Review: The Lord of the Rings (Part One)

[Originally published in Movietone News 60-61, February 1979]

Looking at the photograph of Saul Zaentz and Ralph Bakshi in the October issue of Millimeter, I am struck by how much these men, after more than two years’ involvement with The Lord of the Rings, look like two hobbits themselves. It works: Bakshi’s Frodo to Zaentz’s Bilbo … but this Ring they’ve got hold of may prove just as ambiguous in its anticipated effects as the one in this two-hour first-of-two animated films, or the one in Tolkien’s celebrated fantasy series. Although Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings has a presold audience, it is an audience that will be hard to please. One thing that is almost sure to disappoint both the skeptic and the rabid fan of the film is the indefinite feeling that accompanies the end of this first part, and the knowledge that one must wait another year or two to make up one’s mind fully. Unlike Lester’s The Three Musketeers, Bakshi’s Part One is not of a piece, but ends on a deliberately to-be-continued note which makes one wish he had opted for either a four-hour feature with intermission or a two-night, two-feature extravaganza all at once, if only to achieve the kind of unity that both cinema and myth demand.

Indeed, unity is the main thing missing from The Lord of the Rings, Part One. Bakshi wants on the one hand to drive the film by sheer force of plot, and on the other to have the story serve as a basis for the virtuoso animation style he experimented with in Wizards. As Part One turns out, however, we have a maze of plot with little clarity of motivation, a jungle of characters whose strange-sounding names we can’t keep straight and whose even stranger relationships aren’t made clear in dialogue or in image, and a tangle of mixed animation styles more often in collision than in harmony. The stylistic tension between the Disneyish main characters and their Frank Frazetta–like environment at first provides a kind of starkness appropriate to fantasy, with its avoidance of moral ambiguity, its reliance on character-type, and its insistence upon clearcut distinctions between good and evil. But soon, with the first appearance of the Orcs, we have a mixture of cartoon figures, storybook illustration background, and tinted live-action figures—a stylistic chaos that, whatever Bakshi’s intentions may have been, simply doesn’t work. In the climactic battle the cartoon characters come up against the live-action silhouettes, a concept more than a little frivolous to the eye, considering the thematic weight Bakshi and scenarists place upon the conflict. Perhaps recognizing the absurdity of the collision, Bakshi strives not to show cartoon figures and live-action figures in the same frame if he can possibly avoid it. But the result is a montage that never succeeds in establishing spatial relationships between its characters and character-groups. And the cartoon figures, who are the protagonists of the tale, actually seem the more alien to us, intercut as they are with more recognizably “real” people-shapes.

The fact that the cartoon heroes were animated over pre-shot live-action footage with real actors playing the characters to be animated gives the resulting cartoons a realism of movement—and especially of facial nuance—that is a major achievement in animation; but it does not resolve the stylistic incongruity of the film, which I suspect turned out to be greater than Bakshi anticipated. Not having read the Tolkien books, I can’t say whether this film will please a Tolkien devotee, or even make sense to him. But for me, both stylistically and narratively, the film is a jumble. All too often I see Bakshi falling back on a visual (or sound) effect, rather than giving the viewer the word of explanation he wants to make him more comfortable with the story. In the words of the immortal Rufus T. Firefly, “Run out and find me a four-year-old child. I can’t make head or tail out of it.”

© 1979 Robert C. Cumbow

THE LORD OF THE RINGS (Part One)
Direction: Ralph Bakshi. Screenplay: Chris Conkling and Peter S. Beagle, after the novels by J.R.R. Tolkien. Cinematography: Tim Galfos. Editing: Donald W. Erst. Music: Laurence Rosenthal. Production: Saul Zaentz.

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.