The Lord of the Rings (1978)

I went to see The Lord of the Rings in the movie theater as a young kid with zero understanding of who J.R.R. Tolkien was, or who Ralph Bakshi was, or why it was so weird that Baskhi was creating a movie based off Tolkien’s books. All I knew is that it was a story about magic and monsters and a mysterious ring of power, so off to the theater I went. I was utterly unprepared for what awaited me, and the gulf between movie I expected and the movie I saw remains the widest of any movie I have ever viewed. The Lord of the Rings was both incredibly powerful to me, and deeply off-putting. I was dying to know what happened to the rest of the story. I was very creeped out by the uncanny valley of the rotoscoped orcs, and I was affected by the overall gloominess and weirdness that pervaded the film. It’s like every single drop of psychedelic, dark fantasy expressed in the later 1970s had all been concentrated into this single movie that is, and has remained, as epic and wonderful as it is baffling and roughly hewn.

The story is itself a feat of heroic ambition: an effort to tell the entirety of J.R.R. Tolken’s seminal fantasy epic, The Lord of the Rings, in a single movie. Of course, it couldn’t be done, but that didn’t stop animator Ralph Bakshi from trying. In the mythic realm of Middle Earth, a magical ring of power forged by the dark lord Sauron has for been lost for eons. But it has at last found a new owner, falling into the humble hands of Frodo Baggins, a hobbit of the Shire. Frodo is more than content to live a quiet, pastoral life (unlike his more adventuresome uncle Bilbo, who found the ring decades earlier), but he is destined for challenges that will exact a dire toll upon him. Dark forces are gathering in the evil land of Mordor to conquer all of Middle Earth; Sauron is returning, and if he gets his ring, he will become unstoppable. Frodo and his friends Samwise, Merry and Pippin must all undertake an epic journey—accompanied by the wizard Gandalf, the ranger Aragorn, the dwarf Gimli and the elven archer Legolas—deep behind enemy lines, to the volcano where the Ring was forged and toss it back into the fire from whence it came. It is a task monumentally more difficult than it sounds, and our heroes are beset by endless challenges on the way until only Frodo and Sam can continue the journey while the rest of our heroes must fight in the great war that is rapidly enveloping Middle Earth.

That description doesn’t do much justice to the scope and sweep of Tolkien’s tale, though to Bakshi’s credit, I understood what was going in his movie adaptation without having read the books first. (I did read the novels right after seeing this movie and was bewildered by its additional detail and apart from the battle scenes, not a lot really sunk in. In my defense, I was eight going on nine.) More than anything, I felt with this movie that I had been shown a door into another world where nothing really made sense to me, and where everything was just phantasmagoric enough to make me think that perhaps this is what pure imagination looks like when you capture it on film.

The look that defines this movie is the product of circumstance; Bakshi didn’t have the budget to animate the entire movie, so he filmed large portions of it in live action and rotoscoped fantasy visuals over the actors. The result is a messy, bewildering mixed-media presentation that only adds to a general sense of disorientation, like how one might feel the first time they really were to see a dragon, or the first time they understand that magic is real, or the first time they realize they have stumbled into an alien world. To my young mind, the qualities that turned so many people off from this movie simply drew me in deeper. As a young member of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons generation, the strangeness and incompleteness of this movie were practically an invitation to fill the gaps in once I got home. And boy, did I ever.

But still, this was a hard movie for a young kid to watch because so much of it is just so damned creepy. Perhaps we see it best in an early moment of truth when Frodo and his friends encounter a Nazgul – a twisted, muttering wraith homes in on the Ring of Power like a bloodhound. Frodo and company are hiding in the roots of a big tree with the Nazgul sniffing the air right above them, and it is a moment of silent terror as we realize this is no fairy-tale adventure. This is a trip into the heart of darkness, only it is a heart none of us have ever seen before, and might not want to. To be so scared and exhilarated by that at the same time blew me away. It still does.

This is the first movie I recall seeing again and again on cable television, and it is a movie where I remember very specifically staying up late one night while my family vacationed at the beach, watching this movie in a dark room, the place lit up by the weird swirls of color, trippy silhouettes and washed-out palette of the greatest modern fantasy story ever told. That particular viewing made me realize that there were undiscovered worlds all around us. We merely needed to imagine them into being, to capture their many details and present them to others so they might never be forgotten. Other movies made me want to tell stories. But this one? This one made me want to become a creator of worlds.

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