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Lord of the Rings (1978), The

Warner Bros. // PG // September 11, 2001
List Price: $19.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted September 25, 2001 | E-mail the Author
I'll hang my head in shame and admit it -- I've never read any of J.R.R. Tolkein's works, though I vaguely seem to remember giving one of 'em a shot when I was in junior high with little success. Obviously I have no real point of reference, and if you'd prefer to hear the thoughts and opinions on someone better schooled in Tolkein's works, you should probably close this window now and look elsewhere. I picked up Ralph Bakshi's 1978 animated attempt to bring Tolkein to the big screen because of a general love of widescreen animation and curiosity about what Peter Jackson, one of my favorite directors, might bring to the table with his big budget production of the Rings trilogy.

Writing a plot summary for this is terrifying. Okay, there's several minutes of heavy narration at the beginning explaining...oh...300 pages worth of material, which leads into Bilbo Baggins bequeathing a magical ring to his nephew Frodo before leaving on horseback, the explanation for which I apparently missed. The ring bestows great power onto its possessor, so much so that if it fell into the hands of someone as nasty as the reasonably unpleasant Sauron, the Earth would be decimated. The only way to fully prevent this from happening is to return the ring to the hellfires of Mount Doom, the only place in existence where it can be destroyed. However, the ring's destruction carries its own dire consequences as well...

Considering how much seemingly everyone fawns over the source material and the reputation of its director, I was expecting some spectacular animation and an epic story. No such luck. I'm hard pressed to find much of anything positive to say about this adaptation. I loathe rotoscoping, which I'd rank just below fascism and jam bands on my "least favorite things ever" list. The rotoscoped animation is consistently poor and thoroughly distracting, and the character designs aren't any more interesting. Supposedly subtle nuances were added to some of the characters to give them a more life-like appearance, but Frodo doesn't appear more realistic when he speaks and starts twitching -- he looks like he's suffering from tics from a mild case of Tourette's Syndrome or something. From the 8,500 page tomes I've glimpsed in bookstores lately, apparently the material is too epic in scope to do justice in a scant two hours and fifteen minutes. Apparently quite a bit of material was chopped off to fit into that runtime, and the story is rendered nearly impossible to follow as a result. Perhaps The Lord of the Rings is just on too grand a scale to adequately capture in a low-budget animated film. I really wanted to like The Lord of the Rings, but this was one of the most disappointing movies I've seen in a very, very long time.

Video: There was quite a bit of fuss made a couple of months ago when it appeared that The Lord of the Rings would be cropped by Warner to the "family-friendly" aspect ratio of 1.33:1. That thankfully did not turn out to be the case, and the film is presented at its aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The color palette isn't stunningly vibrant, skewed towards brown and muddy hues, but this seems to be intentional. The amount of dust on the print isn't too bothersome, nor is the very light grain present throughout. Definition and detail are both strong, as are black levels, though to a lesser extent. There's just something about an animated feature in anamorphic widescreen that sets my heart aflutter, even if I don't care for the quality of the animation or the story itself. A decent job from Warner.

Audio: The stereo audio presented on The Lord of the Rings struck me as seeming a bit on the quiet side, though bumping up the volume a couple of notches seemed to do the trick. I just hate fiddling with settings due to general laziness. Dialogue is crisp and clear, thankfully not exhibiting that dull, lifeless quality often found in low-budget animation from this time period. Surrounds, if they were used at all, didn't roar often enough to grab my attention. The score teeters on the harsh side, but that may have been an issue in the original recording. Per usual, hiss and distortion aren't present to any appreciable extent.

Supplements: All of the extras are text-based, and one of them are detailed enough to be of much interest. Aside from the cast/crew bios, there is a brief J.R.R. Tolkein biography and some brief information on the various races of creatures who call Middle Earth home.

Conclusion: Though a cursory web search seemed to indicate that many hold Bakshi's The Lord of the Rings in fairly high regard, I found it insufferably boring, and the style of animation irritated me to no end. Not having read any Tolkien material in its entirety, I can't really say if this film does the source material justice. Its low list price coupled with the frenzy of interest in Tolkien's works with Peter Jackson's adaptation in the wings make this an attractive purchase. To the uninitiated, a rental might be the best bet, though.
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