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Ralph Bakshi's Lord of the Rings

Ah, yes. The wonder that is Ralph Bakshi's half-aborted attempt at filming Lord of the Rings. Ah, yes. People were high, budgets were low, studios were sneaky, and the desire to make three films to encompass J. R. R. Tolkien's epic novel got whittled down to two-said the studio-who then only produced the first one and billed it as the complete story. Ah, yes. Yessity yes yes.


One could say that there's a more critically honest and economic way to review this film than simply by listing its screwups and making comparisons with Peter Jackson's far more successful--in every sense of the word--live-action adaptations. But I'm going to do those things anyway, because I'm going to have too much fun doing it.

First of all, the film relies heavily on rotoscoping, i.e. drawing over top of footage of live actors. This often looks like crap, but never so crappy as it does here, since half the time there's not even any actual animation in these scenes, just the live-action footage with some posterization and filters slapped on. This clashes horribly with the animated scenes, with which it is often messily intercut. The actual script is drawn pretty accurately from the books with few changes (minus outright omissions,) but despite trying to cram half the text of the trilogy into one film, it isn't very fast-paced. It's a bunch of slowly-paced scenes with little connective tissue that often scream out for clarification. There are a few crazy folks out there who actually hold this up as superior to Peter Jackson's films, but while the dialogue is closer to the source material than Jackson's version, it's still a lesser adaptation for the simple reason that the books and the Jackson films are both examples of competent storytelling, and this isn't. If one hasn't read the books, this film will often make extraordinarily little sense. Let us count the ways:

Less than one minute after the opening credits, and there's already a mistake. The narrator claims the Elven-smiths forged the nine rings for mortal men, then the seven for the dwarves, and the three for the "tall Elf kings" (apparently Galadriel counts as a king,) after which Sauron learned to make rings, and forged the One. Uhhm, no.

When Isildur is shot in the Gladden fields, he reacts by hurling the ring skyward. Arrow in the chest! Fling your arms upwards!

Bilbo: His departure from the Shire is handled as quickly as possible, such as, for example, without mentioning why or where he's going. Has a party, disappears, walks out of town. This crap doesn't matter. Cut to the chase.

Gandalf: He returns after seventeen years to do some interpretive dance in Bag End whilst bugging his eyes out a lot and constantly gesturing as if he's about to poke someone else in the eye (which he continues to do throughout the whole damn picture.) He points out the lack of markings on the ring, then tosses it into the fire. Nothing whatsoever comes of this-the letters never appear on the ring, making one wonder what the point of the exercise was to begin with. His staff also appears to have an ossified stomach attached to its top. When Gandalf refuses the temptation of the ring, Frodo looks at him as if he'd suddenly started smelling really bad.

Sam: His portrayal here is not the most flattering possible one, leading to questions of inbreeding and poor dental hygiene. When he's found crouching in a bush eavesdropping, he responds to Gandalf's queries about what he has overheard by mentioning the Elves. Trouble is, Gandalf and Frodo haven't said word one about the Elves the whole time. When he learns he is indeed going to meet the Elves, he has a truly hysterical spaz attack that makes one wonder if he was smoking crack back in that bush.

Saruman: now Aruman. The name was changed on purpose to avoid confusing it with Sauron (easily confused people really need not be watching this film to begin with.) However, when Gandalf the Blue rides to the tower of Orthanc-or rather the adobe termite mound of Orthanc-he refers to his colleague as Saruman the White. Saruman refers to himself as the "many-colored." Both of them are lying, since Saruman wears red throughout the film. (His name also changes back and forth between Saruman and Aruman at totally random points.) When Gandalf declines to go along with with (S)Aruman's plot to join with Sauron, Grima Wormtongue trundles out to give Saruman his staff-if only Gandalf had smacked Grima with his stomach-on-a-stick before he could do so, perhaps he'd have escaped Isengard unhindered. Somehow, even though the entire scene takes place in the same room, Gandalf ends up standing atop the tower at the end, as if the walls just disappeared from the top floor.

Leaving the Shire: Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin make for Buckland, already clad in their Lorien cloaks somehow. There's a tiny bit of the most pitiful attempt at a song ever written, some three seconds of random "dum diddy dum deedle eedle," as they traipse happily along. They also already have Bill the pony in tow, a change which wouldn't make all that much difference but for the fact that when the Black Rider shows up, the pony vanishes into thin air. They've either buried him or crammed him so far back into the hollow beside the road that he's under it. This scene is notable for the fact that Peter Jackson's version of the scene is almost identical in framing and design, and manages to be about a hundred times better. The music is lacking much in the way of subtlety, and the Brown Rider (I guess black paint was too overpriced at the time) walks as though he'd found one scorpion too many in his right boot that morning. The subsequent "conspiracy unmasked" bit is actually okay, but it's worth pointing out that Frodo and Pippin look almost identical, and but for his lighter hair color, you could add Merry to that list, as well.

Bree: Here we see the first example of really bad posterized live-action mixed in with the animation. We also meet Strider, who wears a miniskirt in order to make us laugh at him.

Weathertop: As Strider finishes telling the hobbits the love story of Beren and Luthien, Frodo and Sam smile at one another and practically start nuzzling; anyone who ever felt that this pair's relationship was less than platonic will have their suspicions confirmed here. After knifing Frodo, the Nazgul retreat with almost no argument, which, to be fair, is a problem the book had, as well.

Flight to the Ford: Glorfindel didn't make it into this version, either, and was replaced with Legolas instead. The word "flight" here is something of a misnomer, as from the moment the Rusty Riders burst out of the woods there's a full two-and-a-half minutes wherein they and Frodo, on horseback, shuffle around randomly before actually starting the chase. The knife fragment in Frodo's shoulder also apparently allows the Nazgul lord to control Frodo's horse, as well.

The Council of Elrond: about three minutes long. Elrond claims that the ring cannot be destroyed, and recommends sending it to Mount Doom, without mentioning that this is an exception to the rule about not being able to destroy it. Aragorn reveals his identity, and shows us the sword of Elendil, although no one ever says who Elendil is, or how the sword was broken in the first place. The sword is never mentioned again, so it matters very little anyway.

Boromir: I never knew that the Gondorians were Vikings, and I suspect you didn't either. He also wears a skirt. There's no getting around it: it's impossible to take men in skirts seriously (sorry, Scotland.)

Gimli the exactly the same height as Legolas. Dwarf, people. Look it up.

Moria: For a man as learned as Gandalf, who supposedly knows a million spells, you'd think he wouldn't just keep yelling the same word at the the doors over and over. Oh, and for the animal lovers out there, especially the children, let me point out that the Watcher in the Water eats Bill the pony in this version. I guess the animators were too lazy to animate him running away. The dwarves of Moria were also apparently Satan worshippers, as the carvings of evil goat heads suggests. When the scary orcs-at least seven of them-attack Balin's tomb, they announce their attack with horns...horns in the deep. (Get used to this horn sound, and make peace with it.) At least twelve orcs show up at the Bridge of Khazad-dum, though one of them may only be a mop being waved about as a weapon by one of the orc janitors.

The Balrog: Holy crap, he looks awful. He has a lion's head and huge fuzzy houseslippers, not to mention big butterfly wings* that would probably burn like torches if he breathed at them. His strike at Gandalf destroys Glamdring, so lord knows what sword Gandalf is carrying later on. And yes, I've been spoiled on Ian McKellan's performance, but the wizard's declaration of "you cannot pass" here wouldn't scare off a squirrel.

Lothlorien: Galadriel begins this scene by mispronouncing Celeborn's name (as Seleborn,) even though the appendix on name pronounciations begins with how to pronounce the letter "c," and uses "celeb" as an example. The Elves sing a very happy song about Gandalf's death, and Frodo sees a kalaidescope-esque image in the mirror, after which Galadriel mentions that the Eye of Sauron is on the move. I'm assuming we were supposed to recognize the totally un-eyelike image as that of an eye...oh, have they actually mentioned anything about the Eye of Sauron before this moment? No, come to think of it, it's never come up previously, so who knows what the crazy woman's talking about. She never gives Frodo the Light of Earendil, so it's fortunate that he never meets Shelob in this film, who would probably just have eaten him.

The Departure of Boromir: ...involves Aragorn rather unnecessarily petting his beard quite a bit. Please, let's not create more fodder for the slash fiction writers. The scene is one of the better-realized ones, but the film begins to turn into unfocused meandering crap after this. More so, I mean.

The Uruk-Hai: Orc speech, apparently, is basically "growl snarl snarl arrg Isengard growl rarg arrg snarl bind their legs snarl raaow arrg growl Grishnakh," and so on. But it's not like Tolkien really cared about the languages. Merry and Pippin are downright unfazed by the giant orcs, and Merry is flat-out cocky when trying to trick Grishnakh into untying them, another scene which is terribly hard to follow without having read the book. Plus, Grishnakh starts to criticize Ugluk for following Saruman, but the scene cuts back to Aragorn and company before he can finish his line.

The Riders of Rohan: For the record, Eomer does not have one single damned line of dialogue in the entire film, nor is he ever even drawn. He remains in the twilight world of posterized live-action the entire time. The Riders also dress in the same dirty beige as the Uruks, making it somewhat hard to follow their battle, which largely consists of a protracted staring contest. Hint: the Rohirrim have better teeth.

The Taming of Smeagol: Twice Frodo tells Sam to keep hidden as Gollum approaches, then just lets him go after his bonehead companion steps out into the open for the third time. They tie the same rope around Gollum that they used to climb down a cliff moments earlier, without ever showing how they got it untied. The scene is basically accurate, but Gollum just isn't scary here.

Treebeard: ...looks like a naked Yosemite Sam with drumsticks for arms and broccoli stalks protruding from his head. Despite this, Merry (or Pippin; who can tell?) still says he mistook Treebeard for a real tree, which is patently impossible. No worries, though, as Treebeard carries the two hobbits and himself right out of the movie, never to be seen again.

The White Rider: Gandalf makes his dramatic return in Fangorn and, in the process of removing his grey cloak, manages to get it tangled around his damn fool head. Some rotoscoping error, perhaps...have I mentioned that Gimli has maybe spoken twice in the film by this point?

Grima Wormtongue: Fastest mofo in all Middle-earth. We see him at Edoras (which both Gandalf and Aragorn mispronounce in different ways,) then minutes later he's at Isengard as Saruman rallies his "tens of thousands" of Uruk-Hai, most of whom apparently take sick leave rather than attack Rohan. For a guy renowned for his powerful voice, Saruman sounds like a man who hasn't had a good drink in years. Must be Fangorn sucking up all the water. Fucking stingy trees. Burn 'em all down! A minute later, Grima is at Edoras again. Speedy little guy.

The King of the Golden Hall: For a man supposedly under the thrall of Saruman, King Theoden seems as though he's perfectly willing to go out and kick some orc ass any second if Grima doesn't keep pushing him back into his throne. (There's a little more gratuitous beard-petting here, too.) Gimli has shrunk a bit here, but he's still as tall as Aragorn. We see Eowyn, who, like her brother, never speaks a single word. At least she gets to be drawn. As they set out for Helm's Deep, we hear the same horn the orcs were blowing in Moria, which sounds more like a kazoo than anything else.

The Passage of the Marshes:...may or may not even happen. The whole journey of Frodo, Sam, and Gollum is through random misty woodsy faces in the swamp, no Black Gate, no Henneth Annun; pretty much all the signature bits of the journey are absent. When Frodo tells Sam that he fears they'll never return, Sam gets up, starts whistling to himself and wandering away, as if to say "Well, screw you! I'll just be moseying on off now." After this, the story leaves them and never comes back.

The Battle of Muddy Shit...I mean Helm's Deep: This is almost indescribably boring for a big action set piece. The Wargs are apparently the same size as normal wolves, and could never be ridden by an orc-sized creature. Despite this, they come first, even though everyone is already inside the Keep and there's damn near nothing a dog pack can do against a fortress. Great strategy, Saruman. The Wargs are followed by a big cloud of red crap and the sounding of horns...horns in the Deeping Coomb. Those horns again. The archers at the Keep mercifully kill the horn blower first, after which they stand stock still so they can be shot by the Uruks. The cloud of red crap occasionally becomes a cloud of blue crap, and just makes the scene really hard to look at. A group of orcs valiantly tries to bust down a stone wall with a six-foot battering ram, even though there's a doorway only a few feet to their left. Probably can't see through the clouds of colored crap any more than we can. Saruman shoots Roman candles at the fortress all the way from Isengard and blows up the wall...and here we thought the Orthanc-fire was just gunpowder.

Horns...Horns in Helm's Deep: The Kazoo of Helm Hammerhand starts tooting away, and all the orcs shit themselves with fear and run for it, though why they don't first assume that it's just more of their own guys approaching is beyond me, since it's the exact same horn noise AGAIN. Theoden's people pour out from the decidedly un-glittering caves and attack the remarkably apelike orcs, and at the last minute Gandalf shows up with some guy who might be Eomer and saves the day. As he flings...some sword into the air (perhaps he went and stole Orcrist from Thorin's tomb,) the narrator tells us that the forces of darkness were driven forever from the face of Middle-earth. One hopes they were able to get a message to Frodo that he needn't worry over destroying the ring after all, which should save him the bother of being eaten by Shelob. The End!

There you have it. And there you can keep it. Almost no characterization beyond Frodo...and, well, Sam, though his is pretty laughably absurd. Despite often greater liberties with the books, Peter Jackson's version is almost incalculably better in terms of storytelling skill, acting, direction, and pretty much everything else. The best use for this video is probably as a drinking game. Whenever Gandalf tries to poke out someone's eye, Frodo hooks his thumbs in his belt, Saruman's name is mispronounced, or the goddamn horns start whining, take a swig. This way you'll be so toasted by the time you get to the really dull parts at the end that you'll probably be in a better frame of mind to enjoy all the drug-trippy fight scenes. But as with drinking, viewing of this film should never be done alone. It takes away too much of the MST3K appeal, which is about all it has going for it.

-review by Matt Murray

*For some reason, there's a lot of pedantic fan quibbling over whether or not Balrogs were supposed to have wings at all, even though the book clearly states "suddenly [the Balrog] drew itself up to a great height, and its wings were spread from wall to wall," which ought to settle it. Nevertheless, a bit just a few paragraphs earlier states that "the shadow about it reached out like two vast wings," which makes one wonder if even Tolkien himself was really terribly sure on this point.

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