The Lord of the Rings: Remastered Deluxe Edition (Warner) – Ralph Bakshi’s 1978 animated feature film combines traditional cel animation with live action reference footage in his attempt to get J.R.R. Tolkien’s sprawling fantasy adventure epic on the big screen.
Bakshi was something of an animation renegade in the seventies, coming from the counterculture to the mainstream and trying to keep both his independence and his ambitious scope as he built his own studio and his own vision of adult animated films in an era when animation was considered kid stuff. He managed both with this production, which was independently produced by Saul Zaentz (coming off an Oscar for his debut film as a producer, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), an ambitious animated epic with a vast scope and a fantasy with a sophisticated sensibility, accomplished without computers or the huge budgets of a Pixar production. It looks a bit primitive today, with big battle scenes resembling Xerox art (a result of solarising live action footage to resemble drawings). But it’s also dark and fantastical with a mature approach rare in animated films of its day, and Bakshi’s rotoscope process (where animators draw their characters over footage of actors) creates an unusually fluid and expressive style. The characters seem to breath on screen and some of the intimate moments are beautifully “acted.”
Bakshi’s The Lord of the Rings covers about half of trilogy (the announced follow-up film never found funding) in just over two hours. This relatively low-budget production doesn’t come close to the scale that Peter Jackson created in his epic version, but it’s intelligently scripted and directed, with some memorable and dramatic imagery (Jackson quoted a few of Bakshi’s shots in his version). It’s as true to Tolkien as can be under the limitations much of Bakshi’s interpretation anticipates Jackson’s more fully realized production. John Hurt is the only prominent name in the voice cast as the beefy and dusky Aragorn (designed by Bakshi as a cross between Conan the Barbarian and an American Indian warrior) and Anthony Daniels (C3PO from Star Wars) contributes the voice of the wide-eyed elf Leglolas. The rest of the voice cast is largely unknown but excellent and well matched to their characters,. The new remastered DVD and Blu-ray debut reveal the dirt and grit and imperfections of the process and the original film masters, but the colors are rich and the mastering looks accurate. Both feature the new half-hour documentary “Forging Through the Darkness: The Ralph Bakshi Vision for The Lord of the Rings,” which traces the career of Bakshi and the unusual production techniques he used to make the film.
Which leads to the far-more anticipated Blu-ray debut of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Motion Picture Trilogy (New Line), and the disappointment that Warner is once again double-dipping with the title. You recall that the original DVD releases were of the theatrical editions, rushed out to cash in on the first wave of DVD rental store needs, followed by the amazing “Extended Edition” sets for the collectors, with more footage and more complex narrative weaving (a version that lent themselves to the home theater experience, where you can create your own breaks or simply settle in for the long haul at your leisure) and the epic documentaries that accompanied each film. The pattern is being repeated in Blu-ray, but this time without any excuse. With fans already looking to upgrade their DVD collections to Blu-ray, why only offer the theatrical editions, with more modest supplements and without the added footage of Jackson’s preferred edition? The “Extended Editions” are at this time a promise for some unidentified future date, but it’s not like Warner is going out of its way to alert fans that they might want to wait. And while there are no doubt fans eager for the theatrical version, there will likely be a lot of buyers disappointed with this less-than-special edition release, either when they get home and discover what’s not on the set, or when the next incarnation hits Blu-ray, probably around the holidays to cash in on the gift season. After three separate, and distinctly different, DVD releases of the original trilogy, Warner really owes it to the consumers to do one definitive Blu-ray release with the works.