Ralph Bakshi and the Fight for Middle Earth

Ralph Bakshi and the Fight for Middle Earth
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Having seen The Hobbit over the New Year, this writer felt compelled to promote an alternative imagining of Tolkien to Peter Jackson's. In 1978 an animated film was made of The Lord of the Rings by a subversive American director-producer-writer-animator called Ralph Bakshi. A true maverick, Bakshi had been hired and fired by most of the major film studios in his career. His previous work consisted of adult-oriented animated feature films, one of which was Coonskin, a hallucinatory meeting of Blaxploitation and Watership Down where walking and talking animals played 70s pimps, prostitutes and gangsters on the hustle in Harlem. It rendered black inner-city life to knee-jerk accusations of racism but long-term critical acclaim, Tarantino being one of his greatest advocates. In short, as with Jackson's early career, Bakshi held an anarchic, DIY mentality to filmmaking. The difference is that when Jackson's crack at the great fantasy world came around, he generalled huge resources and his industrial animating machine Weta Workshop to carve out a paradoxically limited version of Middle Earth – though certainly not without its great successes and flourishes. Bakshi on the other hand had defied convention and made so many enemies in the industry he really had nothing to lose. His vision, with all its flaws, meets the challenge of Tolkien's, on significantly fewer funds – and perhaps because of those limitations. It is one of cinema's great tragedies that United Artists refused to produce the sequel to a film that ended midway through the trilogy's second book, The Two Towers – a bizarre decision considering the film would gross over $30 million from a budget of $4 million. Perhaps Kickstarter can fill the void.

Curiously, after initially saying in interviews that he had never watched Bakshi's version, Jackson changed his tune and went on to detail his debt to Bakshi in the DVD extras of The Fellowship of the Ring. The two approaches can hardly be more different – certainly stylistically. For Jackson, Middle Earth is about size. Epic encounters in epic vaulted kingdoms over epic plains, across huge unending mountain ranges and armies of uncountable warriors. Note next time you watch the modern films how keen Jackson is to move the camera in a large 360 degree circle around his heroes to really reinforce the magnitude and detail of the Middle Earth he has constructed. Bakshi embraces the screen's two dimensions and keeps the camera's eye more static. As a visual style it seems literary and painterly all at once.

If Bakshi is a draughtsman then Jackson is a director keen to impose modern cinema's craft on what to my mind works better visually as illustration. Fantasy is about tone not just size – something that Bakshi grasps. The more 3D and kinetic the editing of Jackson's Middle Earth becomes, the greater the resolution and the denser the CGI, then the more it is dragged kicking and screaming into the world of computer games. Some sequences with the White Orc in the new Hobbit look like the inter-level animated sequences of Resident Evil. Middle Earth is old, the stories of Frodo and Bilbo are as ancient as Norse sagas from which they borrow heavily, thus the methodology of presenting them instinctively works better if it is steeped in similarly traditional methods.

Not that Bakshi is without his tricks. In his film, he pioneered the technique of rotoscoping, later used in Richard Linklater's A Scanner Darkly (2006) in which scenes were shot live-action then drawn over by hand to give footage an animated feel. His Middle Earth was given all at once the distance of fantasy and a paradoxical realism. The method also minimised the costs and constraints of staging huge set-pieces. The characterisation and plot fare all the better for it.

To conclude, I'll give a couple of examples as a point of comparison. Firstly, the bad guys. Jackson's Orcs are lary, shark-like humanoids with a faint resemble to Freddy Kruger. Bakshi's Orcs are suggestions: red eyes and white fangs are the only facial details in the saturated silhouetted figures.

Bakshi:

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Jackson:

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Second, the opening monologue that prefaces the history and journey of the ring is perhaps Jackson's greatest success across the three stories. But even then, Bakshi's version of this sequence is unmatched for atmosphere. The Mines of Moria are clearly just a sound-stage with Gollum moving through silhouetted scenery, but what of it? The evocation of his tormented addiction, the binaries of shadow and hellish red are all the more powerful for their simplicity. William Squire's rhadamantine narration as Gandalf completes the perfection. Readjust your imagination to this deeper, more nourishing and ultimately liberating perception of not just Middle Earth, but the possibilities of animation.

Bakshi:

Jackson:

 

(P.S. As a footnote to aspiring animators: listen to the irascible, tough New Yorker Bakshi talk about the state of theatrical animation and his own dramatic history in film. Starts at 00.40)