Blu-Ray Review: Original Animated Version of ‘The Lord of the Rings’

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CHICAGO – Last week we covered the highly anticipated Blu-ray release of “Lord of the Rings” and even had a chat with Richard Taylor of WETA Workshop about the Best Picture-winning film from director Peter Jackson. There may be a few fans of that series out there who don’t know that Jackson, Elijah Wood, Viggo Mortensen, and Ian McKellen weren’t the first to go to Middle Earth. Ralph Bakshi went there over three decades ago and his animated “Lord of the Rings” is now on Blu-ray for the first time. Blu-Ray Rating: 3.5/5.0
Blu-Ray Rating: 3.5/5.0

Watching it now, Bakshi’s “Lord of the Rings” feels like an interesting historical relic but you really have to put yourself in the shoes of a 1978 movie goer to thoroughly appreciate it. Animation for adults wasn’t nearly as common as it is now (this is even pre-“Heavy Metal”). Bakshi had broken ground in that arena with “Fritz the Cat” and “Heavy Traffic” years earlier but making an animated fantasy film not for kids was downright revolutionary and “LOTR” is pitched as a family film but feels more like something for the babysitters or parents than the wee ones.

In fact, it was such a risky proposition that the studio releasing the film had so little confidence in the project that they essentially shot it in the foot. The film is an adaptation of just the first half of J.R.R. Tolkien’s story and it was supposed to be called “Lord of the Rings, Part I,” but the studio had so little confidence that there would be a “Part II” that they cut off that half of the title. Audience members assuming they would see the complete saga of Mordor were dismayed when the story ended. Rule number one when it comes to fantasy/sci-fi audiences: don’t mislead them.

The Lord of the Rings: Original Animated Classic was released on Blu-Ray on April 6th, 2010.
The Lord of the Rings: Original Animated Classic was released on Blu-Ray on April 6th, 2010.
Photo credit: Warner Brothers Home Video

So, is it a good film? Having seen it a few times over the years, I always find it more “interesting” than “entertaining”. Bakshi was clearly trying something revolutionary and his visual influence on the medium is undeniable. Using rotoscoping gave “Lord of the Rings” a very trippy atmosphere, something that I’m sure appealed to the generation of “mary jane” fans who grew up reading Tolkien to each other around the bonfire but it looks antiquated nowadays, especially after the more elaborate, detailed aesthetic of Jackson. The film also deeply sags at times, running over 130 minutes, which may not seem long to an “LOTR” fan but could to a viewer enticed by a film that “will cast its spell over your entire family”.

Being a HUGE “Lord of the Rings” fan and an animation historian, I’m very happy to be able to include Bakshi’s film in my collection in beautiful HD. The transfer is spectacular and the audio is perfectly mixed as well. There’s only one special feature but it’s a good one: “Forging Through the Darkness: The Ralph Bakshi Vision for The Lord of the Rings: In Depth Interview with the Director, Exploring the Concept for Creating an Illustrated Film, His Pioneering Rotoscoping process and Inspirations for His Visual Storytelling”.

Official Studio Synopsis:

“Controversial animator Ralph Bakshi’s literal adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic fantasy trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, is brought to the screen. An evil sorcerer from a previous era created a magical ring which enables its users to call upon its tremendous powers to rule the world, but it inevitably warps them to evil. It was believed lost, but during a resurgence of magical evil in the world, Bilbo, a simple, plain-spoken hobbit, recovers it from its hiding place. The forces of good give his nephew Frodo the choice to bear the awful burden of the ring to a place where it may be destroyed.”

‘The Lord of the Rings: Original Animated Classic’ is released by Warner Brothers Home Video. It was written by Chris Conkling and Peter S. Beagle and directed by Ralph Bakshi. The Blu-Ray was released on April 6th, 2010. It is rated PG. content director Brian Tallerico

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