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|Kevin Krock, editor|
Many of you may be familiar with the stories of The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings, as told by J.R.R. Tolkien. Millions have read this classic fantasy epic, set in a mythical age of magic, monsters, and heroes, since The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings were published in 1937 and 1954 – 1955, respectively. Granted, these tales are not for everyone. The Tolkien books are quite long, complex, and detailed, and much of the plot is intertwined with long journeys, odd characters, vicious monsters, and great battles of good against evil, which may not sit well with some people. Yet, for many that enjoy this genre, like myself, these stories are the ones that started it all.
As the intricacies of the story lines in these books are far too complex to describe in a DVD review, I will only briefly mention the superficial plot lines for those unfamiliar with Tolkien. Those that have read Tolkien can hopefully appreciate the difficulty of distilling hundreds of pages of text into a measly few paragraphs. I have also tried to make the progression of the movies a bit more clear by organizing the movie descriptions by their literary order rather than their television or theatrical debut dates.
The first story in the series is The Hobbit, and it tells of the adventures of a Hobbit named Bilbo Baggins in the enchanted world of Middle Earth. Bilbo is sent on a quest by the powerful wizard Gandalf to retrieve a treasure stolen from the dwarfs. As Bilbo journeys to find the treasure, he encounters trolls, huge spiders, and even a fire- breathing dragon.
In 1977, the Emmy Award-winning team of Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass produced a made- for- television movie adaptation of the story, and if you have ever seen the animated holiday classics, Jack Frost, Frosty’s Winter Wonderland, or Frosty the Snowman, then you have some idea of how The Hobbit looks. The animation is better than most current animated television shows, and it has a definite film quality to it. Although, in order to condense the book into a story short enough for television, the adaptation takes artistic license in many parts, but fortunately, the film successfully covers most of the key plot points of the book.
One aspect of the movie that tended to feel out of place were the numerous and somewhat silly songs. They are designed to help move the story along, but they tend to clash with the tone and actions of the plot. Rankin and Bass are well known for their musical animated adaptations, but their musical formula seems to break down with Tolkien’s tale. The movie ends up feeling a lot more like Frosty the Snowman than I expected or liked, but, then again, this is not necessarily a bad thing for a television movie intended for children.
The next part of the series is Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, which is actually one long story split across three books, Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King. The three books continue the epic story of the battle between good and evil that started by the discovery of a magical ring in The Hobbit. Essentially, the ring’s power can bring about evil and catastrophic changes to Middle Earth, and the only way to restore peace to the land is by destroying the ring. This is not an easy task, since it can only be destroyed by the evil power from which it was forged. So, the wizard Gandalf, another hobbit named Frodo, and a small band of elves, dwarfs and warriors set out on a dangerous quest to save Middle Earth from its eventual destruction.
In 1978, Academy Award-winning producer Saul Zaentz and director Ralph Bakshi set out to create an ambitious animated adaptation of the entire Lord of the Rings. The original intent was to divide the three books in half and produce two movies. However, from what I understand, after getting through the first book and a half, a decision was made to halt production on the second movie. This left the first movie in an odd bind, and now, it abruptly concludes well before the ending in The Two Towers and leaves viewers hanging.
It is unfortunate that this happened because the completed film is pretty impressive, and the characters, tone, and pacing of the film are on target with the books. For fans, this is adherence to the original source material is a plus, but for young children or those unfamiliar with Tolkien, the 133 minute run time, complex story, odd characters, abundant swordplay, dark undertones, and monsters may be too much for them to hang through the whole movie. One thing that parents should be especially aware of is that this movie is rated PG due to the graphically violent animated battle scenes.
After the movie version of The Lord of the Rings, the final book, The Return of the King remained untouched. Then, in 1980 Rankin and Bass decided to finish off Tolkien’s epic story by adapting The Return of the King into a 97-minute animated television special. This pared down version of the story picks up in the middle of Frodo’s quest to destroy the Ring of Doom, and it concludes with the reestablishment of peace and good throughout Middle Earth, as the rightful King returns to power following the ring’s destruction.
The movie has the same look and feel as The Hobbit, including the very apparent spaces for TV commercial breaks and out of place songs. The animation and characterizations are on par with The Hobbit, and the entire original voice cast returns to reprise their roles. Again, while this adaptation is not very pleasing for die-hard fans of Tolkien, it does a fairly decent job of entertaining its original target audience of children.
The quantity of goodies was the biggest disappointment about these discs, especially The Lord of the Rings DVD. All three of these discs seriously lack bonus material, and they should be considered as "movie- only" DVDs. Each disc has a series of Tolkien and filmmaker highlights and character summaries, but all of these are simply text screens with a few short paragraphs worth of information.
For those completely unfamiliar with the stories, the screens provide a little bit of background, but for others, they do not provide new or interesting information. In light of the lack of bonus material, each of the discs have been aptly priced at only $15 - $20, but I would have gladly paid a bit more to get some quality goodies.
The Video, Audio and Interface
The video transfers of all three of these movies are generally acceptable, especially given their age and lack of restoration. The colors and detail are good, but the biggest problem is the obvious film print wear, like scratches and dust. The wear is not intolerable, but it does get a little distracting at times.
With regards to the various aspect ratios of the movies, The Hobbit and The Return of the King are presented in their original, full-frame television format, and thankfully (after the Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory fiasco) Warner Brothers decided to present Lord of the Rings in anamorphic widescreen.
Like the video portion, the soundtracks appear to have been transferred with minimal manipulation. They are very basic mono or stereo mixes that are adequate but not outstanding. Compared to most contemporary DVD soundtracks, the audio on these movies feels very constrained and almost claustrophobic. It is a bit disappointing that Warner did not take at least The Lord of the Rings and rework the audio a bit. The fantasy environment and characters seem ripe for some surround audio magic.
To round out these seemingly minimalist releases, the user interfaces are simply boring static screens with a little music on the main menu. They are certainly usable by everyone in the family, but they add nothing to the viewing experience or mood.
The Final Evaluation
All three of these DVDs are bare-bones releases, and it is clear that limited resources were put into producing these discs. Granted, this is not completely incomprehensible given the relatively small audience of Tolkien fans, but even a bit more effort on the interfaces and goodies would have made these discs better. The Hobbit and The Return of the King are interesting to watch once, but because of their brevity and plot deviations, hard-core Tolkien fans may not like these somewhat musical adaptations. If you have any interest, it may be a good idea to rent them first. That way you'll know what is best for you.
On the other hand, The Lord of the Rings is a theatrical animation classic, and at $15 - $20, Tolkien fans will probably want to pick it up, if they have not already done so. The movie is really meant for older children and adults, and the animation style is unique and fascinating to watch. Unfortunately, the lack of goodies and the dry user interface are a disappointment, but the anamorphic widescreen transfer is a pleasant feature to see on this disc. For the price, it should indulge fans until someone decides to do something like a 25th anniversary edition in a couple of years... hopefully.
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