If you read the critics, you might not suspect that J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, the first true epic to come along since Milton revitalized Homer’s and Virgil’s genre, was a monumental work. That its followers, as with Abraham’s seed, are as numerous as the sands. That there are people who meet each week to play Middle-earth games. That maps, calendars, pictures, puzzles, and deluxe editions of the trilogy sell in the millions year after year. I suspect that the critics and the audiences of Ralph Bakshi’s animated version of The Lord of the Rings, released by United Artists, will be just as far apart.

With few exceptions, the critics find it a bad film. The audiences don’t. Walt Disney, Stanley Kubrick, and John Boorman each thought at one time or another about putting The Lord of the Rings on film. Bakshi, the director, hasn’t created a flawless film; here is no Star Wars; neither is it Billy Jack. But considering the sprawl and scope of Tolkien’s story, Bakshi in a somewhat long 131 minutes captures well the atmosphere of an earlier and easier time.

The most compelling aspect of the film comes at the beginning with the recitation of the ring poem and the explanation of how the ring came to Frodo. Black silhouettes against a blood-red background set the tone and put the plot in motion. Those critics who found the film difficult to follow have watched too much television. They could do with a course in Shakespeare, whose popular plots are notoriously complex.

On to the shire. The film moves rapidly, streamlining the birthday party, the story of Gandalf’s search for the truth of the ring, and Frodo’s trip to Rivendell. Tom Bombadil and the Barrow-wights don’t ...

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