"The Lord of the Rings" is both numbing and impressive.
Yet it would be difficult to recommend this movie to anyone not wholly absorbed by the uses of motion-picture animation or to anyone not familiar with Tolkien's home-made mythology, which borrows liberally from various Norse myths, the Eddas, the Nibelungs and maybe even Beatrix Potter. In the way of grand opera sung in Urdu, "The Lord of the Rings" is likely to be total confusion to someone who doesn't speak the language….
The major fault of the screenplay by Chris Conkling and Peter S. Beagle is that the film attempts to cover too much ground too quickly, packing in more incomprehensible exposition in the first 15 minutes than you'd get in a year of "All My Children." I know one 12-year-old Tolkien scholar, who otherwise thoroughly approved of the movie, who was disappointed because a lot of the events of the books had been "simplified" in the movie. This comment prompted a certain amount of awe among a small group of adults who'd had difficulty following the simplified material….
As in all his films, Mr. Bakshi attempts to go beyond the limits of movie animation as we know it. Before he and his staff began the actual animation, he shot most of his script with live actors in Spain (where else?) and used this material as a guide for the animators. Some of this original material appears to have been incorporated into the finished production, though it has the look of video tape that has been electronically altered to give it an unworldly, unfilmlike quality. Sometimes this is most effective: at other times it simply looks like badly developed film stock. Still, the film is visually compelling even when murk overtakes the narrative.
If Tolkien was not above quoting the mythology of others, Mr. Bakshi appears to have had his own fun quoting such films as "2001," "Ivan the Terrible," "Henry V" and "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs." His hobbits look very much like Disney dwarfs, though somewhat more introspective, and not once does anyone waste time wishing on a star. The War of the Ring is serious business, and the movie seldom makes light of it, which is something parents should keep in mind.
Vincent Canby, "Film: 'Lord of Rings' from Ralph Bakshi," in The New York Times (© 1978 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 15, 1978, p. C21.