Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Video review: "The Lord of the Rings" and "LOTR Trilogy"

The Lords are finally going Blu.

The "Lord of the Rings" movies are being issued on Blu-ray today. And I do mean all of them: The trilogy of 2001-03 films directed by Peter Jackson, which is being released as a single set, and the animated version directed by Ralph Bakshi in 1978.

The fates of those disparate attempts to bring J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasyland of hobbits, orcs and elves to cinematic life could not have been more diverse. Jackson's films set box office records and won a slew of Oscars, while Bakshi's version remains a punch line for serious Tolkienites, who dismiss it as a cartoon for kiddies.

Say what you will about Bakshi's much-maligned take, it looks great on a big TV in Blu-ray. The film itself hasn't improved with age; the cutesy depiction of Frodo and the other hobbits as big-haired moppets still grates. And the technique of "rotoscoping" -- filming live action and turning it into animation -- makes for jerky action scenes.

It doesn't help that the story abruptly stops about two-thirds of the way through Tolkien's novel. Bakshi intended the epic tale to be divided into two parts, but the studio refused to fund a sequel.

Jackson had about 70 times more money to play with than Bakshi did, and it shows. The story was split into three parts, just as publishers generally did with Tolkien's book.

But beyond production values, Jackson and his crew hew closer to Tolkien's vision in both plot and tone. They understood that they were translating an entire world into film -- and fans wanted it treated seriously.

The only downside of the LOTR Trilogy's arrival on Blu-ray (which had been delayed repeatedly) is that this set includes only the theatrical version of the films. The longer -- and better -- extended versions are expected to make their hi-def debut eventually, but no date is set.

Extras for the Bakshi version are limited to a single item: A 30-minute documentary covering Bakshi's career. There's some interesting behind-the-scenes photographs and footage from the "Rings" production, and interviews with Bakshi, his children and collaborators. But it mentions nothing about his intention to do a sequel, or the film's dismal reception, or other critical subjects.

The features for the LOTR trilogy closely mirror those of the extended DVD version, although the multiple commentary tracks are missing. It's an exhilarating and exhausting collection of hours' worth of interviews, features and documentaries. The nine-disc set also includes digital copies of each film.

Personally, I'll wait for the Blu-ray extended version.

Movies: Bakshi version: 2 stars; Jackson version: 4 stars
Extras: Bakshi: 1.5 stars; Jackson: 3.5 stars

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