Gandalf is a crazy old man, jabbing his finger and issuing threats. Aragorn is a pissy Native American. Gimli is the world's first six-foot-tall dwarf. Legolas has a round face and eyes that don't line up properly. Samwise Gamgee looks like a retarded toad. Frodo… well, Frodo comes out okay. Welcome to the world of Ralph Bakshi's 1978 animated adaptation of The Lord Of The Rings, where nothing is quite as it should be. Scenes abut each other without any flow or connection, characters gyrate and fumble their way through badly blocked action, and the story ends abruptly with the promise of a sequel that never actually materialized. It's as if the guy who re-enacted Raiders of the Lost Ark in his basement decided to adapt Tolkien from scratch; the results would be charming from an amateur, but a lot less impressive when coming from the hands for supposed professionals.
Give the movie this much credit: Rings covers all of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Fellowship of the Ring and a large part of The Two Towers, and while it severely abridges the original text, it hits the most important setpieces. Frodo gets a magical ring from his uncle Bilbo, only to learn from the wizard Gandalf that the ring is a powerful tool of the dark lord Sauron. Frodo flees for his life from his home, accompanied by his faithful servant Sam and two other friends, before meeting the ranger Aragorn, escaping to Rivendell, and engaging upon all manner of adventuring and battling against the forces of darkness. It's hard to imagine anyone unfamiliar with the novels getting much out of all this, since exposition is sparing, but fans of the original fantasy can theoretically get a thrill from seeing familiar faces in a different light.
But that light isn't exactly a pleasant one. Bakshi made extensive use of rotoscoping—the technique of drawing over live action film frames—but the quality of the process varies from shot to shot. Either cartoonish figures twitch through their dialogue like heroin addicts in community theater, or largely untouched crowds of live action role players wave plastic weapons and pretend to be soldiers. At his best, Bakshi's ramshackle, energetic approach is charming, but that charm is ill-suited for the sort of grand mythmaking in which Tolkien engaged. It's a story that requires focus, but Rings feels more like the drunken ramblings of an enthusiast: committed, but unable to finish a sentence without getting lost in the adjectives.
Key features: A short feature on Bakshi's work, and a Blu-Ray presentation that doesn't look all that much better than the DVD.