It’s been less than 20 years since Peter Jackson’s epic adaptation of The Lord of the Rings into a trilogy of movies hit theaters. The spectacle of doing three movies at such great lengths through New Line Cinema, which was still considered an independent studio, was a risk that would’ve bankrupted the studio and torpedoed Jackson’s career just as the New Zealand filmmaker was making a dent in America. I was leary of the first movie even from the mediocre trailer that just showed the Fellowship actors and the movie poster that just had the Argonath.
Any layperson going into The Fellowship of the Rings would find themselves wondering just what the hell it’s about. Is it set at water? Why do some actors look smaller than others? Does the “Lord” in the title make this a religious movie akin to The Chronicles of Narnia? Fellowship wowed audiences and critics alike and it was apparent whatever gamble New Line had made would pay off in spades? So, when Jackson came asking to do some reshoots and pick-up shots for The Two Towers, which was reportedly mostly filmed prior to Fellowship, the studio opened the checkbook.
And Warner Bros Discovery which has been making so many odd choices in recent months has reported they’re planning on revisiting the Tolkein work and make more movies. Warner acquired New Line in 2007 and thus has acquired the rights to Tolkein’s work. It’d be foolish to remake the trilogy this close because it was so perfect, a rarity in the film industry next to only the Back to the Future trilogy. The Ring of Power has been successful on Amazon Prime but it’s reportedly cost half a billion to make. That’s $500,000,000. It could be that they might think of a new trilogy with material Jackson didn’t use (i.e. Tom Bombadill, the Scouring of the Shire).
The road to adapt Tolkein’s 1954 novel originally took almost a quarter of a century in the first attempt. In the 1960s and 1970s, graffiti proclaiming “Frodo Lives!” became popular as fans fell in love with the work over the years. John Boorman was reportedly being helmed to condense the massive novel into what was just an hour and 45ish minute movie. Harvey Weinstein would attempt the same manuever in the late 1990s when he held the film rights to the novel. Ralph Bakshi, who was already making himself known by showing that animation doesn’t have to always be cute and cuddly had made the X-rated Fritz the Cat in 1972, followed by the R-rated Heavy Traffic and Coonskin in the mid-1970s.
After Boorman dropped out, Bakshi got involved. Could a director who mixed sex with animation involving animals be able to handle Tolkein? He had just completed what could be considered a pseudo-dry run with Wizards, a post-apoclayptic sci-fi fantasy movie with wizards, fairies and elves. So, he seemed to be the appropriate director for the animated movie. But his idea was totally different than what most people might have expected.
Bakshi planned to have the vast majority of the animation rotoscoped. They filmed in black and white using regular actors and traced over each frame. The technique was criticized in a Simpson couch gag as Homer says it hurts his head. Looking at some of the frames can be hard on the eyes. Richard Linklater would later use the same techniques in Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly. Rotoscoping had been used before but not for the majority of an entire movie.
And that might be some of the problem. The characters don’t align with the backgrounds. I guess Bakshit did this to give the fantasy of Tolkein’s world an unworldly feel but it looks like the animated equivalent of bad greenscreen. I feel Bakshi realized this was the only way he could adapt some of the works. The battle of Helms Deep in live-action in 1978 would’ve looked worse.
The movie basically follows the gist of the Fellowship and Towers as it has a small prologue sequence that lacks the thrill of what Jackson did and looks more like a PBS production. Frodo Baggins (voiced by Christopher Guard) is left in possession of the ring that Sauron made that his uncle Bilbo (voiced by Norman Bird) left him before going to live with the Elves at Rivendell. Seventeen years pass in the Shire as wizard Gandalf (voiced by William Squire) visits inquiring about the ring.
And you probably already know the rest. Gandalf sends Frodo and Samwise Gamgee (voiced by Michael Scholes) out to Rivendell. Here, Gandalf doesn’t have the wise old wizard feel Sir Ian McKellan brought to the role, but he’s more like a mischievous prophet of doom. Sam is played more comically for laughs, even more than Sean Austin did in the first two movies. There’s something about the character’s bumbling and goofiness that is just too much.
But going in blindly, there’s still some problems. Merry (Simon Chandler) and Pippin (Dominic Guard) are hard to tell apart until someone refers to them by name. Aragorn (voiced by John Hurt but acted by Trey Wilson) looks more like an Indigenous Native American. Hurt brings the right worn, wise warrior feel to the role. But for the most part, the movie which clocks in at 133 minutes with credits, feels too condensed.
Legolas (voiced by Anthony Daniels) looks like a southern California surfer. Boromir (voiced by Michael Graham Cox) looks like a Viking for some reason and why he wants the ring for Gondor is never really delved into as much as in Jackson’s movie. Gimli (voiced by David Buck) looks like the Miner 49er from Scooby Doo and I think only has a handful of lines.
The movie also suffers the same problem most sci-fi/fantasy movies from the 1970s suffer. It looks too much like it’s from the 1970s. Jackson and his team filmed the LOTR trilogy in the late 1990s and early 2000s. But if you go watch it now, it is set in its own time period. Maybe it’s because Bakshi was a product of the era and wanted to appeal to layperson audiences who would be toking up before entering the theater.
It’s not an entirely bad movie. I like it and watch it. You just have to put Jackson’s LOTR trilogy out of your head. But the problem comes with the fact that so much of the movie is left unresolved. This was because new management at United Artists, which distributed the movie, refused to allow Bakshi to make a sequel. There had been talk of adding “Part 1” but they were concerned no one would turn out if they felt the movie was only the first part. It made $30.5 million in America and Canada with an additional $3.2 million in the United Kingdom, altogether pulling in more than eight times the $4 million budget.
However, UA executives felt the movie underperformed and canceled a sequel even though Bakshi had begun work on it. Reports differ. Bakshi would say the two years he spent working on the movie were very stressful and the fans reactions took a toll on him. A disagreement between Bakshi and producer Saul Zaentz is also reported to have canceled the second movie with some reports saying Bakshi demanded more money and was still upset over the lack of “Part 1” to the title.
Zaentz would also call the production one of the worst periods of his career. He would try to prevent Rankin/Bass Productions from making The Return of the King which aired on TV in 1980, a horrible adaptation that barely skims the service of the story and only has Aragorn appearing in one scene toward the end. Both this and the 1977 Rankin/Bass adaptation of The Hobbitt would later make fans change their opinions of the 1978 movie. But Bakshi would remain hopeful through the 1980s and 1990s for a chance to do the second version.
Unfortunately, Bakshi was upset about being left out of consideration for the live-action movies when he was approached to do a second animated movie and refused to consider making an animated movie. He would later be critical of Jackson’s trilogy as it incorporated the prologue just as the 1978 version had done and even a similar scene in which Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin hide from a Black Rider. Jackson would say that Bakshi’s movie was a big influence.
And fans and critics are still divided over the 1978 movie. I think when it came on DVD in 2001 ahead of the Fellowship‘s release, Entertainment Weekly gave it an review rating of F. Other critics like Roger Ebert dismissed it with a two-and-a-half star rating, criticizing the length and the lackluster ending. It only has a 50 percent Rotten ranking on RottenTomatoes.com.
People online have slammed it more and more. I think I heard a review saying the Elves come off more as porn stars rather than people. I don’t know how they got that idea. I think the Elves, who are immortal, would have a certain physical beauty. And at least the scene with Galadrial (voiced by Annette Crosbie) with Frodo doesn’t have that weird moment where she turns into evil mode. It’s the one bad scene of Fellowship.
I tried to read Lord of the Rings but found it too dull. I think both Bakshi and Jackson each did a good job. There’s always something lost in translation and adaptations.
What do you think? Please comment.