THE LORD OF THE RINGS
Directed by Ralph Bakshi
Screenplay by Chris Conkling and Peter S. Beagle
Some things are better left unadapted and unanimated, and one of them seems to be J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. The trilogy-saga does not cry out for amplification; it runs well past half a million words, every one of them revered as holy writ by Tolkien's vast army of fans. What is more, each one of these devotees has strong opinions on what Middle-earth and its inhabitants look like. Show them a hobbit that is not their idea of a hobbit, then run for cover.
A longtime Tolkien addict himself, Director Ralph Bakshi knew these dangers; he also knew that the task of translating this ring-cycle to the screen had stymied some of the most formidable names in Hollywood, including Walt Disney, and still he plunged ahead. Bakshi brought to this project none of the brass and sass that animated his earlier cartoon features including the X-rated Fritz the Cat and the jive-talking Heavy Traffic. If reverence had wings, his new picture would fly. The fact that it hobbles simply proves again that the road to Mordor is paved with good intentions.
In its amplitude, the Tolkien story embraces both pipe and slippers and Armageddon. Hence the saga's surge in popularity during the 1960s, when so many people craved the conviction that the Apocalypse rested in their hands. The hobbit Frodo Baggins is an ordinary creature with hairy toes suddenly charged with a task that will decide the battle between good and evil in his world. This elemental quest is what the whole fantasy boils down to and percolates up from. Bakshi tries to strike the same balance between the personal and universal, but in a fraction of the time at Tolkien's disposal and using images, not chapters. Visually, the two scales do not mix, and, as might be expected, the big swallows the small.
Some of Bakshi's spectacle is truly opulent. In the opening sequence, the forging of the evil ring that Frodo must return and destroy is an abstract symphony of blacks and blazing reds. The ring-wraiths who pursue Frodo are inky phantoms on horseback and lurching deformities on foot. The action flows across backdrops that are both eye-boggling and wildly diverse. Bakshi has suggested the range and variety of Middle-earth geography by displaying a scrapbook filled with conflicting styles. Those who enjoy humming the scenery can forget the plot and go on a spree of influence hunting. That shot of the hobbits' Shire looks like a fair imitation of Andrew Wyeth; this sunset comes by way of J.M.W. Turner.
The foreground constantly throngs with figures, and this is where trouble begins. To achieve such massed scenes, next to impossible in normal animation, Bakshi first created a live-action film and then had the cartoon traced over it, virtually frame by frame. The technique allows for large-scale battles and much hacking and hewing, as well as some distracting side effects. When the crowds are especially dense or the action swift, the superimposed cartoon fades to a sketchy approximation. The live actor-models flicker like ghosts behind a thin wash of color, and the viewer feels an urge to apply a damp cloth and see what is really going on.