Before Peter Jackson took on the task of adapting JRR Tolkien’s epic trilogy of books The Lord of the Rings, an animated film was released in 1978. Combining the content of The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers into one film, Ralph Bakshi’s The Lord of the Rings proved a commercial success at the box office taking $30m from a budget of $4m. Despite this success the rights to the books fell in and out of other studios hands for over 20 years and the concluding portion, The Return of the King only made it into production as a television film, acting more as a sequel to The Hobbit than Bakshi’s vision.
After Bilbo Baggins’ (Norman Bird) 111th birthday party, we departs his home leaving a ring to his nephew Frodo (Christopher Guard) at the suggestion of Gandalf (William Squire). After learning of the power of this ring, Frodo departs with a small group of friends and relatives to meet Strider (John Hurt) and then onto the Elves of Rivendell before being charged with a mission to head into the lands of the dark Lord Sauron with a view to destroying the ring.
Before Bakshi was given the green-light to try and adapt Tolkien’s work for the silver screen, there were aborted attempts immediately before that involved the drastic changing of characters and even an idea to modernise the narrative and set it in the 1970s. Thankfully with the support of the Tolkien estate, Bakshi convinced the studio that an animated film would give him the scope to create the world of The Lord of the Rings as Tolkien imagined.
The Lord of the Rings uses an animation technique known as Rotoscoping, which involves filming actors and then tracing animation over the top. Such a technique allowed director Ralph Bakshi to create a completely unique style and environment to tell the epic story. It is best used in action scenes such as the goblin attack in Moria or the appearance of the dark riders, which are given an other-worldly feel. In fact any of the various creatures and beasts that attack the Fellowship of the Ring are given another layer of terror because of the rotoscoping. The dark riders are especially memorable with flaming red eyes and a dark brown/black haze around their faces.
The issues that Peter Jackson encountered regarding the pacing of the epic tomes and the extraneous characters were even more pronounced for Bakshi. Without the technology to create some of the more famous scenes and only one film to fit two books into. It is understable then that so many portions of the story feel rushed and remove the truly epic feel of the narrative. In the first act, the speed at which Frodo reaches Rivendell is actually incredibly well handled, whereas the Bridge of Kazad-dum is rushed and does not have the emotional impact that Jackson achieved with more time and money to spend.
Yet it is incredible how many of the scenes from this version of The Lord of the Rings are directly lifted and added to the more modern films. It is a testament to Bakshi and his team that he was able to achieve what he did on the budget he did and the contraints of the story. It’s not perfect, as you can tell with inconsistencies over the pronounciation of Saruman’s name (changed to Aruman, but not entirely edited in time for release) but it is at times visually stunning and inspired.