The Lord of the Rings Animated Trilogy

Rankin/Bass cartoons were a staple of the late ’70s an early ’80s from whence I sprang. Ranging from the classic The Last Unicorn to the hilariously bad The Flight of Dragons, they dominated the animated TV movie landscape. One of their beloved creations was the first film adaptation of The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, with its stylized look and memorable theme tune- “The Greatest Adventure,” by Glenn Yarborough- was even worthy of inspiring the hilarious South Park parody “Lemmiwinks,” but it has many other charms. Sadly the attempts at the Lord of the Rings, by Ralph Bakshi and then Rankin & Bass after he fucked it up so badly- are best viewed with copious amounts of alcohol or other substances.

The Hobbit was written as a bedtime tale for Tolkien’s children, and the movie wastes little time with Tolkien’s famous tangents and history. We meet Bilbo Baggins, a member of the race of hobbits- homely short folk fond of food and cozy life- and not long after, the greybearded wizard Gandalf is introducing him to a gaggle of thirteen dwarves with rhyming names. Thorin, Boring and Moron, and so on. The dwarves need a “burglar” for their quest to steal their ancestors’ shit back from Smaug the dragon, and without much explanation, Bilbo is chosen by old Gandalf the Grey to join the band, if only because 13 is an unlucky number.

The greatest adventure is what lies ahead…

It’s a charming children’s adaptation of what is a children’s book, with some changes but otherwise enjoyable and intact in simplified form. Its version of Gollum is quite memorable and definitely influenced Peter Jackson and Andy Serkis. He’s a bit more froglike here, like a bipedal pollywog, but his voice by comedian Brother Theodore is perfect. “What has it got in its pocketses?!” Until Serkis came along, this was still quite good. From the quest to Lonely Mountain, battles with spiders and escaping from elves, to the Battle of the Five Armies, it keeps all the best stuff and only fudges a little when they meet trolls. Instead of talking until the sun comes up, Gandalf makes the sun rise- though I suppose they had to do something to show off Gandalf’s power, which rarely surfaces in these tales.
The film’s visual style is unique and enjoyable, looking like Tarot cards from the ’70s. and the film is a great introduction to the story. The songs by Glenn Yarborough are thoroughly dated but endearing: “The Greatest Adventure,” will have you looking around for “Lemmiwinks.” The Goblin song is great too: “Down, down to Goblin town!” and they manage to make a nearly bloodless story quite engaging, and just scary enough to ensure that little kids will be rooted to the screen but not up all night with nightmares.

Yo ho, my lads!

The voice casting is inspired: Otto Preminger as the king of the wood elves? Sure he looks more like a grey alien than an elf, but so what? Nostalgia be damned, this is still good. And if you’ve read the book, like me you’ll wonder how Guillermo del Toro is going to remain faithful in his adaptation; it’s a lot lighter than you may remember. Pan’s Labyrinth it ain’t. Will he keep the songs? Many of the songs from Tolkien’s book are adapted here, and they manage to make them work, but I doubt modern audiences are going to tolerate it. But I can’t wait to see what he does with it.

One of Bakshi’s most colossal failures, this trainwreck of a film encapsulates The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers, and then ends abruptly. There’s a lot of fluff and a lot of important stuff left out, as if they had 5 hours of storyboards and just plucked sequences randomly. It’s bizarre to watch, changes visual style and tone, and never really gets engaging at all. Like Bakshi’s other films like Coonskin, he puts cartoony characters on top of realistic, psychedelic, rotoscoped, and stock footage backgrounds. While experimental, it never really works- definitely not as well as in his Tolkien & Vaughan Bode ripoff Wizards.
The character designs are boring, and there is no sense of pacing. Everything is rotoscoped, and while this gives the orcs a creepy look, it makes the men look like old western footage- which I would not be surprised if he used! Saruman is named Ariman, probably so he’s not confused with Sauron- and every scene feels interminably long, and without purpose. Some scenes work: when we meet the first ringwraith on the road, it is almost exactly like Jackson’s later incarnation; Boromir’s failure and redemption is very emotional and probably the best part of the film. The scenes in Moria also work very well, and stick more closely to the book. The Balrog scene is quite engaging, and they stick close to the book in Pippin’s idle pebble-tossing scene.

Samwise is played by Lou Costello.

The Two Towers section is incredibly boring, and because they ran out of money, the movie just ends like an audio book. “Their adventures continue in Return of the King! The End.” Other scenes, like the battle with the Nazgul outside Rivendell, are excruciatingly long and overwrought, confusing and boring. The ringwraiths surround Frodo, and his friends suddenly disappear; for about five minutes their horses face off, we have no idea why they don’t just walk over and stab him. And we wish they would, to make the scene end.

We’re wizards, dammit. We’re not supposed to just stand in front of light and shit!

Gimli just looks like a guy with a beard, but Legolas is well done; John Hurt voices Aragorn, and does a passable job with a miscast part. I like John Hurt, but his voice isn’t what you’d expect from Aragorn. Another hilariously bad scene is the fight between Saruman Ariman and Gandalf, which looks like two old guys with sticks wobbling in front of a tie dye shirt on a clothesline. Best viewed with a lot of illegal substances, and I didn’t have any. It’s a shame, because some of what is here is quite good, and definitely influenced Peter Jackson. Even Gollum- who is rather disturbing, like a cross between a junkie and a concentration camp victim- gets an appropriately tragic depiction.

After the success of The Hobbit, I had high hopes for this attempt to tack an ending on Bakshi’s failure. But Rankin/Bass’s The Return of the King is even more confused. It chops the story up and rearranges everything without purpose, cuts essential parts like Shelob the spider, and tells us the ending before beginning. Sam’s internal monologue drones on endlessly as he explains every item and gives backstory; Gollum doesn’t show up until one hour in; the Fellowship is completely ignored and Gimli & Legolas are nowhere to be found. With so much cut out and the rest explained in voiceover, it’s nearly intolerable.
Its one saving grace is the song “Where there’s a whip, there’s a way,” which sticks out as creepy in an otherwise bloodless film. Even when Eowyn kills the Witch King of Angstrom, she can’t cut the drake; light flashes from her blade. And the Witch-King sounds like Skeletor. His death is the most memorable battle, and when Aragorn comes out of nowhere, we’re wondering what the hell is going on. They spend so much time trying to explain what’s so bad about the ring, that a simple montage and voiceover- one of the few good parts of Bakshi’s version- would have been lovely. What’s bizarre is that Glenn Yarborough is back, as a bard telling the tale to old Bilbo- a strange framing device, with forgettable songs.

Where there’s a whip, there’s a way.

Some of the choices are just awful; Casey Kasem voicing Merry is terribly grating. Especially since we barely know who Merry and Pippin are. The film’s tone varies and the final fate of the ring, with Gollum drawn and voiced the same way as in The Hobbit, is the only engaging scene. I was so relieved by the 1 hour mark when Brother Theodore’s Gollum returned that I actually began to think it was a good film. Which it is not. Utterly horrible, from a studio that has done much better. It’s forgivable, since they were handed a hot handful of shit to start with, but stick with The Hobbit.

Legolas from Bakshi’s version