Along with Watership Down and The Sword in the Stone, this was the animated film of my early childhood. My mother has always loved Tolkien, and after all, the Peter Jackson films were still a long way off – so short of reading the books to me (which she did as well, instilling me with a lifelong love of the oft-neglected Tom Bombadil), this was the best way to enjoy the world of hobbits and dragons and elves and wizards together.
It’s also the film Ralph Bakshi is remembered for – Fritz the Cat may be famous amongst animation fans, but it’s remarkable how few people have seen it. There is much to decry about this film, and it’s most often criticised for use of rotoscoping and for only being half of the overall story – though also has a very uneven approach to character models, some very stiff acting and pacing that suggests nobody gave any thought to pacing. But for all that, it has a lot of charm, it’s incredibly distinctive and it was such a big success – making back its budget more than seven times over – that it actually seems quite a surprise United Artists refused to fund Bakshi for a sequel. In the end, a limp sequel was made by Topcraft in association with Rankin/Bass, considered cheeky opportunism by some, though it’s worth remembering that they had released their animated version of The Hobbit in 1977, a year before Bakshi’s film came out. The Topcraft-Rankin/Bass collaboration is an interesting one, especially in relation to the history of Ghibli: see my The Last Unicorn impressions.
For all it has been eclipsed by the wildly successful Jackson films, this interpretation still has elements that made a great impact on me. Ian McKellen’s Gandalf is superb, but his appearance, voice and especially ability to use magic in this version always seemed much more formidable and like the figure in the book to me. The animated Sam will always be the Sam I imagine, and in the few moments the characters are perfectly on-model they look beautiful. There’s a real fearsome claustrophobia to the scene where the hobbits hide from the black riders, and the scene where they take their swords to the empty beds thinking they are slaughtering the hobbits in their sleep is one of the most dramatic scenes in animation.
The rotoscoping, especially towards the end where the orcs are involved, is certainly a low point, and was never a good decision. But for all its shortcomings, there’s more to praise about this film than to criticise, and it stands apart as a strange but essential part of the animated canon. It’s just one that could have been far better – indeed, deserved to be better.