Before Peter Jackson changed cinema history forever with his Lord of the Rings trilogy beginning in 2001, there was only one way to watch this J.R.R. Tolkien classic come to life. No, it wasn’t that Hobbit cartoon from Rankin-Bass, although the timing and technique isn’t far off.
The first LOTR movie premiered in 1978, an animated rendition of the high fantasy tale that had never been attempted on the silver screen before in any format. It sprouted from the mind of Ralph Bakshi, an auteur animator known for his provocative and borderline taboo toons who occasionally dipped his toes into more placid topics. 45 years later, his adaptation of the genre-shaping classic is simultaneously beautiful and bizarre, an enchanting relic that remains unforgettable – for better or worse. One does not simply walk into a Bakshi film expecting anything less.
Ever since he started working as an animator in the 1950’s, Ralph Bakshi dreamed of making a movie based on The Lord of the Rings. The Brooklyn-based cartoonist struggled to find a proper outlet for his mature ideas and launched a production company to provide this much-needed freedom. He gained notoriety in the early 70’s thanks to his adult movies like Fritz the Cat, notoriously known for being the first X-rated animated film, and the autobiographical Heavy Traffic, but a controversial satire on Uncle Remus folk tales backfired in his face. Bakshi needed something marketable to change his luck and turned once more to his longtime aspiration.
Bakshi envisioned an animated epic spanning three movies like the books, but compromised with the intent to split the trilogy into two parts. Bakshi assured the Tolkien family he would stay as true as possible to the source material, and Ringers know how well that statement was honored (minus Tom Bombadil, who even Peter Jackson ignored).
Every frame of this animated Lord of the Rings is a work of art. Like Bakshi’s other movies, you feel like you’re looking at paintings that could have worked as interior illustrations for the books. The art of Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings is so lush and immortal that recently, Wizards of the Coast used a few still from the movie to adorn special Magic: The Gathering cards.
But, interestingly, a good portion of this animated film wasn’t drawn entirely from scratch. The characters are lively, ranging in appearance from grounded renditions of humans to stylized Hobbits and Elves. Enchanting landscapes resembling Frank Frazetta’s fantasy illustrations balance the detailed figures, adding some abstract elements against the realistic-looking denizens of Middle-earth. For those who love the covers of old fantasy novels (particularly the cover art for books by Edgar Rice Burroughs) the art of Frazetta is the quintessential sword-and-sorcery illustration style of the 20th century. It’s likely Frazetta’s work inspired the look of this film, down to the Ring Wraiths bearing a slight resemblance to a certain well-known painting by this modern master. Bakshi and Frazetta were friends, teaming up a few years later for 1983’s Fire and Ice, another fantasy epic only possible thanks to the successful experiments conducted to create this lengthy film.
Bakshi’s LOTR adaptation has a unique look, employing an animation style barely used in modern times — Rotoscoping. This was a technique used extensively in the early days of animation, with artists tracing over live-action footage. It worked wonderfully for this film, giving the characters dynamic energy and a sense of perpetual motion, but Bakshi went one step further. To keep the budget down, the team used live-action special effects rather than animating them by hand, giving many scenes an ethereal look. He also implemented a technique known as solarization, which essentially flipped the light and dark areas on film so they’re reversed, resulting in a stark high-contrast image.
This is most notable in any of the Fellowship’s clashes against the orcs or the Balrog fight in the caves of Moria, and especially in the finale, the Battle of Helm’s Deep. When paired with the bold graphical look and flat colors of these monsters, the ominous effect changes the entire mood, giving it an eerie feeling with a painterly quality. If the backgrounds of this LOTR movie are dreams, then these sections are nightmares! It’s one-part pop art, and one-part grainy classic film, but these visuals stick with you to add gravitas of the large-scale skirmishes that otherwise would take months to draw by hand.
While the Peter Jackson films are marathons, Bakshi’s truncated version trims some Elevensies and Second Breakfasts to expedite the story. However, even the biggest defenders of the film have to admit that it rushes too quickly into a messy final act that jumps from The Fellowship of the Ring into its sequel, The Two Towers. This condensed take is an understandable concept, but trying to squeeze chunks of the second volume into an already crowded movie proved to be overly ambitious. The biggest plus from that choice meant this adaptation was the first on-screen appearance anywhere of Gollum. It’s hard to imagine Jackson and Andy Serkis didn’t reference this tortured character, whose erratic physicality in the movie bears some resemblance to what Bakshi did in the cartoon.
Although it was aimed more towards adults in 1978, this toon version of LOTR isn’t a bad way to introduce kids to the wonders of Middle-earth. A few animals perish amidst a high body count of Orcs, and Boromir’s conclusion is quite grim (blood always looks more vivid in cartoons than live-action), but there are no jump scares or gore in Bakshi’s adaptation. The intensity of the rotoscoped battles might be too scary for young ones, moreso in their frightening appearance than the actual content of combat. And although this animated movie wasn’t made by the same folks behind the 1977 Rankin and Bass animated Hobbit, you could, conceivably, watch this Lord of the Rings after The Hobbit, and then fire-up the 1980 Return of the King, for an utterly trippy, and incongruent version of the entire saga, made by entirely different studios.
While Bakshi’s version of Lord of the Rings, might not end up on anyone’s list of greatest kids movies of all time, but it’s cult-classic status has helped it circulate over the decades, which again, is why we got those cool Magic cards earlier this year. Ralph Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings was a huge risk that paid off. Critically, it has fared better with age than the mixed reaction it earned when it was first released. Bakshi never had the opportunity to make his LOTR sequel and finish his telling of the story, but the first half remains an inspired take on the series. The artistic effort behind it was monumental, and the the fact that Bakshi made the scope of Middle-earth affordable in 1978, is a minor miracle.