Whew boy, did I need a palate cleanser after watching Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy. And I did love the Rankin/Bass adaptation of The Hobbit as a kid, after all. So it turns out that, of the three animated adaptations, that one is the only one that is any good. But they are all still worth watching, a welcome change, and useful for disassociating Jackson’s Hobbit from Jackson’s Lord of the Rings in my mind.
The animated movies have a bit of a weird history. Arthur Rankin, Jr. and Jules Bass, best known for their animated Christmas specials, adapted The Hobbit (in one movie, it turns out it can be done). Ralph Bakshi, the same guy behind the animated sword and sorcery movie Fire and Ice, worked on a planned two-part adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, but after weak ticket sales for the first movie his studio refused to fund the second one. Rankin and Bass then adapted The Return of the King. They obviously intended to finish Bakshi’s unfinished two-part Lord of the Rings, but they only had the rights to the final book, so considerable material from The Two Towers is left out of both movies.
In the end, we got one very good movie and two mediocre movies. We also got a different vision for Tolkien’s work. Peter Jackson borrowed a surprising amount from the Bakshi movie. The Rankin/Bass Hobbit movie, on the other hand, is very different from anything you or Tolkien ever imagined. These are 70s movies, and they reflect a much weirder SF landscape more than they do a more Tolkienized post-1980 SF landscape.
The Hobbit – Rankin/Bass
This is the only one of the three I am sure I watched as a kid, and it is by far the best. It is weird, really weird, but in a good way. The animation, if not faithful, is entertaining and high quality. The songs and the music are also fabulous (I’ve been singing Funny Little Things to no-angel all week). It has by a clear margin the best depiction of Gandalf (fight me). For one, Rankin and Bass retain Gandalf’s vanity:
“Here is paper and a marker. Keep a strict log of the remainder of your journey. So I may study it when we meet again and point out your missteps.”
Like any good children’s movie, Rankin and Bass’ The Hobbit has plenty of jokes for the adults in the room:
“I couldn’t argue. My contract is vague on several points.”
“Thorin is correct. I simply do not understand war.”
The biggest downside (assuming you are willing to let the lack of visual faithfulness slide), is that Beorn is cut out of the story entirely. The other major failing is that it is too short. You could make a great adaptation of The Hobbit in under three hours. You cannot make it in 78 minutes.
4.5 of 5 Stars.
The Lord of the Rings – Ralph Bakshi
And then we have Ralph Bakshi’s The Lord of the Rings. The completely different style is jarring after the Rankin/Bass Hobbit, but the bigger problem is that the animation is awful. Bakshi made the entire movie for just $4 million. Facial expressions are bizarre, the eyes of several characters appear to be possessed by Sauron, and the dubbing could make a Kung Fu B-movie blush. More interesting is the heavy use of rotoscoping, Rotoscoping is a cheap animation method that makes use of live-action footage. It is weird, but not in a bad way, at least not when the costumes don’t look like the production crew picked them up second hand from a church play.
The movie is otherwise weird, but not exactly in a good way. The Rankin/Bass goblins were more Maurice Sendak than J.R.R. Tolkien; the Bakshi orcs are more George Lucas than Tolkien.
But then Peter Jackson’s orcs aren’t terribly faithful either. Orcs from any of the three adaptations are going to pass as human anytime soon. But I like them nonetheless. The two-tooth Sam of Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings, on the other hand, I despise with the fire of a thousand Balrogs.
Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings is not a good movie by any measure, but it is worth picking up for the completist, if not for a few oddities. I have argued that The Lord of the Rings is better split into two than three. This movie sort of tests that hypothesis, ending after Helm’s Deep. The acting tends toward the Shakespearean, and it serves the story well (Gandalf’s voice actor, on the other hand, sleepwalks through his lines). The screenplay is by Peter Beagle, most famous as writer of The Last Unicorn. But most interesting is that Peter Jackson drew heavily from its visuals.
2.5 of 5 Stars.
The Return of the King – Rankin/Bass
After the Bakshi misadventure, I am happy to return to happy-go-lucky Rankin/Bass animation. But how will they go from an even more kid-friendly take on The Hobbit to the more serious and epic Lord of the Rings? Not well, it turns out.
The unusual production history results in a gap between the two. Rankin and Bass struggle with how to frame the story in a way that makes sense without telling us “go watch the Baskshi Lord of the Rings, then read the second book in The Two Towers” and settle on pretending the Bakshi movie never existed. Instead, they try to bridge their earlier work with the Hobbit by using a conversation between Bilbo and Frodo in Rivendell. Bilbo wants to know how Frodo came to have only nine fingers.
This also, for some inexplicable reason, leads to a bard launching into a song curiously devoid of exposition. Rankin and Bass refuse to let the music go. The story proper opens post-Shelob. Gandalf and Pippin are already in Gondor (the movie suggests they never went to Rohan, but instead dispatched Merry with the Red Arrow to request aid from the Rohirrim). Aragorn just kind of shows up at the end.
The animation is much better than that of the Bakshi movie, but not up to the standard of Rankin and Bass’ own Hobbit. The songs are not nearly as good as those of that adaptation. I am on record as preferring the battles of Rohan and Gondor to Frodo and Sam’s trek, so a heavy focus on that trek here is a bug not a feature for me.
There is some weird stuff, not all good, here, and none odder than the Nazgûl. The regular Nazgûl rather inexplicably are skeletons riding on winged horses (no more inexplicable than green-skinned wood elves who speak with German accents, though, I suppose). The Witch-king, on the other hand, is invisible and rides a winged steed suspiciously like that later used by Peter Jackson. Fine. My real problem is that Theoden falls for no discernable reason. The Rohirrim just sort of mill around his body until the Witch-king shows up after a significant pause.
At the end of the day, Rankin & Bass’ Return of the King is better categorized as the best of the bad Tolkien movies than as the worst of the best.
3 of 5 Stars.
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