Cheesy movies are a special joy. Despite an earnest attempt to create compelling stories, filmmakers often miss the mark. Some movies turn out simply mediocre. Others become entertaining in spite of their flaws or authorial intent. They become cheesy. In Your Weekend Cheesy Movie, we’ll examine some of these misguided efforts for what they fail at achieving and what they manage to do right.
This week: The Lord of the Rings
Just so we’re clear, this week’s movie is the 1978 release The Lord of the Rings and not the 2001-2003 Lord of the Rings trilogy. Nonetheless, both share the same source and are inextricably linked. Without the one, the other could not exist as it inspired a young Peter Jackson to discover the work of J.R.R. Tolkien. And a handful of choices director Ralph Bakshi made in his ambitious attempt to film Tolkien’s epic found its way into Jackson’s more successful foray into Middle-earth. One of these might be the most important contribution Bakshi ever made to fantasy cinema.
But first, let’s go back to the mid-1970s, a time just before Star Wars in which the world seemed to be getting ready for it. There were heady sci-fi movies like The Andromeda Strain and Silent Running getting released. And all the dope cats were smoking led to a renewed interest in fantasy and its preeminent voice, the author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The professor, as some call him, passed away in 1973 and his son Christopher prepared a volume of his earliest stories, The Silmarillion,for publication. But prior to his death, Tolkien and his management had some inkling the film rights to his famous works would be lucrative, and worked hard to retrieve them from producer William Snyder; a story I’ve told elsewhere. After buying the rights back from Snyder, Tolkien’s team optioned The Lord of the Rings to United Artists; where both Stanley Kurbick and John Boorman attempted to develop the epic tale into a feature film.
When the studio’s puzzlement over Boorman’s 700-page script led to him leaving the project, animator Ralph Bakshi, best known then for the “adult” animated feature Fritz the Cat, convinced UA to let him make three animated films using the dialogue, characters and settings Tolkien laid down in his books. Bakshi later claimed the studio was so confused by the whole thing, they gave him complete creative control. But soon MGM was involved and after a number of executive changes and the appearance of producer Saul Zaentz, Bakshi agreed to compress the story down to two films. Which may be both the best and worst thing to happen to the project.
The plot, of course, concerns the journey of Frodo Baggins, a Hobbit who inherits his uncle’s magic ring and learns it is the One Ring of the Dark Lord Sauron; the most powerful and sought after piece of jewelry in all the world. Soon, he travels across Middle-earth in the company of his best friend, a cousin or two, a Wizard, a Man, an Elf, a Dwarf and the heir to the throne of Gondor on a mission to destroy the Ring within the fires from whence it came. You’ve seen the Peter Jackson movies. You know where this is going. And for many people, the plot is genuinely charming and, in some cases, life-changing.
But the charm of Bakshi’s The Lord of the Rings is not contained so much in its plot or even its characters. Instead, the charm is found in the way Bakshi’s initial compromise with Zaentz, UA and MGM led to a film which never quite coalesces. It is very much a first draft attempt of the films Jackson would make as The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers. And while the movie never works on its own merits, it is endlessly fascinating in its key storytelling decisions and the director’s stated philosophy toward Middle-earth. As he put it, “It’s not that important to me how a hobbit looks. Everyone has their own idea of what the characters look like. It’s important to me that the energy of Tolkien survives.”
In terms of story, Bakshi made some deletions and alterations which are actually to the film’s credit and later adapted by Jackson in his Fellowship of the Ring. Gone is most Frodo’s journey from Hobbiton to Bree; with only the four hobbits encountering the Black Rider on the roadside remaining. Legendary Elf hero Glorfindel’s cameo is given to Legolas, which allows him to be established as quickly as possible. To be honest, these are the right choices for a film version of Rings. While omitting the journey out of the Shire means Pippin and Merry never get proper introductions, it saves a lot of screentime otherwise wasted on characters and settings which offer nothing to the main plot. Similarly, replacing Glorfindel with a character audience will see for the rest of the narrative gives the story an extra dose of momentum. And, boy, does this movie have momentum for the first 45 minutes or so as it sprints through the contents of The Fellowship of the Ring only to slow to a crawl when it turns the page to The Two Towers.
Part of the reason the momentum peters out is tied to a number of difficult budgetary constraints Bakshi could not help. His intention was to film the entire thing in live action in Spain while animators back in the states used the footage to rotoscope the live action actors into animated characters in front of background paintings; thereby giving the whole a film a “living painting” look. The idea is admirable, but the results never really mesh. As suggested by Bakshi’s quote above, details, both in the design of the characters and in the quality of the animation, end up slipshod. Once the budget evaporated, he was forced to tint the live action footage with the color palette of the film, making many scenes — including the flight from Moria — look particularly cheap. The problem only intensifies as the film gets closer and closer to its climax at Helm’s Deep. Meanwhile, Frodo becomes a guest in his own story as the journey to Mount Doom fails to look exciting when compared to Orcs and Rohirrim fighting.
Yet, for all of these criticisms, the movie never stops offering the strange thrill of a fantasy film getting so much wrong all at once. Despite Bakshi’s love of the material, he never gives the audience a reason to genuinely invest in the story, its characters or the world itself. His inattention to the details means the characters have a drab, generic design. He also fails at his stated intent to make “the energy of Tolkien” survive in the translation. By the time Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli chase the Orcs, the air is definitely out of the balloon. At the purely technical level, the overacting of the live-action performers leads to animation which lacks the naturalistic movement the director sought to capture.
The Lord of the Rings may in fact be the biggest creative failure we’ve profiled so far, thanks in part to Bakshi explaining his intentions with the film before production woes and budget shortfalls hobbled his vision. He would latter admit “the thing that seemed to interest me the most was shooting off my big mouth.” Nonetheless, there is cheesy fun to be found in a film which can see its objectives, but struggles to get there as a chipper Leonard Rosenman score offers something more akin to a scouting trip than an epic quest. The overall effect may be more of an academic cheese, but once you see Boromir reaching to the heavens in pose once described by another reviewer as “milking the giant invisible cow,” you know you’ve found cheese at some of its most epic heights.
The Lord of the Rings is available for rent on Amazon Prime, Vudu and iTunes. It is also available as an inexpensive Blu-ray release.