Maybe I'm just simple, but I thought that with a title like Master of the Rings it would give me more than a cursory Cliff Notes Bio of Tolkien- the man. Instead this film focuses on the banal details of his life and, mainly, various Tolkien lovers, most of whom are the sort that give fantasy fans a bad name. Now, I am a man of many geeky pursuits, and I have friends who spend considerable time, energy, and brainpower creating and playing in fantasy worlds, yet... well there are just some people who so cleanly fit the geek stereotype it is painful.
Here we see the Tolkien Society, a renaissance fairlike outfit that has play battles in which fat grown men with pasty skin and bad facial hair and spotty faced, stick thin girls with speech impediments whack each other over the head with foam swords, axes, and arrows and pretend that the Sprite they are drinking is mead and their asthma inhalers are mystical charms. When the society leader is spazzing out about how the battles let him "touch on the real" and become part of it, its just the kind of over enthusiastic lack of reality that makes me firmly believe some fantasy should be confined to your imagination, maybe a costume convention, or your basement in front of a D&D board, and not out in a park running around, sweating, and demanding people call you Torgath the Orc Overloard. Sure, its no sillier to me than the men who think that if they dress themselves in paint, wear a rainbow wig, and yell loud enough in a crowded stadium, then they are actually helping their favorite football team win. But, beyond their fantasy babble, ultimately the Tolkien Society doesn't give a great insight to Tolkien, and that's where it fails. "I read Tolkien in high school. I loved it. Now I spend my weekends running around public parks pissing off the dog walkers and frisbee dudes." However it is far from the worst.
The worst is a musician named Bob Catley. A small man, who seems about fifteen years out of date in his rock dress, and who has composed an album of songs inspired by Tolkien's work. He is interviewed in a bar, where it seems the patrons are either ignoring or laughing at Mr Catley and his accompanist. Not only are we treated to Mr Cately's banal musings over how Tolkien inspired him, but we are forced to sit through a wincing rendition of one of his original songs, which in a one hour documentary is four minutes of wasted time.
So, its not that I am against geeks. I'm a huge geek. But, when all the fans can contribute to paint a picture of Tolkien are generalized comments like, "I like how he wrote his dialogue. You can tell who a character is just by the way he wrote their speech." Its not the most revelatory comment, and this doc is riddled with them. And that is the key, because as good natured and genuine Bob Cately and the reenactors may be, they do not take great strides in being informative and that is what a documentary is all about.
We also meet a priest, who is a Tolkien nut, and preaches at a church that Tolkien regularly attended. And we meet a fantasy painter, Roger Garland, who quite amusingly is color blind, and notes than when doing a painting of Gandalf, he used his grandmother or mother as the model, and he received complaints that Gandalf looked too feminine! Perhaps the most insightful, though, is Humphrey Carpenter, a Tolkien biographer, who met Tolkien, staged a play based on the Hobbitt, and while he is the most grounded person in the documentary, his comments are nice scraps, but don't give a clear picture of the man. Carpenter's soundbites sort of contradict, on one hand saying Tolkien was like some sort of savant lost in his own world, on the other a humble, normal, quiet intellectual. Also, there is a man who pops up from time to time, showing us various places where Tolkien lived, but basically the facts amount to nothing more than the Realtors Guide to J.R.R. Tolkien. "Here is where he lived until he had children and they needed to move to a bigger place... They then lived here until he got a job at Oxford, so they moved here, to a bigger place... Here is the bar where he and his writing buddies met... Then, the kids moved away, his wife died, so he moved into a smaller place which we see here." Also at various points title cards pop up displaying facts like - "The first volume of Lord of the Rings was published in 1954... the initial print order called for just 3500 copies." But, basically, in the information age, there was nothing in the documentary that I couldn't have found out by spending five mins on the Internet.
My final word is this. In addition to rounding up a fairly unimpressive group of fans to interview, and giving scant, unfocused info about Tolkien, the overall production is very amateurish. During interviews say outside, or in a bar, background noise of bar patrons or wind becomes distracting. Most of the interviews were done with two cameras, an "A" and a "B" camera, and in several shots the cameramen reveal each other, which is one of the basic "no-no's" they teach you on the first day of film school.
The DVD: It should first be noted, that this doc has nothing to do with Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy, and the doc was not approved by the Tolkien family, the latter fact is clearly stated on the DVD cover... I really cant blame Trimark/Lions Gate for picking this up. It was probably a pretty cheap acquisition, and I'm sure by slapping on a cover that makes it look like Lord of the Rings (which they did) they will get a few buyers. Certainly those interviewed in the film will gladly buy it and show it off to their pasty friends, and I'm sure other Tolkien completists will grab it up. But, for the average viewer and the curious, there just isn't much to be had, and they would be better off looking for info about Tolkien elsewhere. Picture- Video image, not great, but fairly competent, I guess. Its nothing to be in awe over, probably just a high def TV camera on autoexposure. Typical of any little doc image you'll find on a Learning Channel or Discovery program. Sound- Pretty lackluster Dolby Digital Stereo with English subs. Like I noted before, much of the sound recording is pretty amateurish, and has some distracting background noise in spots. Extras- NONE