J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings
DVD - Image C Sound C-
BD - Image C+ Sound B- Extras C+
screenplay by Chris Conkling and Peter S. Beagle, based on The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers by J.R.R. Tolkien
directed by Ralph Bakshi
by Walter Chaw An adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's "Rings" books that began with The Fellowship of the Ring and ended when the money ran out in the middle of The Two Towers, Ralph Bakshi's 1978 animated feature The Lord of the Rings is unintentionally disturbing, occasionally brilliant, and fatally uneven. The film is faithful to the main movements of Tolkien's novels but told in the kind of narrative shorthand that favours truncation over summary. Its rotoscoping of actors combines uneasily with traditional modes of animation: they mix into an abstract soup of contradictory images that destroys our suspension of disbelief.
Over it all hangs a feeling of disquiet that Bakshi was not entirely in command of every message he was sending with his leggy warriors in mini-tunics, his overly affectionate elves, and his fey hobbits. If Bakshi was attempting to bring some kind of subsumed homoerotica to the surface of the archly conservative Tolkien's magnum opus (and such an attempt would be a brazen and not-entirely-unwelcome one), he needed to work against pushing the entire enterprise away from a satirical revision and towards camp.
Bakshi's The Lord of the Rings is suddenly relevant again for two reasons: the first part of Peter Jackson's live-action, much-anticipated Rings trilogy is set for release later this year; and Richard Linklater's computer-animated Waking Life has resurrected and refined Bakshi's rotoscoping technique. The Lord of the Rings follows the exploits of heroic hobbit Frodo Baggins (voiced by Christopher Guard) as he leads a fellowship of nine on a quest to defeat the dark lord Sauron. Seen by many as an allegory for WWII--with the demonic overlord as Hitler--and interpreted by others, with its "slant-eyed" and yellow-skinned Orcs, as a virulently racist tract, The Lord of the Rings is indisputably a benchmark in modern fiction, gaining its popularity from the paperback release in the 1960s. Joining Frodo on his quest is the powerful wizard Gandalf (William Squire), the proud human Aragorn (John Hurt), and the effeminate elf Legolas (Anthony 'the effeminate C-3PO' Daniels) as they brave snowstorms, hordes of monsters, and a twisted creature named Gollum (Peter Woodthorpe) who may or may not have good intentions.
Typical of Bakshi's style is a static, expressionistic background against which move soft-edged cartoon figures. The detail of the characters is not impressive, and their movements are strangely syncopated and loose-limbed, but there is a mesmerizing quality to Bakshi's work that accounts for his sizable cult following. I would define it as a kind of grimy, ineffable sexuality that fills his frame with an immediacy, troubling the mind like a thin veneer of scum coats the skin. There's no mistaking a Bakshi film, love it or loathe it. The Lord of the Rings veers suddenly, however, from what is typically Bakshi to something else; there's an inexplicable reliance on the live-action figures that people a particularly unsettling pub scene and a tacky-looking concluding battle.
The main characters are already at sharp odds with the still, watercolour backgrounds, and the introduction of the rotoscoped "extras" only adds to the jarring disconnect. It's a fairly interesting experiment in mixed-media, though it's almost as discordant and ultimately failed as Bakshi's other attempt at integrating animation, flat backdrops, and humans, Cool World. The Lord of the Rings very simply lacks any sort of cohesion that would lead to an investment in the characters and their trials. It's tantalizing to think of what a well-funded and animated Tolkien project could've been; what wound up on the screen is more bewildering and dull than enchanting.
Released on DVD by Warner to capitalize on the upcoming Peter Jackson films, the 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is grainy and dark. Although some of the roughness is probably a dual product of Bakshi's intent and an aged source print, I can't help but think that more care could have been taken in the mastering process. The Dolby Surround soundtrack sounds as old as it is, with very little separation and a negligible use of the rear channel. Additional pops and fizzles scream low-tech recording. The skeletal package is rounded out by a brief Tolkien biography, sparse crew information, a somewhat informative description of the creature types that populate Middle Earth, and a dated yet interesting theatrical trailer. Originally published: October 22, 2001.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers Despite assurances that it's been "remastered," Ralph Bakshi's The Lord of the Rings looks as crappy as ever on Blu-ray. I'm willing to accept that this flick is never going to be as impressive on the format as Bakshi's Fire and Ice, simply because the animation here doesn't just use rotoscope but in fact optically integrates live-action elements (such as clouds, lightning, and footage that's been "solarized" to suggest bas relief), leading to the types of compositing artifacts that can't be removed without extensive, expensive digital restoration and, it goes without saying, sacrificing a certain historical integrity. Still, I've seen similarly dated transfers that had more HiDef pop than this 1.78:1, 1080p presentation (though some of those forestcapes glow like blacklight posters--which is, I suspect, the point), and the grain level is irritatingly mercurial. The attendant 5.1 Dolby TrueHD audio makes the stereo effects a little more pronounced than usual but otherwise has a tinny, drive-in movie quality.
There is only one extra worth noting, and that's the 30-minute, standard-def "Forging Through the Darkness: The Ralph Bakshi Vision for The Lord of the Rings", a newish documentary in which Bakshi and assorted other interviewees, including his children, retrace the arc of Bakshi's career, from his juvenile delinquency to his current work as a painter. It's a breezy but finally elliptical piece, suggesting it was cut down from something much longer; topics are continually dropped like hot potatoes, with discussion of The Lord of the Rings itself abandoned before we hear anything about the tail-end of production or why plans for a sequel never materialized. A substantial HD trailer for the DVD and Blu-ray release of "Star Wars: The Clone Wars - The Complete Season One" (with Blu-ray getting the hard sell, since it's currently the only way to see the Cartoon Network series in HD) rounds out the special features, while Warner's Blu-ray spot cues up on startup. A bonus DVD contains a Digital Copy of the film. Originally published: April 15, 2010.