The First Volume of the War of the Rings (Conclusion Not Guaranteed, Offer Void in Utah)
The Lord of the Rings (1978)
The 1977 animated version of The Hobbit is widely remembered as a classic. Despite any flaws I might have seen in it going back to the film, there's no denying that it holds a place in the hearts of anyone that grew up in the 1970s and 1980s. It was played, and replayed, so many times for kids in school, and on TV, and on video, that it's essentially the version of that tale. Peter Jackson may have come along three-and-a-half decades later to do a different version but even that three-movie epic wasn't able to displace the Rankin-Bass film's place in film libraries.
The same can't be said for the Lord of the Rings film to come out the next year. Produced by United Artists and spearheaded by Ralph Bakshi, this animated feature has its heart in the right place. However, for a whole host of reasons (not the least of which is the fact that it doesn't even tell the complete story of The Lord of the Rings), this film never had to kind of ubiquitous presence of 1977's The Hobbit. The film has its supporters, to be sure (and that includes Peter Jackson), but on the whole this is a noble, failed effort for the franchise.
Bakshi's film relies heavily on the original text of the book (by design as he wanted to make a faithful adaptation), so the story beats are going to be what you expect: Bilbo Baggins, reaching the end of his life, has one last big celebration before disappearing in front of all the collected hobbits of the Shire. Back at his hut, Gandalf stops Bilbo from leaving before passing the One Ring off to his nephew, Frodo. As we saw in a (very strangely animated) prologue, the One Ring is the prized treasure of Sauron, the evil king who tried to take over the world and failed. Now that the One Ring is out in the world once more (instead of buried with Golum underground), the power of Sauron is once more rising. Bilbo's time has passed but Frodo must figure out what to do with the ring to prevent it from falling into Sauron's hands.
Gandalf sends Frodo on as quest to get rid of the ring, which will require the little hobbit (and his three friends who just won't go away: Samwise, Merry, and Pippin) to venture out to the lands of the elves where, with guidance from a team of heroes (all of whom eventually come together to form the "Fellowship of the Ring"), it's decided that the best course is to take the ring to the volcano deep in the lands of Sauron, the place when the ring was once forged, and throw the ring into the lava to destroy it. If everyone is lucky, this will end Sauron's power and all of Middle-earth will be saved. It's just a very long journey to get there.
And long it is. Too long, all things considered. Many people have joked that the Peter Jackson films are, essentially, nine hours of walking, and while that's true Jackson's gift was making the long journey still feel active and engaging. Bakshi's film has none of that deftness so the two-hour-and-fifteen runtime feels so, so much longer. This film only covers the first book and half of the second (from the full trilogy) and yet by the time it was done I was sitting there going, "couldn't they have just slapped another 10 minutes onto the end so Frodo can chuck the ring in the lava and we can call it a day? I don't want to watch another one of these!" Thankfully for me, but not for audiences at the time, at least the second half was never made.
It's actually weird that this film didn't get a sequel, despite the setup for it (since there was another book-and-a-half of material to cover) and the fact that this movie was a huge success (making $30 Mil on a $4 Mil budget). Everything seemed to align for Bakshi to finish this magnum opus. Audiences at the time, in fact, were upset that the film didn't really have an ending -- after a protracted battle between the orcs and humans, Gandalf raises his sword in the air and declares an end to the first part of the War of the Ring (or, on the current DVD, he goes so far as to say that peace was restored to Middle-earth), this despite the fact that Frodo is nowhere near Mount Doom and the ring still hasn't been destroyed. We're kind of missing some plot points there, guys.
That said, I'm honestly surprised this film was a success because, beyond how long, slow, and tedious the film is (which, really, is a flaw with so many movies released in the 1970s, just something about that era of film-making that is hard to take for modern audiences), it's also ugly as sin. The film is animated, but it wasn't drawn in any one style. Some of the film is done with traditional hand-drawn characters while other parts use rotoscoping (the act of filming something live and then drawing over top). This might have been fine if the hand-drawn art was blended well with the rotoscoping -- use the rotoscoped art for wide shots and big battles, go hand-drawn for any detail work -- but instead the two are often shown side-by-side in the same sequences, making both look glaring to the other.
Of the two animation styles in this film, I do prefer the hand-drawn to the rotoscoping. Even if I don't particularly care of the character designs (they lack the uniqueness of the 1977 The Hobbit), the hand-drawn animation at least shows a level of care and consistency I can at least respect. The rotoscoping, though, just looks bad. It's chintzy, blurred, pixelated, and hard to look at. I have to think the rotoscoping was done as a cost-saving technique (this film was made for only $4 Mil), but the quality just isn't there. Rotoscoping can look good (or at least interesting) in the right contexts but here it just looks bad. No other way top describe it.
The rotoscoping becomes more prevalent the further you get into the movie, with more of more of the sequences relying on it. This comes around the same time that the pacing of the film takes nose dive. The opening part of the film, the first third, actually moves at a decent clip, getting through the prologue and all the scenes at the Shire. After the hobbits meet Aragorn at an inn and then venture out into elf lands, though, the film becomes a slog. We get a lot of long scenes that just go on and on, with character staring at each other across battlefields without anything actually happening. There are so many establishing shots, sequences of charcaters just walking or riding, whole long expanses of trippy animation that doesn't seem to tell any kind of story, that you end up tuning out.
I just couldn't get into this movie, no matter how hard I tried. I did managed to make it to the end of the film (a feat I wasn't able to the last time I attempted it, stopping the film after only 15 minutes) but I can't say that, at any point, did I ever enjoy it. The film is long, it's ugly, and it's slow. It squanders any good will it has early and then just drags on and on, torturing anyone brave enough to watch it at this point. Some people might call this a classic but I have to think that's Stockholm Syndrome. "This was the only Lord of the Rings adaptation of the first two books for years. I must enjoy it!" I have no such attachment to the film so I can say, clearly and with conviction, this movie blows.
I've never been so happy in my life that there wasn't a sequel to a film. Thankfully there are much better adaptations of The Lord of the Rings to come.