The opportubity to film J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings," the foremost literary cult classic of the '60s, may have been a mixed blessing, but Ralph Bakshi had made it look like a curse.
Confronted with The Big Book or the The Epic Subject, filmmakers often lose perspective and end up suffering self-inflicted Waterloos. Bakshi's uninspired, unfinished production of the Tolkien trilogy, opening today at the Dupont Circle, appears to be the work of a perversely misguided Napoleon.
Bakshi taked such a dilatory approach to Tolkien's sprawling chronicle of a heroic quest undertaken by an interpid band of neo-medieval adventurers who dwell in a fantasy English countryside that one can't even be sure he goes down fighting.
Pictorially, the movie is stranded in an esthetic limbo that partakes partly of live-action and partly of animation but neither respects nor attains the integrity of either form. Bakshi seems to flatter himself that he has pioneered a new form. He describes this inauspicious mutant as "moving paintings."
What it amounts to is a glorified form of rotoscoping, the venerable technique of tracing from live-action models that animators have often resorted to. Bakshi shot every scene in the script in live-action. These images were then used as outlines to be filled in by animators. It's doubtful if there is a moment of straightforward, full animation in the entire film.
The trilogy - "The Fellowship of the Ring," "The Two Towers" and "The Return of the King," written by Tolkien, a philologist and professor of English at Oxford, between 1937 and 1949 and first published here in the early '50s - spins out a picaresque adventure chronicle about the hobbit Frodo's attempt to divest himself of a ring endowed with magic but sinister powers.
The story takes place in Middle Earth, a rustic, supernatural landscape haunted by evil spirits and inhabited by men, elves, dwarves and smaller folk Tolkien called hobbits. Even the book's admirers grant that the chases, battles and escapes tend to repeat each other over the course of 1,300 pages or so.Surely the trilogy cried out to be streamlined and stripped for action when being adapted for the scenes.
Instead, the scenario, contributed by Chris Conkling and Peter S. Beagle, slogs along, dragging the heaviest of expository ball and chains - and then has the effrontery to end abruptly at the halfway point of the trilogy.
Bakshi's collection of semianimated little cubby-cheeked hobbits will not do. Who can take his criticism of Disney idealization seriously after getting an eyeful of his beamish, simpery and sometimes alarmingly kittenish Frodo and Sam? When lisping, prattling Gollum joins then near the end of the film, the atmosphere grows so insufferably precious, to borrow Gollum's favorite word, that one wishes a Muppet-like monster would loom into view and devour the lot in a single revenous bite.
Bakshi's epic aspirations were apparent in "Wizards," a technical warmup for "Lord of the Rings," in which he incorporated battle footage from "Alexander Nevsky" in silhouette. The silhouettes have proliferated in "Lord of the Rings" and so have the battle scenes.
Going sheerly by the numbers, "Lord of the Rings" is full of chases and fights. Yet not a single one of them surges dynamically across the screen. Bakshi seems unable to organize these sequences for sustained excitement. The partial animation becomes a form of concealment, masking the director's fundamental failure to orchestrate his big effects. Disparaging traditional animation as kids' stuff and pretending to be the discoverer of some enhanced form of illusion. Bakshi exposes his emotional estrangement from animation, but he does not present impressive credentials as either a live-action director ot stylistic experimenter.
Bakshi has to be kidding himself to pretend that this interminable and yet incomplete version of "The Lord of the Rings" can be regarded as a self-contained attraction.
But if a sequel ever is authorized, it might help to engage a screenwriter less in thrall to Tolkien's rhetoric. It's possible, though far from easy, to skip over his genealogical catalogues, pseudo-Biblical incantations and aggected nomenclature when one is reading. It's impossible when such passages are entrusted to actors speaking on behalf of nominally animated figures.At each new mention of so-and-so, the son of what's-his-name, the exposition bogs down and the brain takes a holiday.
After two-and-a-quarter hours the adapters still haven't got Frodo close to a date with destiny in the Dark Land of Mordor. The secondary plots and characters have to be cut if a reasonably clean narrative about the descent of good-hearted heroes into the Heart of Darkness is ever to emerge from the text. Even then some ingenious rewriting may be required to improve on Tolkien's melodramtic payoffs, generally considered one of his weak points.
It would be unfair to imply that the production was devoid of attractive or clever illustrative touches. They can be seen in many of the background drawings. Unfortunately, these picturesque or spooky settings can't bring the material alive on their own. What's missing is character animation and story structure, the illusion of vividly realized folk caught up in desperate circumstances.
Bakshi seems to think he has all the time in the world to get nowhere in particular.