Monday, March 13, 2023

Stubs - The Lord of the Rings (1978)


The Lord of the Rings (1978) Voices of Christopher Guard, William Squire, Michael Scholes. Directed by Ralph Bakshi. Screenplay by Chris Conkling, Peter S. Beagle. Based on the novels The Hobbit, Or, There and Back Again; The Fellowship of the Ring: Being the First Part of "The Lord of the Rings" and The Return of the King: Being the Third Part of "The Lord of the Rings" by J. R. R. Tolkien (London, 1937 and 1954). Produced by Saul Zaentz. Run time: 115 minutes. USA. Color. Animated, Fantasy

While Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy is the best-known film adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s books, it is not the first one. Interest in making Tolkien’s fantasy trilogy into a film dates back to 1956 and Walt Disney Pictures' acquisition of the rights. No Disney film materialized, but he wasn’t the last one to try to make a film from it.

Apparently, The Beatles tried in 1968 to acquire the rights. According to a BBC report, if the film had made its way into production, the cast would have been composed of Paul McCartney as Frodo, John Lennon as Gollum, George Harrison as Gandalf, and Ringo Starr as Sam. They were also interested in Stanley Kubrick as the director. However, Tolkien didn't like the idea of a pop group doing his story and nixed the sale.

United Artists acquired rights in 1969 after two years of negotiations, partnering with Katzka-Berne Productions, Inc. in the deal. It was reported, in 1970, that John Boorman had been hired to produce, direct and co-write with Rospo Pallenberg an adaptation of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. However, UA balked at the cost of producing Boorman’s script.

Ralph Bakshi, perhaps best known for films like Fritz the Cat, Heavy Traffic and Coonskin petitioned UA several times to direct The Lord of the Rings as an animated feature. In 1975, the studio allowed Bakshi to take control of the project at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. However, MGM’s involvement ended when studio brass failed to grasp Bakshi’s creative vision. They did allow Bakshi to retain the rights if he could reimburse UA the $600,000 the company had spent to develop the property. Otherwise, the rights would revert to MGM the next day. Bakshi contacted Zaentz, who acquired the rights immediately and agreed to be his partner.

After securing the blessing of Tolkien’s estate and the novel’s British publishers, screenwriter Chris Conkling, a young Tolkien scholar, was hired and wrote the early drafts of the screenplay, which were later revised and polished by his co-writer, established fantasy author Peter S. Beagle.

Production began on January 17, 1977. After hiring actors to play the human and humanoid roles, Bakshi shot Part I as a live-action film on soundstages and on locations on two continents. Sites in California included the Mojave Desert and locations in Spain included a castle that served as the setting for the movie’s “Helm’s Deep” sequence. The live-action part of the production took about six months to complete.

Once the film was completed, Bakshi oversaw the process of transforming the live action into animation, with a staff of 184, primarily made up of art students based solely on the strength of their portfolios. Animators used a Rotoscope to project the completed live action film to cel size and the illustrators traced over and enhanced the images on each frame. Since the director’s intention was to give the animation a new verisimilitude, his team developed new paints, papers and colors to create over 10,000 painted backgrounds, devised a way to create slow-motion animation and increased the density of action in the frames. This portion of the film process is said to have taken at least eighteen months. With an end of the year release deadline, he had only four weeks to edit the film. There are reports that film wasn’t finished until October 29, 1978, five days before its first industry screening.

The total budget of the film was estimated to be about $12 million.

The Seven Dwarf Lords who were given rings.

A narrator (John Huston) provides exposition at the beginning. Long ago, elves created several “rings of power” for the men, dwarves and elves who inhabited Middle Earth. The Dark Lord of Mordor, Sauron, forged one master ring more powerful than the others and soon defeated his enemies. One human ruler, Prince Isildur, procured the ring, but later lost it, and in the thousands of years that passed, Sauron turned the nine men who possessed the human rings of power into shadowy black riders known as “Ringwraiths,” doomed to wander the earth looking for the master ring in order to return it to its creator.

When a man named Smeagol finds the ring, it warps his mind, body and actions until his people start calling him “Gollum” (Peter Woodthorpe) instead. Gollum loses the ring and Bilbo Baggins (Norman Bird), the hobbit, finds it and takes it home with him to the Shire.

Bilbo Baggins (Norman Bird) announces he's leaving the shire.

Sometime later, the wizard Gandalf "the Grey" Stormcrow  (William Squire), visits Bilbo and urges him to honor their prior agreement and relinquish the ring to Bilbo’s nephew, Frodo Baggins (Christopher Guard). Having fallen under the ring’s spell slightly, Bilbo reluctantly acquiesces, then leaves the Shire to travel the world.

Gandalf (William Squire) explains things to Frodo (Christopher Guard).

Seventeen years later, Gandalf returns to the Shire and explains to Frodo that Sauron knows the hobbit has the ring and will come looking for it. Frodo decides to leave home in order to forestall Sauron from ravaging the Shire in search of him. Gandalf agrees to the plan’s wisdom and suggests Frodo seek counsel from the elves at Rivendell but cover his true mission by telling everyone in the Shire he is going to live with his cousins Peregrin “Pippin” Took (Dominic Guard) and Meriadoc “Merry” Brandybuck (Simon Chandler). Frodo’s friend, Samwise “Sam” Gamgee (Michael Scholes), overhears the plan and asks to accompany Frodo on the adventure.

Peregrin “Pippin” Took (Dominic Guard), Meriadoc “Merry” Brandybuck (Simon Chandler). and
Samwise “Sam” Gamgee (Michael Scholes) accompany Frodo on his adventure.

Meanwhile, Gandalf goes to Isengard to consult the leader of his order, the wizard Saruman "the White," only to learn that Saruman (Fraser Kerr) is currying Sauron’s favor. When Gandalf protests the evil alliance as folly, Saruman imprisons Gandalf.

Aragorn (John Hurt) has been sent by Gandalf to look after the hobbits.

Elsewhere, Pippin and Merry hear of Frodo’s mission and insist on also joining his quest. The hobbits stop at an inn for the night and encounter Aragorn (John Hurt), a mortal man who divulges that Gandalf sent him to look after them. Although Aragorn is worried because he has not heard from the wizard, he can protect and guide the hobbits to Rivendell as planned.

Late that night, as the black riders seek the hobbits at the inn, Frodo realizes that when he puts the ring on his finger, he can enter the shadow men’s world and interact with them. A fight with a wraith leaves the tip of the enemy’s knife in Frodo’s bloodstream. Frodo removes the ring and returns to the real world, but is sickened by the metal, which will turn him into a wraith if it reaches his heart.

The next morning, Aragorn and the hobbits run into the elf Legolas (Anthony Daniels), who has come to lead them to their destination.

On the way to Rivendell, the band is overpowered by the black riders until a stream washes the wraiths away. Overcome by the poisonous metal, Frodo falls unconscious and wakes up at Rivendell to find Gandalf next to him. Gandalf explains how Frodo triumphed against the Ringwraiths and describes his own escape from the traitorous Saruman.

Since the black riders are temporarily defeated, the immediate threat is the white wizard, who wants the power of the ring for himself. After Frodo recovers, he is happily reunited with Bilbo.

Later, at a special council comprised of representatives of the races of Middle Earth, Frodo learns that Aragorn is a descendant of the prince who took the ring from Sauron. Elrond, the elven leader of Rivendell, suggests that the only solution is to return the ring to the fire at Mordor that was used to forge it. Another council member, Boromir (Michael Graham-Cox), protests they should not destroy the ring but use it to help Middle Earth, starting with his homeland, Gondor, which is already under attack by Sauron’s forces.

Gimli the dwarf (David Buck) on the left.

But Gandalf insists it is not safe to use the ring because anyone who does so will be corrupted by its power and then broadcast the ring’s whereabouts to Sauron. Instead, Gandalf suggests that the Dark Lord may be so intent on locating the possessor of his ring, he may be blind to anyone sneaking into Mordor to destroy it. Although Bilbo volunteers for the mission, it is decided that Frodo will attempt to breach Mordor, accompanied by Gandalf, Sam, Pippin, Merry, Aragorn, Legolas, Boromir and Gimli the dwarf (David Buck).

Gandalf battles Balrog, a winged, whip-wielding, fire-breathing monster.

On the way to Mordor, the band is attacked by evil humanoid soldiers known as orcs and a winged, whip-wielding, fire-breathing creature called Balrog. Gandalf battles the monster until the two combatants fall into a deep pit. As his friends watch him plummet, Gandalf urges them to go on without him, then disappears from sight.

The group continues on and arrives at the elven land of Lothlorien where they rest, recuperate, and soon after, depart by boat.

Later, as Frodo decides how he wants to proceed, Boromir approaches the hobbit and suggests they all go to Gondor and use the ring there to defend his people. When Frodo refuses, insisting that the ring causes evil, no matter the wearer’s intentions, Boromir tries to take the ring by force, but Frodo dons the ring and vanishes.

Boromir reports Frodo’s disappearance to the others and the hobbits run away looking for him with Gimli and Legolas in tow. Aragorn chides Boromir for making Frodo leave, then orders him to guard Pippin and Merry. Aragorn urges Sam to follow him, but Sam sneaks away, deducing that Frodo went to the shore. Sam finds Frodo there and the two hobbits head to Mordor in a boat.

Meanwhile, Pippin and Merry run into orcs, who carry them away. Boromir finds and defends the hobbits until the orcs shoot him with arrows. Moments later, Aragorn discovers Boromir, who admits with his dying breath that he tried to take the ring from Frodo and that the orcs captured the hobbits.

Later, as Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas decide to save Merry and Pippin, the orcs tell the hobbits they are going to Isengard. On the way, blond warriors known as the Riders of Rohan attack the orcs. Elsewhere, Frodo and Sam disembark near Mordor’s Mount Doom and encounter Smeagol, whom Frodo knows has been following them since they left Moria. In exchange for the hobbits sparing his life, Smeagol agrees to lead them to the gates of Mordor through a secret path. Meanwhile, the orcs and the blond warriors battle each other as Merry and Pippin escape to a nearby forest where a sentient, mobile tree called Treebeard carries them to safety.

Elsewhere, Legolas, Gimli and Aragorn lament losing Merry and Pippin’s trail until Gandalf approaches them. The wizard explains how he vanquished Balrog and escaped. He asks them to accompany him to aid Edoras, a nearby kingdom where Saruman’s orcs are due to descend in two days.

Théoden (Philip Stone), the country’s aged king, is under the advice of Grima Wormtongue (Michael Deacon), who is secretly working for Saruman. When Aragorn notes that there are not enough Rohan riders to stop Saruman’s legions, Gandalf suggests they divert the orcs to a nearby stronghold called Helm’s Deep. Perhaps they can keep the evil forces distracted long enough for Frodo to complete his quest.

Meanwhile, Saruman instructs his orc troops that if they can defeat the Rohan, they can take the rest of Middle Earth.

Gandalf at Helm's Deep.

In Edoras, Gandalf exposes Wormtongue’s duplicity to Théoden and as Wormtongue escapes, the wizard convinces the king to occupy Saruman’s forces at Helm’s Deep. Soon, Théoden, his men and the four travelers depart Edoras. Gandalf rides away from the group, instructing the king and Aragorn to look for him at Helm’s Deep.

Elsewhere, Frodo and Sam continue following Smeagol toward Mordor, despite their mutual distrust, as Saruman's evil forces approach Helm’s Deep, where the Riders of Rohan lie in wait for them. During the battle, magic bolts sent from Isengard help the orcs breach the hold. The king, his friends, and his remaining soldiers retreat to a cave where Théoden announces he would rather die in combat than trapped in a hole. The others join him in returning to the battlefield.

Elsewhere, Frodo notes that they are about a day from Mordor. He thanks Sam for his steadfast friendship and admits he is looking forward to ending the adventure because the ring has gotten very heavy. Smeagol urges the hobbits to keep moving and they wearily continue. Although King Théoden and his allies defeat many orcs back at Helm’s Deep, they soon realize there are many more orcs on the way. Théoden calls out for Gandalf, who suddenly appears. With the wizard’s help, they dispatch the forces of darkness and remove them from Middle Earth.

The film was released on November 15, 1978 and made $30,471,420 in it’s initial release. While that might not seem like a lot now, it was profitable. Originally conceived as a trilogy, the plan was to make only one sequel. However, that never materialized thanks to changes in management at United Artists;  Arthur Krim resigned and was replaced by Andy Albeck. The new management felt that the film "failed to overwhelm audiences" so there was no sequel greenlit.

Critical response was mixed. Vincent Canby’s review in The New York Times called the film “both numbing and impressive.” The reviewer tales note: “It's not a movie for the child (or adult) who has yet to conquer his need for instant gratification.” The reviewer felt that the film “ends without actually ending.”

The numbing part Canby blames “the screenplay by Chris Conkling and Peter S. Beagle” and that “the film attempts to cover too much ground too quickly.”

While the director is credited with “attempting to go beyond the limits of movie animation as we know it,” at the same time the animation “has the look of video tape that has been electronically altered to give it an unworldly, unfilmlike quality. Sometimes this is most effective; at other times it simply looks like badly developed film stock. Still, the film is visually compelling even when murk overtakes the narrative.”

Roger Ebert, writing in The Chicago Sun-Times, gives the film a mixed review stating, “The good news is that Bakshi has done an entirely respectable, occasionally impressive job of transferring to the screen Tolkien's detailed thousand-page epic fable of Middle Earth. The bad news is that, good script, $8-million budget, and slam-bang animation aside, it still falls far short of the charm and sweep of the original story.”

I have to somewhat agree with both reviewers, especially when it comes to the animation, which is somewhat uneven; ambitious but uneven. The varying animation styles reminded me at a times of the animation in Yellow Submarine. But while that film used a minimalist technique, Bakshi’s style is to fill the entire screen though sometimes with images that are less than ideal.

I’ll give Bakshi credit for using what was then a fairly new technique, rotoscoping, but that is also the problem with the film, the over reliance on it. At its best, the technique makes the animation seem more fluid but sometimes the images come off as little more than coloring over the faces of the actors rather than animating over them. This is especially noticeable in the bar room scene when patrons, for the most part, look like regular people only with their coloring changed. There are places when the images come off as little more than shadows, while at times there is what I’ll say is real animation.

An example from the bar room scene.

The film is a simplified version of an epic story, and somewhat easier to follow than Peter Jackson’s big budget live-action version of the books. However, I’ll have to agree with Ebert that the film is too long. He quotes Jim Henson as saying “Muppets can't hold attention as long as humans can,” and urges that “Bakshi would have done well to apply that theory to his animations. When the magic begins to pall, the characters that captured our imagination for the first 90 minutes revert to cartoons, and squirming begins. By the time the film ends after 2 1/4 hours, we are just plain tired of it.”

The film is, at best, uneven. Bakshi should be given credit for tackling a story that many thought couldn’t be filmed, if I properly recall the trailer hype for Jackson’s first film. It’s a big story to take on in either live-action or animation and Bakshi adds to his challenge by using a new animation technique. However, as epic as the film may be, it is flawed.

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