Many moons ago in the lands of Middle Earth, there were created a series of magical rings to keep the peace in the land, handed out to men, elves and dwarves, but then the Dark Lord crafted a far more powerful ring to rule them all. Through convoluted means that had this fall through the hands of one Hobbit and into his nephew's, the one called Frodo Baggins (voiced by Christopher Guard) sets off from his home in the peaceful Shire on a quest to destroy the powerful magic ring, accompanied by his constant companion Sam. Along the way he encounters friends and enemies, and many dangers...
No, it's not that one. This is Ralph Bakshi's brave attempt at adapting J.R.R. Tolkien's classic, mythical trilogy for the big screen in animated form. Or at least half of it, because the money ran out and the project was unfortunately never completed. This first half is all that remains. Bakshi had been making a name for himself as the man almost singlehandedly dragging Western cartoons out of the family fare of the Disney Corporation and into a more mature, even adult arena, so giving Tolkien over to the director of Fritz the Cat was a controversial move at the time, though he had just completed an original fantasy, Wizards, the previous year.
The animation used the rotoscope process familiar from many of Bakshi's other cartoons, which at least gave the characters realistic movement, but some of them, like the orcs or the Black Riders, are hardly animated at all, plainly men in cheap costumes and the project's relatively low budget does show. Increasingly so over the course of the two hours plus it took to summarise the plots of The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers, as it came across as producer Saul Zaentz was growing less amenable to giving over any funds the longer the director took to relate what he wanted to do in his own way.
The character design itself was satisfactory enough, with the Hobbits being mop-headed and cutesy, if rather too reminiscent of vintage comedian Lou Costello, and the wizard who knows more than he's letting on Gandalf (voiced by William Squire) being appropriately sagely. However, the human warrior Aragorn (John Hurt, owner of the work's most recognisable tones) seems to have a broken nose, Bilbo puts me in mind of Roy Kinnear and the winged, hairy, lion-headed and large-footed Balrog looks a bit odd, frankly. The voice actors were generally pretty good, especially Peter Woodthorpe as Gollum, reprising his turn from the legendary BBC Radio adaptation.
The theme of friendship during hardship is nicely put across, yet Tolkien's parallels between the ring's power that some believed could be channelled into good when all it brought out was evil and the terror of impending nuclear war in the nineteen-fifties could really have been made more of, especially as the seventies were giving way to the eighties when that fear was growing ever more tangible. However, the backgrounds are attractively painted, although some of the images and psychedelic special effects may remind you that this decade was the era of prog rock and the hangover from the author's appeal to the flower children of the sixties was difficult to ignore. In fact, Led Zeppelin's "Misty Mountain Hop" would have fit in well with Leonard Rosenman's catchy soundtrack - Bakshi could not afford their actual tunes as he had wished for.
The Tolkien purists may not like this, although some appreciated its approach especially if it was their introduction to the literature at a tender age, and it does seem like a headlong rush through the books at times, with poor old Tom Bombadil predictably left out. Plus the lack of an ending isn't much help. But for what it is, this version holds a special place in some fans' hearts, even if it has now been completely eclipsed by Peter Jackson's blockbusters which even he acknowledged he lifted ideas, even shots and scenes, from the 1978 incarnation for his reading. After this was abandoned, rival animation company Rankin Bass produced Return of the King for television, but few were as satisfied with that as they were with this. Obviously it's too late for Bakshi to finish his film now, but he could always have a go at adapting the Harvard Lampoon's spoof paperback Bored of the Rings. Just a suggestion.
Although not well received by critics, the film was produced for $8 million and brought in $40 million! Not bad for a film that everyone now seems to be conveniently forgetting. It's just a shame Bakshi didn't finish the story... why?