Top critical review
the cliché of "a flawed masterpiece" certainly applies here
on 24 January 2015
This is one of those films that the cliché "a flawed masterpiece" was invented for. Released in 1978, this was an (overly?) ambitious attempt to animate Tolkein's epic fantasy bestseller. Director Ralph Bakshi had a reputation as a bit of an iconoclast, determined to free the art of animation from the banal schmaltz that Disney had become, and make it a credible medium for adult audiences rather than just pap for kids. Long before CGI animation was a possibility, his Lord of the Rings was very innovative technically in filming large amounts of real live action and then rotoscoping this frame by frame into the animated backgrounds. This does result in some excellent fluid motion for characters, particularly in the battle scenes, and the best bits (for instance, Nazgul on horseback) look stunning. However many of the other animated characters are less successful, the hobbits looking rather 'cartoony' and as for Legolas, I laughed out loud when I saw him! And the balrog is just ahine! The backgrounds are often beautifully detailed by may remind you a little too much of Yes albums covers :)
The voice acting is also 'good in parts' but overall seems a little nondescript, with too many samey English accents from character to character. The orchestral score does the film no favours in my opinion, generally being rather uninspired, and the sound design is also rather undeveloped for a fantasy film like this.
The pacing of the story is rather uneven too, some sequences seem rather drawn out, others whizz by in jump cuts (with, inevitably, some bits of the book omitted - poor old Tom Bombadil!). The greatest flaw of all, of course, is that the film stops in the bloody middle of the story! Apparently the director wanted to put it out as "Lord of the Rings Part 1", but bizarrely the studio vetoed this, claiming it would put people off wanting to see the film (?!) Of course, what happened was that cinema goers at the time almost unanimously felt duped when the film "ended half way". In any case, despite the film making a healthy box office profit, Part 2 was never made.
Anyways - so much for the film itself, what about the BluRay? Well, that too is a little flawed. It's clearly made from a print, and is full of speckles and dirt from all that rotoscoping and compositing. Clearly, doing a frame-by-frame restoration from the original negatives so as to fix all these would be insanely expensive, so its not entirely surprising that it wasn't been attempted. Nonetheless, the phrase "this high resolution presentation may reveal limitations of the original source materials" certain applies here. I would have thought they could at least have stabilised some of the film wobble in places, but no. The 5.1 sound mix is rather tame too, although the dialogue is always clear. As a bonus feature, there's a fairly engaging half-hour documentary about Ralph Bakshi that sheds a fair amount of light on how and why the film looks the way it does.
All in all, if you like Tolkein and/or animation, this film certainly has some flashes of brilliance. Indeed, you may well spot certain shots which were homaged almost exactly by Peter Jackson in his film version (and also in HTV's 1980s TV adaption of Robin of Sherwood, for those who remember 'The Swords of Wayland'). I'm happy to own a copy, but much as its best bits deserve praise, it's hard not to come away with a shopping list of things about it that you think could've been done better! Ultimately that's as much a testament to the breadth and depth of vision in Tolkein's original book as anything else.