolkien loyalists as a mélange of cheap-looking effects, dated hairstyles, mispronounced Elvish names, low-tech techniques, and a missing ending. (After covering, quiet faithfully and patiently, much of Fellowship and half of Book 2, The Two Towers, the movie simply stops.) But Bakshi's version is also a showcase for inspired imagery and sheer strangeness, a near-miss magnum opus from another era, before the cult of Tolkien went Hollywood.
In the early 1970s, big-screen animation was dominated by beautiful, expensive kids' stuff like Disney's The Aristocats. Bakshi, then a boy wonder at television's Terrytoons (Heckle and Jeckle, Mighty Mouse), set out to make films for grown-ups. He cast characters from R. Crumb's comic books in the first X-rated cartoon, Fritz the Cat (1972), a film as uncomfortably raunchy and cheerless as it is eye-popping. Made for $700,000, it eventually grossed more than $90 million worldwide, giving Bakshi the leverage to do more. Then came the satirical, racy, and autobiographical movies Coonskin (now known as Streetfight) and Heavy Traffic and the birth of a genre: cartoons as loud, personal cinematic art, perfect for the mid-'70s, artist-is-god Hollywood. Next, Bakshi turned to fantasy and mythology with Wizards (1977), a post-apocalyptic tale of demon armies that he pumped up with recovered Nazi war footage—a twisted retelling, he said, of the founding of the state of Israel. The Big Ideas here merged with minimalist animation, a mixture of still-image slide shows and extensive rotoscoping, a process in which animators trace over live-action footage. The technique is creepy and effective, the right mix of reality and phantasm. (Richard Linklater's current Waking Life uses a similar procedure, essentially tracing over a live-action movie.)
In Rings, Bakshi channels the darkness that permeates nearly every scene in the books. The Black Riders, who hunt the fleeing band of hobbits and dwarves and elves, are shriveled human forms draped in black. Their horrifying, slouching silence seems to stop time itself. (In this scene, one of the movie's most gripping, a Rider senses the presence of the ring he seeks.) When Frodo makes the mistake of slipping the ring onto his finger, he becomes invisible to mortals and finds himself on the plane of the dead, a scorched, gorgeous alien moonscape. (Watch the transition in this clip.) Here, the Riders and their horses become strikingly more realistic, rotoscoped demons on snorting steeds, and Bakshi lingers patiently until this nightmarish scene changes your approach to the entire film. This barren underworld is psychically layered onto the cartoon fantasy land, darkening anything that earlier might have seemed cute.
In order to bring more realism to the fantastic, Bakshi framed much of Rings (and his other films) like a "regular" movie, with establishing shots, close-ups, and cartoon characters that talk and walk like normal people do. (In this clip from The Lord of the Rings, a hobbit and a wizard are out for a stroll, and, for a moment, it seems like a pretty everyday thing.) His rock-star epic American Pop (1981) may be the best example of this, a cartoon movie for and about grown-ups, in both style and substance.
For its theatrical release, his Middle Earth movie was supposed to be billed as The Lord of the Rings—Part 1, but the rotating powers at United Artists never quite got it and refused to make Part 2. (Bakshi also had a falling out with producer Saul Zaentz, who went on to co-produce the new live-action version.) Where Bakshi went wrong with Rings may have simply been deciding to tackle the beloved, unwieldy epic in the first place. The animation here is some of his most ambitious and sophisticated, but it wasn't enough to render such a complex fantasy world. The use of rotoscoping frays as the film approaches two hours, particularly in large battle scenes: When overused, the technique can look fake, as if live-action footage were photocopied and assembled into a flip-book. (See it here in this clip from the battle at Helm's Deep, the movie's climax.)
That said, the animated Rings is unmistakably a Bakshi movie. Even the extrapolations that fans despise most—say, the stately Elves portrayed as feather-haired surfer boys and porn starlets—are myths of the director's own making, the sort of vapid sex-charged archetypes that show up in much of his work. They may not belong in Tolkien's Middle Earth, but they're at home in Bakshi's.