Warner Bros. // 1978 // 133 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Daniel Kelly (Retired) // March 31st, 2010
Fantasy...beyond your imagination!
Ralph Bakshi's animated version of J.R.R Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings is an interesting motion picture. Released in 1978, the film performed modestly at the box-office, but was never given a second installment to wrap its story up. Bakshi's movie finishes at the climax of the second in Tolkien's trilogy, The Two Towers, meaning that it is an unfinished piece of filmmaking. Obviously since the disappointment of this anticlimactic animated interpretation, audiences have been treated to Peter Jackson's sterling live action versions, a set of films that actually managed to round out and complete Tolkien's heroic tale. However whilst Bakshi's vision might not work particularly well on its own terms, the film clearly inspired Peter Jackson on multiple occasions and allowed for the director to avoid mistakes made by his '70s predecessor. Bakshi may have produced an underwhelming version of the story on his own, but it's hard to overlook that he had an obvious indirect hand in the crafting of Jackson's masterpieces.
Evil is stirring once again in Middle Earth. The Dark Lord Sauron has reawakened and is in pursuit of the one thing that can assure his cruel rule over the lands: the ring of power that was taken from him in battle centuries ago. The Ring has found its way to the shire and into the hands of a naive hobbit called Frodo Baggins (Christopher Guard, Doctor Who). When the wizard Gandalf (William Squire, Innocent Sinners) learns that the young hobbit has it, he informs Frodo of its power and the immediate need to destroy it. Frodo then sets out on a quest to take the Ring to the pits of Mt. Doom (the only place the ring can be undone), with a brave fellowship backing him along the way. However, as Sauron regains strength in the foul lands of Mordor, he sends his nine Ringwraiths (disguised as hooded black riders), the treacherous wizard Saruman (Fraser Kerr, Theatre of Death), and a plethora of Orcs to retake his ring and solidify his power forever.
Obviously the above description is an incredibly simplistic one, as the story of The Lord of the Rings would demand many paragraphs before it could truly be summarized effectively. Indeed, given the popularity the story attained in the early noughties due to the fantastic Peter Jackson versions, I'm going to assume most everyone reading this is familiar with Tolkien's legendary narrative. So at this point I'll apologise to everyone who isn't a nerd, or has indeed been living under a rock for the last 10 years. However, if you have been inhabiting some sort of isolated environment during the previous decade, then I would urge you not to start with Ralph Bakshi's animated The Lord of the Rings. Read the books or watch the Jackson films, at least in those forms the story is fully comprehensible and makes sense. Bakshi's fantasy adaptation demands the viewer know the story of The Lord of the Rings fluently, otherwise they will be hopelessly lost in a mist of shallow storytelling and dodgy editing. The film jumps from place to place with virtually no proper exposition (bar a speedy and unconvincing recounting of the prologue at the film's start) leaving those uninitiated with Tolkien's world lost, and very likely bored. The screenplay by Chris Conkling and Peter S. Beagle flails around wildly, rarely taking a minute to stay still and inform the viewer of what's going on. For Tolkien fans this is obviously no big deal, but novices and Middle Earth virgins are going to be left extremely cold by the narrative decisions here.
The characterization is a mixed bag. Figures like Frodo, Gandalf, Aragorn (John Hurt, Alien), and Gollum (Peter Woodthorpe, Jane Eyre) are well handled but other participants get drastically fumbled. The biggest offender is Bakshi's vision of Sam Gamgee (Michael Scholes, Sweeney 2). In the story, Sam is meant to be a true hero, a plain hobbit taken on a mighty quest, proving his loyalty and resourcefulness as he goes with Frodo to destroy the ring. However, in this animated movie Sam is painted generally as a simpleminded buffoon, Bakshi criminally using him as comic relief on more than a few occasions. Similarly the dynamic between the dwarf Gimli (David Buck, Mosquito Squadron) and the elf Legolas (Anthony Daniels, C3P0 of Star Wars) is underexploited and characters like the redemptive warrior Boromir and the evil wizard Saruman are totally underwritten. Part of the confusion provided by The Lord of the Rings is in the poorly fleshed out characterization of particular individuals; motives and actions are at times hard to fathom in the midst of Bakshi's bizarre editorial decisions.
The world itself is nicely animated, but the use of Rotoscoping is something this film has often been attacked for. Rotoscoping is an animation technique that uses live action footage, which is traced over and animated frame by frame. Some films have used the method successfully but The Lord of the Rings isn't one of them. The traditional painted backgrounds and Rotoscoped characters often don't sit comfortably beside each other. The more conventionally rendered settings are aesthetically pleasing and really do capture the atmosphere of Tolkien's tale, but the Rotoscoping undermines that success in a mire of awkward animation and wacked out imagery. On a more positive note, the musical score by Leonard Rosenman (Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home) is strong and deploys a beautiful variety of melodies to capture the mood of the epic story.
The film finds glory in its depiction of particular sequences and events, some of which obviously influenced Peter Jackson. The most prominent example is the first encounter with the Ringwraiths (who are, incidentally, eerily envisioned by Bakshi) in which the hobbits hide under a log from the skulking black rider. The scene is moody, and thanks to some earthy animation and good music, it's quite unsettling. Jackson deployed a near shot for shot reconstruction in his version of the same sequence, one of the few examples of the blockbusting filmmaker being influenced by this 70's animation. Bakshi himself has expressed anger over Jackson's versions, citing that nobody thanked or even made contact with him regarding the immense success of the 21st Century retellings. Obviously most of the success does indeed deserve to fall into Jackson's lap, but one can see where Bakshi is coming from. Around 95 percent of Jackson's films are completely his own work, but there is 5 percent that will always belong to Ralph Bakshi, no matter what the credits say. Still, facets that Jackson clearly drew nothing from are Bakshi's battle sequences and Orcs, which are faceless and unexciting in equal measure.
The Blu-Ray boasts an agreeable restoration job but not one that will have Hi-def nuts overly excited. The picture has been cleaned up and some details effectively tweaked, but overall this ranks as a pretty average Blu-Ray disc on a technical level. The audio track has a decent degree of boom but again it feels like a release from maybe a year or two ago, certainly not comparable to some of the stronger Warner Bros. discs of the last few months. The Dolby TrueHD track does present Leonard Rosenman's score with a sufficient amount of pomp and it balances the dialogue and orchestral music satisfactorily. On the bonus feature front things are less acceptable. A 30 minute featurette called Forging through the Darkness explores the movie and its director quite efficiently, but as the only real slice of extra content on the disc, it feels too slight. It's shocking that no commentary has been included (much like the DVD from 9 years ago) as Bakshi has always been happy to discuss the project and assess its strengths and weaknesses openly. A digital copy has been included as has a standard def DVD.
The Lord of the Rings is an incredibly flawed film and really only serves as a comparative piece to Jackson's live action trilogy. Fans will be able to appreciate that certain scenes have been wonderfully adapted but as a whole it struggles to impress. The fact it was never properly completed only adds insult to injury. The Blu-Ray is robust enough from an audio/video standpoint but the lack of insightful extras detracts value from the package. However, for fans of this 1978 production this is the version to get, the only alternative being the mangy and vanilla DVD release from 2001. Basically, if you like the movie, take the double dip, but on the whole I wouldn't recommend you really bother in the first place.
The Lord of the Rings has some limited value but it's still guilty.
Review content copyright © 2010 Daniel Kelly; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 133 Minutes
Release Year: 1978
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* Digital Copy
* Wikipedia: The Lord of the Rings (1978)