Now, as promised, here is my review and analysis of the three animated Tolkien films, Rankin/Bass‘s The Hobbit and The Return of the King, and Bakshi‘s The Lord of the Rings. And since I first watched them all in chronological order, the way they were first shown to me on network television as a child*, I’ll tackle them in that order, each in its turn.
THE HOBBIT (1977)
The Rankin/Bass animated film adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit is, perhaps unsurprisingly, closer to the book than the live action trilogy. It also includes a lot more of Tolkien’s songs and poetry, and the musical adaptations aren’t bad. It’s also obviously geared toward children, but adults can enjoy it, too. If you can get past the dated animation style, this is a nice introduction to Tolkien’s Middle-earth. The depictions of Hobbits, and even moreso Dwarves and Elves, are very fairytale-like. I’d say the Dwarves are somewhere between Snow White’s companions and the ones depicted in Bakshi’s The Lord of the Rings. Elrond would’ve probably made a good Oberon in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. And Thranduil… well, for some reason he looks like a Gremlin and sounds like Bela Lugosi.
Glenn Yarbrough lends his distinctive voice to “The Balladeer”, a minstrel we hear but never see, with an original song “The Greatest Adventure (The Ballad of the Hobbit)“, in which he appears to be calling us out as escapists:
A man who’s a dreamer and never takes leave
Who thinks of a world that is just make believe
Will never know passion
Will never know pain
Who sits by the window
Will one day see rain.
The rest of the songs in the movie are all adaptations of Tolkien’s poems, and thankfully most of them aren’t sung by Yarbrough. It is from this film that we get such rousing classics as “Down, Down To Goblin Town“, “Rollin’ Down The Hole“, and “Funny Little Things“. And of course, we get Yarbrough’s rendition of “The Road Goes Ever On” (on the soundtrack titled simply “Roads“) which, like “The Greatest Adventure”, has an annoying tendency to obnoxiously stick in your head. The Balladeer will unfortunately be back in The Return of the King, which we’ll discuss after we take on Bakshi’s masterpiece.
THE LORD OF THE RINGS (1978)
Ralph Bakshi’s animated film adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is indeed a masterpiece, but it’s also a hot mess. Can you use that term for things as well as people? Well, I just did. In fact, it’s got so many things wrong with it that someone wrote a scathingly funny review of it long ago which I consider the only review of this movie you really need. And yet here I am, reviewing it. Why? Because unlike that guy I freaking love it. This was my initial introduction to the darkness of Tolkien’s fantasy world and moreso than the other two animated films it’s what really got me intrigued enough to actually read the books as a teenager. At times creepy and even downright frightening, I feel that this movie out of the three truly captures the essence of Tolkien’s epic fantasy, and I’m not just saying that because I smoked a few bowls of pipeweed before watching it again. Never mind that the voice actors aren’t always consistent in how they pronounce place names like “Edoras” and can’t seem to agree even with themselves on whether the evil wizard is named “Saruman” or “Aruman”.
As you may or may not know, Bakshi used an animation technique in this movie known as rotoscoping. That’s where you film a live action version of a scene and then draw over it, frame by frame, in order to create realistic animation. It’s what brought us films like Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly. But unlike with those films, this wasn’t done consistently in Bakshi’s film, so the result is a weird mish-mash of animation styles that some people find distracting or even off-putting. But it does make for some trippy scenes, like this one, which to me does a really good job of drawing you out of the Hobbits’ ordinary reality and into the dark, surreal landscape that is the nightmarish world of the evil Ringwraiths:
If you listen very carefully to the soundtrack of the above video clip, you can hear an eerie sobbing throughout the start of the scene, a sound effect no doubt intended to impact the subconscious minds of hapless viewers. At times Leonard Rosenman‘s score can be a bit overblown, but it’s wonderful overall, and in fact back in the day I even went so far as to purchase it on Compact Disc. And yet until I watched this movie again for the purposes of this review, I’d plumb forgotten about the utterly endearing lament for Gandalf (“Mithrandir“), which I have fond memories of listening to around Christmastide. That really should have been in my Hobbit Day/Tolkien week playlist, so I have rectified that by adding it, along with a couple of other notable selections from the motion picture soundtrack.
This film’s biggest flaw is of course that it is unfinished. At no point in time were we apprised of the fact that this is not actually The Lord of the Rings, but rather only the first part of The Lord of the Rings, until it ended, unsatisfactorily, in the middle of The Two Towers. As the review I linked to above put it best, “they publicised the movie as Tolkien’s complete Lord of the Rings, giving no hint to anyone that it was, in fact, only Part One. It was even advertised that way. And they kept you on in that belief right up to the very moment when you had paid for the movie, sat through the whole thing, and were waiting to see how they were going to screw up the ending – my friends and I were actually looking forward to it in a perverse way, since a glance at our watches told us they’d have to tie up all the loose ends very quickly – when suddenly the narrator announces that Part One has just concluded and the credits begin to roll.”
THE RETURN OF THE KING (1980)
After Bakshi’s long strange trip, Rankin/Bass brings us back down to earth (sort of… there’s only so far down to earth you can get in a world populated by such fantastic beings as Elves, Dwarves, and Wizards). Only, instead of doing their own version of the entirety of The Lord of the Rings as a sequel to their version of The Hobbit, they apparently opted to kinda sorta make a sequel to Bakshi’s animated film as well as their own. Maybe they just didn’t think it would be lucrative for them cover the same ground, or maybe it was licensing issues, I don’t know; nor do I care enough to look it up. But it reminds me of something I’ll be touching on in the upcoming sequel to my Tolkien video game post, as pertains to three game adaptations of which the first was squarely based on the books, whereas the other two were based on the Peter Jackson films (and I’ll get into why that is in that future post).
I thought it was great that singing was included in Rankin/Bass’s The Hobbit (and this may be an unpopular opinion but I loved that the extended versions of the live action trilogy included more of that as well), and I especially liked that most of the song lyrics came directly from Tolkien’s own poetry. But with this much darker sequel to their earlier animated film it seems that R/B felt obliged to lighten the mood by adding so many songs that it’s practically a musical.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the idea behind it–that what we are witnessing is what those at Bilbo Baggins’s 129th birthday feast are remembering or imagining, as evoked by the Balladeer, now known as the Minstrel of Gondor and shown playing a lute beside Elrond’s long dining table as he sings of past events. It’s the execution of it that starts to pall. The first time you hear that warbling voice trill out: “Frodo of the Nine Fingers, and the Ring of Doooom!” you’re like, YEAH! and start singing along. But by the umpteenth time you hear it reprised, you just want it to stop. The Minstrel of Gondor is kind of like Sir Robin’s Minstrels in that, had the guests at the feast eaten him, there would have been much rejoicing on my part.
Far worse than some of the music, however, is the cringeworthy dialogue. You know, the kind that attempts to sound like Ye Olde Speech of Some Misremembered Past. There was a bit of this in the first movie, but they really ramp it up in this one, until it grates on the ears. And it’s even worse when you hear this sort of dialogue coming out of the mouth of someone who sounds like Casey Kasem, because it is… it’s actually Casey Kasem doing Merry’s voice. And I keep expecting him to punctuate every sentence with “Scoooob!”
Beginning in media res as it does, there are numerous characters, items, and events in R/B’s The Return of the King which would’ve naturally been unfamiliar to anyone who hadn’t read the books or seen Bakshi’s The Lord of the Rings, even if they’d watched the movie this one purports to be a sequel to. But once the stage is set by the Minstrel’s introductory song, rather than let itself get bogged down with too much exposition there are quite a few times when this movie just can’t be bothered to explain something. Take, for example, “The Phial of Galadriel. I can say no more”… because then I’d have to get into our whole stay in Lothlórien, explain who the Lady Galadriel is, and–wait, why can’t he just do that?
So instead we get this ridiculous explanation from Frodo that if he betrays the secret of the phial its powers will die. I mean… what? But aside from a few flaws along those lines, this adaptation of the third novel in Tolkien’s trilogy is surprisingly faithful, and it does have some snappy musical numbers, a few of which surpass even the best ones from The Hobbit. After all, who can forget the rockin’ (and seemingly interminable) “Where There’s a Whip, There’s a Way”?
So I’ll end this review on a positive note by saying that the scene in which Éowyn faces the Witch-king of Angmar is one of the best this or any animated film of its time has to offer. I would’ve loved to have seen Bakshi’s version, but alas, he never got this far. But the Rankin/Bass version is much closer to the scene in the book than the one made by Peter Jackson & company with its unnecessary alterations, and therefore that much better. Now, as bookish as I am, I can understand making slight changes to a scene in order to have it come across better in a movie, but the changes to Éowyn’s big moment in the live action film adaptation of The Return of the King are inexcusable in my opinion, and somehow make the scene less dramatic. As much as I love the Peter Jackson films, there are some things about them I’ll never forgive, and unlike for some folk in the fandom, none of them have anything to do with Arwen.
A sword rang as it was drawn. ‘Do what you will, but I will hinder it, if I may.’
‘Hinder me? Thou fool. No living man may hinder me!’
Then Merry heard of all sounds in that hour the strangest. It seemed that Dernhelm laughed, and the clear voice was like the ring of steel. ‘But no living man am I! You look upon a woman. Éowyn I am, Éomund’s daughter. You stand between me and my lord and kin. Begone, if you be not deathless! For living or dark undead, I will smite you, if you touch him.’J. R. R. Tolkien, The Return of the King
* I had a momentary memory lapse here. This wasn’t the first time I’d seen all three films, only the first time I’d seen the later two, and the first time I’d seen all three together. I had actually already seen The Hobbit when it was first broadcast on TV, though by this second viewing my recollection of it was a bit fuzzy given that I’d only been six years old in 1977.