Prior to Jackson's, the only moving coffee table books for fans of J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings have been three animations released in short order back in1978 and 1980 (and all currently available on DVD): Rankin and Bass' The Hobbit, Ralph Bakshi's Lord of the Rings and the Rankin-Bass 1980 follow-up Return of the King.
There are so many ways to try to judge these works that my head swims trying to pick one. I suppose one way would be to pick the work that best stands alone, and in that regard the only title worth watching is The Hobbit, a children's feature made for television and based on Tolkien's Hobbit, a children's-book precursor to LOTR. You'll recognize the Rankin-Bass name as the folks who gave you the stop-motion Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, with its refugee toys, fabulously swishy lion god and nazi-like reindeer. Kids love that. Like Rudolph, The Hobbit is a musical, narrated with a catchy if irritating vibrato folk style. (The song is "The Greatest Adventure (is what lies ahead)" and if you know it, you're singing it now.)
The Hobbit is Tolkien lite, a Doug Hennings-like magic! version of Middle-earth. But as a child I was enrapt, and viewing it recently I remember why: John Huston has the greatest voice for Gandalf that could be imagined, and the Gollum broke my heart. As a child I knew nothing of the tradition of thief-heroes, and now that I know and understand more the evil of Smeagol/Gollum, I still feel a twinge for the green critter.
THE Lord of the
Lord of the Rings came out shortly after The Hobbit with a theatrical release, and the fact of the two productions might have been a coincidence. They certainly seem to take place in alternate universes. Where The Hobbit came from the people who brought you Burl Ives as a snowman, Lord of the Rings came from Ralph Bakshi, who brought you the X-rated Fritz the Cat.
And oh, what a mess, a two-hour mess, a lovely mess I enjoyed but that fans of Tolkien are strangely more appalled by than the Rankin-Bass musicals. Most of this is a shock reaction to Bakshi's enthusiastic embrace of rotoscoping, the technique by which animators paint over moving human actors. The result often looks less like animation than like - well, like painted actors. This movie came out nearly a quarter century ago and people are still griping about the rotoscoping in Lord of the Rings. But I alone have returned to tell you: often, the technique works, if you can accept that that's the technique the movie employs. The battle scenes, in which shadowy Orc Riders sweep across plains against our heroes, are huge and feel very threatening in no small part due to Bakshi's experiments.
There are wonderful moments, such as when Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin hide from a wraith, who hovers above the ditch where they've taken shelter. The wraith sniffs lustily while Frodo silently grapples with the desire to don the ring. In another brilliant moment, Frodo puts on the ring and gets pulled into the alternate dark dimension (where he goes when he's invisible to us) and where the wraiths are more dangerous. Finally, Smeagol the Gollum is the best part of the picture, a groveling, twisted piece of sickness, a walking spiritual warning for Frodo.
Lord of the Rings makes every attempt at being an adult fantasy movie, sweeping and grand - but even at two hours, it can't bear the weight of its task. I'm not sure if Bakshi intended to adapt the whole Lord of the Rings, but this movie manages to get about halfway through The Two Towers with Theoden and Gandalf, a little farther with Smeagol and the hobbits. Jackson seems content to follow the book outline, so that the live-action Fellowship ends with the separation of Sam and Frodo from the fellowship itself, but Bakshi seems to have found this an unexciting end for a movie. Thus the end of Bakshi's film belongs to Gandalf, and the hobbits are left wandering the mountains with Gollum, quite a ways later in The Two Towers.
And, of course, it goes round and round, trying desperately to fit in what can't possibly fit and confusing things, so that sometimes Saruman is called "Aruman" and scenes go nowhere, and it's nearly impossible to figure out what any of the battles are actually about. The animation style is entirely too broad to feel natural in any close-ups, due not to rotoscoping but to the unpleasantly broad gestures of the actors being rotoscoped.
Here's a question for old king Theoden, and Tolkien for that matter: why would any king listen to a toadying suck-up named "Grima Wormtongue?" Doesn't that name just scream "deceitful liar?"
But still, I love the majesty and danger of Gandalf, who bears so many names. And there are moments, as with the final battle, when Theoden feels completely doomed and surrounded, that the sweeping feel of the movie works beautifully. But could I show it to my wife, who doesn't know Tolkien from Tolstoy? I might as well show her a tape of Queensryche videos for all it would communicate. But for fantasy fans, Lord of the Rings fails, but fails big.
THE RETURN OF THE
"Where there's a whip, there's a way." (Whack!)
So how did this movie happen? Somehow, after Bakshi's unfinished semi-masterpiece for adults, Rankin-Bass returned to the Tolkien well for their own adaptation of Book III of LOTR, Return of the King. Except that now we're back in the Rankin-Bass universe, where everyone sings and is a little rounder and the hobbits look a lot like the mice from that Christmas special about mice who live in a big clock.
And if Rankin-Bass gave us the best Tolkien adaptation in The Hobbit, here they give us the worst, an awful, long, dull, drawn-out morality tale that follows Frodo and Sam to their final destination, while Gandalf broods behind besieged walls waiting for the return of Aragorn the King. This is a work for children, and the best moment in the whole picture is the Orc song, "Where there's a whip, there's a way," which utterly kills the darkness of the story but ends up being just as catchy as "The Greatest Adventure," and more so, because it's not sung by that awful vibrato troubadour. This movie ends up being even more pointlessly confusing than Bakshi's Lord of the Rings at the same time that it aims squarely under the adult audience, so that it succeeds with no one.
So what have we learned? For one thing we've learned that the X-Men movie was smart to dump twenty years of continuity. And that if you're going to introduce a child to Tolkien, stick with The Hobbit. And ultimately, of course, you can always refer to Peter Jackson's live action take on Tolkien.