Honestly, I had no idea that Ralph Bakshi's animated take on The Lord of the Rings (1978) was coming to Blu-ray, so I was beyond intrigued when I found it sitting in my mailbox. I absolutely adored J.R.R. Tolkien's trilogy growing up, yet for some reason, I never took the time to watch Bakshi's bold attempt at bringing this epic story to the big screen. But there was no need to worry about that little detail now, right? It seemingly came to me in the mail by the powers of fate, so there was no time to waste! I excitedly slid the slipcover off the case, feverishly tore the shrink wrap to shreds, and slipped the disc onto the tongue of my hungry Blu-ray player. As I waited for the disc to load, all I could think was - How in the world am I going to write an unbiased review about a dark, animated Lord of the Rings?! Well, as they say, it seems that fate does work in mysterious, if not ironic ways, because all I could say to myself once the end credits rolled was, "Well, there's 133 precious minutes of my life I'm never going to get back."
If there's one thing this film is desperately trying to do right from the get go, it's getting to the point in a hurry. I guess that makes sense though, considering this single feature length film is literally trying to tell half of the trilogy's entire story. Needless to say, I didn't find the end result to be satisfying in the least. I mean, the film blows through most of the major back story elements in a matter of moments, so when Frodo is charged with a mission that rests the fate of Middle Earth on his shoulders, there doesn't appear to be that much rhyme or reason to it. Sure, there are a bazillion people out there that know the story inside and out, thanks to Peter Jackson's well received live action translations, but anyone who hasn't read the books or seen those movies as of yet might find themselves a little confused. But, once Frodo is on his merry way, the film manages to stay surprisingly faithful to the books... well, as faithful as it could be with what little time it had to work with (although there were still some very minor liberties that were taken along the way). You might be asking, "If it was faithful to the books, then why did you find this movie to be such a hard pill to swallow?" First and foremost, I felt absolutely zero emotion throughout the entirety of the film. The vocal talent was certainly good enough to convey each character appropriately, but the film simply didn't have enough time to let any plot or character development truly grab me. The Lord of the Rings is a story that's loaded to the brim with ever mounting tension, nail biting battles, and heartwarming companionship... yet I felt none of that here.
It wasn't just the poor decision to cram half of the entire Rings trilogy into a 133 minute runtime that bothered me though, because the director's artistic intent was probably even more of a mood killer than the plot's execution itself. You see, Bakshi decided to use a lot of rotoscoping in this film (the process of animating over live action footage). Mind you, I have nothing against rotoscoping in general, because when live action footage is used as a guide for animation, the results can actually be quite astonishing. But unfortunately, it seems that Bakshi made the decision to copy the live action frames by way of tracing rather than doing something more creative. The end result is rather unfortunate, because in my humble opinion, there are a great many of scenes that don't even pass for animation. Instead, they look as if somebody took the live action footage that was shot, and slapped an ugly color filter over it and said, "There, now it looks animated." The effect is jarring to say the least, and consistently pulled me out of the experience the film was trying to provide. I simply could not get past how disgusting these scenes looked, especially when compared to the rest of the film... because, you know, it actually looks like a, *gasps*, animated film! I'm not a filmmaker, but even I know how important it is to make sure your audience believes the world you've created for them. Yet here, Bakshi didn't have enough foresight to see that he was being counterproductive in creating such a world.
**Potential spoiler alert**
Last but not least, there wasn't even an ending. I put up with the entire film, and the payoff? The end credits literally began to roll right after a battle scene ended! There's no dialogue after the fact to wrap things up, and there was nothing to foreshadow the events of what would have been in the next installment. There was just... nothing. I understand the ending of this film is supposed to be anticlimactic and all, but simply cutting the story off and rolling the credits does not qualify. You can't even classify this as a cliffhanger! Bakshi might be beloved for his take on the classic Tolkien tale, as well as some of the other animated features he's worked on, but failing to come up with any sort of ending only tells me one thing - He was an amateur, and that's putting it nicely. I know that's incredibly harsh, and I know a lot of you out there undoubtedly have fond memories of this film and wish he was given the opportunity to finish the other half of the story, but personally, I'm glad he never had the opportunity to. He failed as a filmmaker here in almost every respect - There was poor plot and character development, the feeling of mounting dread and impending doom was poorly executed, and the artistic intent of certain scenes made me feel like I was watching two separate films. If it wasn't for the fact I actually enjoyed Bakshi's Wizards and Fire and Ice films, I'd almost be inclined to call him a complete hack.
I tend not to be this negative in most of my reviews, but what can I say? I hated the experience, and that's bound to happen, right? If by some chance you're actually a fan of Bakshi's vision for The Lord of the Rings, I'm sure you're going to go out and buy this anyway. If you haven't seen this before however, then do yourself a favor and spend your money, and more importantly, your time, on something else.
The Lord of the Rings was encoded using VC-1 at a resolution of 1080p (1.85:1), and looks quite a bit better than I expected it to. The opening credits were a little worrisome, as the red lettering looked excessively soft, but this fortunately doesn't reflect what the rest of the film looks like. Color saturation is bold, black levels are solid most of the time, and contrast is very impressive... at least in the scenes that allows it to shine. Grain is also left intact, although at times it did come off looking just a little more digital than I'd like, but I would never go as far as to say it looked noisy or blocky. There is some very minor macroblocking that can be seen if you pause the film and actually look for it, but you'd be hard pressed to see distracting blocks on your screen while the film is in motion. All in all, traditionally animated scenes look fantastic, and fans of this film should be more than content with the high-def treatment it received by Warner Brothers.
The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 lossless audio track wasn't as impressive though. I have no complaints about the quality of the encode itself, but the sound design is just awful. Almost everything except the score is handled by the front end of the soundstage, and even then, most of the major dialogue and sound effects seemingly come through the center channel. There are some sound effects that will cross over from left to right, and once in a blue moon they might quietly creep in the rear channels, but there wasn't a single moment in the film that 'wowed' me. Also, there were times when dialogue that was meant to trail off into the distance sounded tinny, to the point where (at least to me) it was distracting. Again, I'm sure all these limitations are due to the source itself, and anyone who grew up watching this film on television and VHS or even the early DVD will probably find this to be a semi-decent upgrade, but without ever seeing this film before on any format, I can't accurately inform you just how much of an upgrade this might be. After everything is all said and done, this simply isn't an impressive sonic experience.
Forging Through the Darkness: The Ralph Bakshi Vision for The Lord of the Rings - This featurette clocks in at around a half an hour, and covers the life and career of Ralph Bakshi. This is an extremely interesting watch, because you'll learn that Bakshi really has his heart in the right place. To his credit, Bakshi undeniably understands what it truly means to be an artist - Doing what you think is right, not what you think everyone else wants you to do, forgetting all about political correctness. Bakshi believes that's what truly prohibits an artist from creating something special, and in fact, Bakshi never considered himself to be ahead of his time. He merely thought that he was being honest with himself and what an audience would really want to see, and I applaud him for that. Even if I didn't care all that much for his take on The Lord of the Rings (I understand he had a great deal of difficulty with the studio along the way), I can certainly understand why many others might consider it to be a classic. This featurette is really the only supplement this package has to offer, which, needless to say, is fairly disappointing. That being said however, it's a very interesting piece, and I actually enjoyed it more than the film itself. I highly recommend anyone who gets their hands on this disc gives this a spin.
Personally, I thought this was one of the worst animated films I've ever seen. I love animated films, but when a film fails to flesh out the characters well enough, drops the ball on conveying any of the appropriate emotions as such an epic tale should, or (oops) forgets to even tack on some sort of ending, I can only shake my head and say, "What the hell was this guy thinking?" And even as someone who appreciates the use of rotoscoping when used properly, the work on display in the rotoscoped scenes here are absolutely abysmal and by far some of the ugliest 'animated' scenes I've ever seen. That being said, the only real compliments I have for this film, is that the voice acting is actually quite good, and the traditionally animated scenes look absolutely stunning. In the end, I think Bakshi's 'vision' is probably going to be split people down the middle - Some are going to love it, and some (like me) are absolutely going to loathe it. If you're a fan of this film, by all means, pick it up. The HD video on display is better than I anticipated for a film such as this, although the audio and supplemental package is going to leave you hungry for me. Based on my experience with this film however, I can't even recommend a rental - Skip it.