When word got out that Ralph Bakshi had signed to do the screen adaption of Lord of the Rings, more than one eyebrow was raised. Bakshi's reputation has been based as much on his lapses of taste ("Heavy Traffic" and "Coonskin"), (which was withdrawn from distribution when CORE [Congress of Racial Equality] labeled it racist) as on his innovative approach to animation, and there was fear that Bakshi would put his profane foot smack in the middle of J.R.R. Tolkien's fragile, much-beloved trilogy.
Two-and-a-half years later, the returns are in, and the blessing is mixed. 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.
That may have been inevitable, considering how mightily Tolkien labored to create a believable Middle Earth: every character in place, every magical occurrence explained. In the book, there is never of moment of doubt about the necessity for Frodo to journey to the land of Mordor to destroy the evil Ring of Power. In the film, we are tossed suddenly into hobbits' lives of peace and ease in the Shire, then whisked out just as quickly on a journey through the sinister forests and caves of the Middle Earth. A sense of history, of inevitability, hung over Tolkien's epic, and it's hardly surprising that a much-streamlined film version has lost most of that.
What the film gains at Bakshi's hand is a very clever bag of animator's tricks, most of which serve to make Tolkien's characters palpable after all those years on paper. There are some, of course, who will complain about the characterizations. Gandalf is entirely too much the cartoon wizard, far more avuncular and less ambiguous than in the book. Frodo and his fellow hobbits look more like big-eyed greeting-card kids than weird creatures from another age of Earth. On the whole, however, Bakshi has taken Tolkien's list of names and traits and given them weight and movement.