The Lord of the Rings cartoons made from 1978 to 1980 are all now out on DVD and Blu-Ray. Here's a buy link. Approach with caution.
Shane Ivey barely survived watching them. Here is his harrowing tale.
The year was 1978, and the entire chronicle of the Ring and the hobbits was brought to television and theater in Ralph Bakshi's Lord of the Rings and Rankin-Bass' The Hobbit and Return of the King TV cartoons. Tolkien fans got much to regret.
Bakshi's Lord of the Rings is a haphazard effort combining earnest tries at emotional realism with bleary, disjointed psychedelia.
It was released at a time when independent comics were huge but American animation was stuck in the rut of Saturday morning network TV. Bakshi was a hipster innovator, best known for the tricky, pornographic toon Fritz the Cat. He also did the bloody and mildly naughty 1977 fantasy Wizards, which succeeded by turning fantasy conventions on their sides and stirring up the soil beneath; his effort at Lord of the Rings was straight, serious, and unwatchable.
It may have been an intriguing visual spectacle in its planning, the sort of project that looked thrilling on paper, combining animation and live action for a unique cartoon experience. Whatever it meant to achieve, though, it failed. The strictly animated sequences were strong, except for lazy attention to the characters' appearance. But Bakshi used rotoscoping, overlaying animation with live action, to present most of the secondary characters and to portray most of the action sequences.
The result was a psychedelic mess. The costumes used for humans in the live-action sequences looked fresh out of 1950s Scandinavian Sinbad films (cf. Mystery Science Theatre 3000). The orc costumes looked cobbled together after a middle-school Halloween party.
Bakshi's Lord of the Rings was a curiosity, a chance for readers to see what their favorite characters looked like. Instead, I wonder if the illustrators had ever heard of the novels.
Stout, loyal Sam was a fat bumbler.
Boromir, the greatest captain in the most civilized kingdom of Middle-earth, was a furry Viking, complete with a horned helmet and a crappy sword that any real medieval soldier would be ashamed to carry out of the house.
The deadly Black Riders hobbled about like Quasimodo. The mighty old wizard Saruman was frail and decrepit. Majestic elves Galadriel and Celeborn looked like disco royalty.
The orcs . . . don't get me started on the orcs.
The writers were not immune: In one scene, characters began referring to Saruman as "Aruman."
Some details were overlooked, but others were rigorously presented. The engraving on the great stone door of Moria was reproduced exactly from Tolkien's own sketch. Lines spoken in Tolkien's Elvish and the Black Speech were taken straight from the pages.
Close-ups of the Ring were perfect. They paid attention to the source, even if details went awry in translation.
"I'll cut you, bitch!" -- Lord of the Rings: The Novelization
The greatest failure of the movie, though, is that it just does not make sense.
The cartoon glossed over the first chapters, omitted the episodes with Tom Bombadil and the Barrow Downs (Peter Jackson did, too), and ended with the final action of Two Towers. So Return of the King isn't even in it. (Bakshi explained later he was going to finish it in a sequel, but Rankin/Bass did one without him.)
Still, the screenplay was compressed to unwieldiness. Crucial incidents were jammed together between hasty exposition voice-overs, so the story leaps from scene to scene.
To those of us familiar with the novels, the whole thing is an interesting exercise in illustration; to everyone else it's disjointed nonsense, a cheap documentary with lousy effects.
And Aragorn is a half-naked Apache.