Lord of the Rings: Is the Bakshi film really that bad?

TODD MAN OUT: Ideas, Opinions and Observations from Todd

Lord of the Rings: Is the Bakshi film really that Bad?

The late 70’s was fantasy film heaven for kids.  Obviously there was Star Wars, Fantasia had been re-released, and then there was Bakshi’s version of Lord of the Rings.  Having just read the Hobbit, the size of the LotR books was a little daunting at that point, but the movie was more then enough to satisfy my curiosity.  I loved it.  But, as one got older it seems, the movie seems to loose its luster – as evident from the hammering the movie gets every time it’s mentioned.  Childhood perspective aside, the movie STILL got hammered by many of the adult critics at the time and to this day is not remembered well.  I myself never actually developed a hatred for the film, and even in light of the recent, albeit far, far more superior films, could still appreciate its attempt.  I think to pick on the film now-a-days is about as fair as picking on the original King Kong for its outdated special effects or the fact that it isn’t in colour.

The primary obstacle that faced Bakshi was funding.  And considering the technology and techniques that he had to work with, I simply think that he did the best that anyone could.  I mean, I doubt very highly that even Disney, who dominated feature animation at the time, could have done any better – proven later by their attempt of The Black Cauldron.   And animation was the only way to go, because despite what Star Wars had suddenly done with special effects, there was no way that the demands of the story could be captured any other way.  Nevertheless, the animation is generally slagged due in large part to its use of rotoscoping, a technique were live action actors are filmed and then the “animation” is drawn over top.  In many respects, rotoscoping is no different then today’s use of actors in front of “green screen”.  Yes, there are moments where the character rendering is weak, and the rotoscoping is far too shaky for the backgrounds it’s placed against, and most frustrating of all is that in many cases the live action is not animated at all, but over all, the film was marked as an achievement for its use of the technique.

But I guess where the real assault against the film is its narrative choices.  These criticisms are all but nullified now due to the fact that PJ’s version pretty much makes the exact same choices.  In fact, I would have to say that any book to film version was pretty much predestined to loose Tom Bombadil and so forth.  It’s also no secret that PJ is a big fan of the film and borrows from it several times.

Sadly, and most crippling, is the fact that the movie simply ends after the victory of Helm’s Deep.  To me, this is where the film seems to receive this inherent blacklash.  The original intention was that the story was to be presented in two parts, but the studio pulled out once the reaction to the “first half” was so poor.  I would have loved to have seen what Bakshi’s interpretation of the second half might have been.
However, with the PJ films, everyone now has a frame of reference in the fulfillment of the possibilities; LotR presented to the mainstream in such a way that not only are the “original” fans satisfied, but those who may never have been interested are now drawn in.  That for me is where PJ’s version is at its weakest – when he attempts to accommodate those in the audience who may not be familiar with fantasy as a whole, let alone the books.  And this is where the Bakshi film has its charm.  It makes no attempts to satisfy this segment of the audience, but rather aims its self directly at those who already know what they’re getting into.  It’s just that the fans at the time simply didn’t understand how hard it is to put a book to film.  “The book is always better then film” hadn’t become a mantra till much later.  Filmgoers now expect the film versions of books to be exactly what they can only be – adaptations – and thus, are far more forgiving.

Why is the Bakshi film not so bad?  Well, here are the major points that I think set it apart:

  1. The overall tenor of the film – its acting, scene design, and above all, its speech – is so much closer to the books then PJ ever allowed his version to be.
  2. The principal characters are portrayed just as successfully, and in some cases, more so.  After seeing PJ’s version hundreds of times, it’s pretty refreshing to go back and see Gimili not having to be the yuckster every time he’s on the screen.  John Hurt as the voice of Aragorn is perfect.  Gollum is what we expect him to be.
  3. As I’ve already stated in this forum, the soundtrack is simply better suited and used more effectively.
  4. And for what it’s worth, the film goes more for atmosphere and emotion then razor sharp detail and/or obvious, visual clichés.  Dramatic pauses and interludes, realistic interpretation of action, and mixed pacing of scene transition give the film a level of sophistication that I think is missing from the more “modern” Hollywood approach.
  5. Some scene interpretations were so well designed that in order to top them, PJ would simply have to copy them.  He did in several cases, specifically with the Nazgul in Bree.  There were a number of moments for which I wish he copied more.  I much rather prefer the last stand of Boromir in the Bakshi version then PJ’s.

Love it or leave it, it does have the distinction of being the first real endeavor, and although it was likely made far before the time it should have been, it did the best it could.  It has carried influence, not only in the newer version, but it helped to reinvigorate the popularity of the tale at the time it came out – despite its overall lack of success.  If it has proven to do that, how bad can it be?

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