What is the best adaptation of the Tolkien classic: Lord of the Rings? Well, I’m here to give my odd opinion because I’ve been feeling the need to discuss Ralph Bakshi’s animated feature of the Fellowship of the Ring. First released in 1978 and first seen by me somewhere amongst the 90’s, this film has always been my preference when it comes to Lord of the Ring adaptations.
The first Tolkien related movie I ever saw was the Rankin Bass production of the Hobbit. I remember liking it as a kid because it had catchy songs and a colorful appearance, but I knew there was something special when my dad brought home Ralph Bakshi’s vision of the novel.
First off, the film is aesthetically refreshing. It’s rotoscoped which has the ability to appear beautiful and eerie simultaneously. For the most part the animation seems smooth and almost flawless, but since this footage has been traced over, the character’s eyes will move oddly at times and their mannerisms come off as otherworldly. Most would see this as just an error in the technique, but it kind of works to Bakshi’s advantage. It makes this fantasy world a little bit darker and a little more memorable. This movie strays away from the playfulness of Rankin Bass and from the heavy action of Peter Jackson to find it’s own middle ground.
The film has it’s share of light hearted moments and uses songs and poems found in the source material. The audience gets to see Frodo dancing on the tables at the inn singing happily and pieces of the backdrop are soft and welcoming.
Those lighter moments are for the most part balanced with good action sequences and moments that terrified me as a kid. It was a mix of everything and while it had it’s flaws, I enjoyed the combination of softness and grittiness. I’ve said this on a previous post, but I’m a fan of Grimm’s Fairytales because I’m attracted to that sort of atmosphere in fiction. I like the fantasy and hints of a pastel world fusing itself with dark images and quirkiness. That’s what Ralph Bakshi has to offer here – a somber fairytale environment.
Another element that draws me to this film is the characterization of Frodo. As much as I applaud Elijah Wood as an actor, I’m not a fan of his portrayal of the hobbit. I’ve always found him to be a little too helpless. This Frodo is cofident without turning cocky. He’s positive, cautious, caring, and gradually grows weary while still maintaining a sense of duty and dealing with it the best he can. It’s still evident that the ring is draining him, but he only reveals that side when his guard is let down. He allows himself to be vulnerable to the audience, but still makes the choice to march on despite the ring breaking him down little by little. When I think of Frodo I think of this version.
There’s a scene where he confides in Sam about getting to Mt. Doom and he says, “Just to get there, Sam. Just to get there. The ring is so heavy now.” He has this somber moment where he admits that he’s struggling and that the ring is too much for him. He just wants all of this to be over and yet the way he says it shows a great deal of strength. He’s still doing his best to keep up a brave face for Sam and smiles soon after when Sam looks concerned. It’s moments like those that give this film such heart and make me care more and more about the protagonist.
But with every good characterization there comes a…not so good one. This would be the portrayal of Sam. They make him out to be the village idiot and a source of comic relief to the extent that he has no other persona. There are no layers to him – only a bumbling idiot. It’s a shame because Sam is my favorite character and one thing I loved about the Peter Jackson films was Sean Astin’s Sam. He showed courage, weakness, humor, solemn emotion, and became a hero in his own right. I’m someone who buys into the theory that Sam is the true protagonist of the trilogy. I always saw him as the stronger one – almost like Frodo’s guardian angel. Rankin Bass does a good job with Sam’s role in their adaptation of Return of the King, but it’s a shame he was resorted to such a pitiful state for this film.
Unfortunately the story goes slightly over into the Two Towers territory before cutting off and never picked up again with any sequels. Rankin Bass tried to complete it while paying notice to their Hobbit film with Return of the King, but needless to say it wasn’t the same. Also, I’m not a fan of Rankin Bass’s Return of the King.
Ralph Bakshi’s spin wasn’t without flaws. Sometimes the animation differed with itself when one drawing would be traced almost realistically while others remained more cartoonish within the same panel. Sam’s character was off and at times the movement of the characters came across as unsettling. Still after a recent re-watch I remembered why I always enjoyed this version and why I prefer it over Peter Jackson’s take. Ralph Bakshi is good at creating a haunting outlook in his work and it fit for the Fellowship of the Ring. It had a gloomy fairytale emotion to it that was only increased by the rare use of rotoscope. The writers did an amazing job on Frodo’s character as well as Aragorn’s which I didn’t mention yet. Aragorn is less of a sad, puppy love stricken man and more of a tough, slick mentor. He’s a great deal of fun to watch especially in battle scenes and while I do like Aragorn in the live action trilogy, I prefer his animated counterpart primarily for his relationship with Frodo.
Also, we have a nice Golem. Who wouldn’t love that face?
The film isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but if you’ve never seen it I would highly recommend giving it a try. Sadly, Tom Bombadil still isn’t present, but he’s with us in spirit.