It took many years and false starts to get a feature-length adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth fantasies, but once they started to happen, they happened fast: just barely less than a year after the Rankin/Bass The Hobbit premiered on U.S. television screens, United Artists released a theatrical adaptation of the author's later, longer, better-known novel The Lord of the Rings, a massive 133-minute animated epic directed by cult animation legend and Tolkien enthusiast Ralph Bakshi. The film made a considerable profit, and has a legion of devotees and apologies to this day; for myself, its chief value has been that in 2000 and 2001, in the run-up to Peter Jackson's series of films adapting the same book, I was able to use the Bakshi feature as a way of comforting myself: "Well, Jackson might fuck things up completely, but it's still going to be better than that awful animated thing..."

The figure of Ralph Bakshi looms large in the history of American animation, infinitely larger than the privilege of being the first man to ever figure out a way to get some kind of cinematic version of the famously adaptation-resistant doorstop out in one piece (or not; we'll get there presently). In a decade where mainstream American animation was at its most experimental and varied, before or since, Bakshi himself was the very spearhead of that experimentation: at a time when the link between animation and children's entertainment was as strong as it has ever been in any culture, it was Bakshi who first strode out and said, "fuck that", with infamous grown-up cartoons like Fritz the Cat and Coonskin, animated movies that pointedly tossed aside the Disney paradigm by directly addressing contemporary adult issues like sex, race, and the fall-out of the counter-culture in crude, explicit terms. Nor was it simply the content of Bakshi's films that challenged the dominant mood of American cartoons, but their aesthetic as well: none of the polish and fluidity of Disney nor the choppy stiffness of the TV outfits looking to make bargain-basement knock-offs of the Disney model; Bakshi's films were unclassifiable collisions of styles and even media, driven in part by a need to do things cheaply, in part to eschew the ossification and deadening effect that the director himself saw in tonier corporate animations.

My sample size is not large, but two things always seem to come to the foreground in Bakshi's films: one is the unbridled scope of his ambition, the other is his overwhelming lack of ability to put that ambition over. Not that he is an untalented man, who worked with untalented animators, for nothing could be farther from the truth. But an excruciatingly, film-destroyingly undisciplined man, colliding ideas without a moment's thought spared to whether or not those ideas belong together. In The Lord of the Rings, we have no fewer than four entirely distinct visual techniques at play: live-action silhouettes slathered in blood-red lighting, projected against what looks to be a burlap screen, for the prologue; live-action footage that has been posterized, giving it a more graphic look; straight-up rotoscoping, in which animation is traced over live-action footage, and a small amount of traditional hand-drawn cel animation. These different styles are combined in the same shot, cut together back and forth, and the result can only rightfully be called a mess: a giddy, wonderful, imaginative mess like none other, one might argue, and I'd agree with them. An aggravating mess that prevents the film from ever building up a visual personality, and which shifts so erratically and unpleasantly that it actively interferes with the storytelling on a very basic level, someone else might argue, and I'd agree with them, too. The fact of the matter is, I sort of hate the way The Lord of the Rings turned out, though I unabashedly love the intentions behind it. Thus it was always.

Let's put that aside for a moment, and attend to the storytelling. What is impressive about this film (written by Peter S. Beagle, leaving most of an adaptation by co-credited writer Chris Conkling on the ash heap) is not that it reduces Tolkien's epic six-part, three-volume novel into one movie that doesn't even quite reach two and a quarter hours, because it doesn't even try to. It's only adapting the first volume, The Fellowship of the Ring, and a bit more than half of the second, The Two Towers, and the intention had always been to make a sequel that would complete the story; but Bakshi found the experience too draining to even attempt a second movie, and UA's insistence on not marketing the fact that this was only one-half of a movie backfired terribly when audiences felt like they'd been tricked (which, after all, they had; and by the way, how weird is it to think of a world so recent as 1978 when the idea of a multi-part, pre-planned film series was anticipated to be box-office poison?).

It strikes me as being awfully unfair to hold that against the movie, though, particularly because it's actually a decently solid adaptation - a great deal is torn out, of course, anything and everything that might even vaguely be considered deadwood, from the expanded, lingering time spent in the bucolic Shire of the opening, to the matter of Tom Bombadil, right on down to how much of the Two Towers material concerning hobbits is removed. 133 minutes is not so very much time, after all. But much like the Rankin/Bass Hobbit, the film's sins are only those of omission: nothing is added except a few incidental details needed to stitch over the holes left by the removal of subplots or characters, and unlike The Hobbit, Beagle's treatment of The Lord of the Rings moves slowly enough that things like exposition are actually given a spot, rather than the earlier film's program of "here are dwarves, they hate a dragon, now we're on an adventure!" in the span of a stately four minutes.

Anyway, the plot (for those who have neither read the books nor seen the 2000's film trilogy, and are thus so unlikely to be reading this review that I can't even put it into words) follows Frodo Baggins (Christopher Guard), the nephew of old Bilbo Baggins (Norman Bird), the hobbit of The Hobbit. Bilbo has left to Frodo his magic ring of invisibility before setting off into the wild on his 111th birthday; 17 years later, Frodo learns from the traveling wizard Gandalf (William Squire) that this ring is in fact a totem of unspeakable evil, forged by the Dark Lord Sauron, and it must be destroyed. Frodo, his trusty servant Samwise Gamgee (Michael Scholes), and cousins Merry Brandybuck (Simon Chandler) and Pippin Took (Dominic Guard) thus travel the dangerous road to Rivendell, haven of the elves, accompanied by the mysterious Aragorn (John Hurt), but this is merely the start of an even thornier journey; at Rivendell, it is decided that Frodo and a band of eight other travelers (including the other hobbits, Gandalf, and Aragorn) must travel all the way to the distant land of Mordor, to destroy the ring. Accidents befall them along the way, and Frodo and Sam end up traveling alone while the rest of the party joins into a great war brewing in the kingdom of Gondor.

It's a reckless film, blitzing through some plot points and stalling out over others; the lack of a particular rhythm does not do it any favors, and it is certainly not a fast 133 minutes. But it plays entirely fair by the letter of Tolkien, if not quite the spirit (the characters are uniformly flat, and while psychology was not the author's strong suit, he at least made sharply-etched pictures of the four hobbits and Gandalf), and on the raw level of cramming in detail, many details surely are present. Almost to the film's detriment, in fact; some of the worst narrative skips come in places like the rough insertion of the elven realm of Lothlórien or the completely superfluous introduction of the tree-like Ents, where we're plunged into a sequence that doesn't seem to exist for any narrative reason, and so these sequence just grind along a bit.

Moreover, the writing is just sloppy: e.g. evil wizard Saruman (Fraser Kerr) is here renamed "Aruman", presumably to keep us from confusing him with "Sauron"; but in the end, "Aruman" is used only about half the time, and "Saruman" keeps cropping up anyway. Or details are inserted in keeping with the book, but their pay-off is ignored and so there's really no point ("do you see any markings on the ring?" Gandalf asks Frodo; no, and in this version of the story, he never will).

But the narrative, even its alternately tedious and manic pacing, isn't the real problem with the film: it's the characters themselves, who are uniformly unlikable and even alienating. Not because of the writing necessarily, though I've mentioned that nobody is well served by the functional dialogue or slack performances (though only one, Peter Woodthorpe's overly-British Gollum, actively angers me). It's the design and animation themselves, which looks like the laziest kind of Saturday morning cartoon bullshit, despite Bakshi's desire to otherwise push the boundaries of animation. We have here a Sam who looks like a potato in a wig with another potato for a nose and bad teeth, an Aragorn who looks like an unhappy Native American, a Boromir who looks like a costume store viking, a Treebeard who looks like a Hanna-Barbera attempt at a hybrid of a tree and a turnip. And Gandalf, what the holy fuck is up with him: he has the most upsetting goggle-eyed reaction shots to every damn thing, and he flails and spins and gestures with his arms like Squire, in performing the reference footage for the rotoscoping, decided without telling anybody else that he was playing the villain from a 1910s melodramatic serial. Not that the animation, on the whole, is very naturalistic or subdued, whatever the hell defenses of rotoscoping Bakshi made at the time (he's since admitted that it might not have been a great choice). In fact, The Lord of the Rings showcases possibly the single worst aspect of rotoscoping, and it does it virtually nonstop: all the fidgeting and twitching. Humans at rest, you see, still move quite a lot, and animation exaggerates all that movement until it appears that each and every single character is in the throes of the DTs. And then there's the simple overacting: Gandalf's manic gesticulations, but also the way that the hobbits always tilt their heads and jump and spin every time they're excited.

The result of all this is a cast of characters who look like complete, unbridled ass: characters who look like the shoddiest, trashiest animation you could conjure up, though The Lord of the Rings is in fact neither shoddy nor trashy. And that, in turn, makes caring about them or what happens to them virtually impossible; animation is, after all, the art of making us feel for drawings, and when those drawings are nasty wretches, there's simply not much left to feel besides boredom or contempt. The film has plenty of problems, and a few real strengths (Leonard Rosenman's sweeping score chief among them), but the alienating character design and animation was the one thing it was never going to survive, no matter how good the rest was; given that much of the rest is in fact bad, we are left with a movie that is almost completely devoid of appeal or merit.

Updated: In rushing to get this review out while fighting with a most peculiar internet slowdown, I missed two points that I'd wanted to raise: first is the unmentionably bad design of the Balrog, the fire demon that was always the most vaguely-described creation of Tolkien's bestiary, here a lion-pig-bat hybrid that looks and sounds like something Godzilla should be fighting over the streets of Tokyo; second was that the body language in Sam's animation removes just about all doubt that he and Frodo are definitely lovers, as has often been suggested, ironically or not, in considerations of the story throughout its existence.