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Eagle Films presents
J.R.R. Tolkien: Master of the Rings (2001)

"The first attempt to make a film, they were going to have the Beatles play the characters. John was going to be Gollum, Paul was going to be Frodo, George was going to be Gandalf and Ringo was going to be Sam. You can almost see them doing that, but they never actually succeeded."
- Bob Blackham

Review By: Mark Zimmer   
Published: January 22, 2002

Stars: J.R.R. Tolkien, Robert Di Napoli, Roger Dean, Rick Wakeman
Other Stars: Father John Tolkien, Priscilla Tolkien, Rayner Unwin
Director: Chris Gormlie

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (brief fantasy violence)
Run Time: 01h:21m:07s
Release Date: December 04, 2001
UPC: 801213000692
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B B+C-C C+

DVD Review

With the huge success of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring, the proliferation of attempts to cash in were naturally to be expected. Not to be confused with the similarly-titled documentary Master of the Rings, this DVD features a somewhat different presentation, centering a bit more on the man himself and treating Tolkien's influence on a more serious basis. The centerpiece of the program is an unfortunately brief set of interview segments with Tolkien himself. Although they are presented in black & white, it's certainly interesting to see the author discussing his own history. He doesn't, however, have much to say about his books. Interviews with the two of his children that don't shun the press, Father John Tolkien and Priscilla Tolkien, are also included, as is Rayner Unwin, who at age 10 gave the green light to his father to publish The Hobbit. These are well done in general. Literary critics also make an appearance, weighing in on the meaning and significance of Tolkien's writings, as well as considering whether they will survive as literature. Much of the discussion is set to the classic paintings by the Brothers Hildebrandt that graced Tolkien calendars 20 years ago. These are still gorgeous and often wonderful imagery that captures the otherworldly nature of Tolkien's writings. Wrapping up the interview segments are excerpts with artist Roger Dean and musician Rick Wakeman of Yes, regarding the influences Tolkien has had on their own art.The weakest portion of the disc is a full retelling of Lord of the Rings, complete with blatant spoilage of the ending. This 20-minute segment feels like sheer padding, since those who haven't read the book will have the experience ruined, and those who have will be bored by hearing what they already know. To make matters worse, it's enacted using midgets in costume as hobbits, pointing out how very right Peter Jackson was to cast ordinary actors and use camera and computer trickery to make them appear to be hobbit-sized. Shot with heavy distortion in an attempt to project fantasy and also to hide the ultra-low-budget production, the whole is quite unsatisfying.Another less than happy segment is devoted to a folk-rock Jethro Tull wannabe band, Mostly Autumn, who also supply the music on the soundtrack. This is quite tedious and could have been dispensed with, without harming the piece in the least. The third shortcoming is that the Hildebrandts didn't do very many calendars, so there is severe repetition of the paintings over the course of the program. Moving the camera over them to emphasize different parts helps to maintain interest, however.The literary analysis segments are probably the strongest; here they delve into character analysis, and also draw parallels from Tolkien's experiences in the trenches of World War I to his writings, particularly in connection with the need to retain focus on goals in the course of carrying on a war. Even devoted fans of the novels (such as myself) will find material of interest here, such as the fact that the Riders of Rohan speak in the same meter as is used in the Anglo-Saxon epic, Beowulf.If it weren't for the retelling of the novels, this would be an excellent introduction to Tolkien and his works. As it is, however, it's highly flawed for novices. Those already familiar with the books will probably enjoy the remainder of the disc.

Rating for Style: B
Rating for Substance: B+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The picture has a very video-like appearance. Scanlines are visible throughout, rendering the picture quite unsatisfactory on a larger screen. The Hildebrandt art is reproduced well, with the striking colors coming across in eye-popping fashion. Edge enhancement, at least, is not present. Black levels are decent considering the content.

Image Transfer Grade: C-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: The 2.0 mono sound is rather hissy. However, for the most part it's quite clear. Tolkien's segments are a bit difficult to make out, but considering that they appear to be home movies of some sort from long ago, there's probably not much that can be done to help there. The music comes through quite nicely for the most part, with the flutes of Mostly Autumn not being unduly harsh or shrill.

Audio Transfer Grade: C


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 10 cues and remote access
3 Featurette(s)
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extra Extras:
  1. 2 Mostly Autumn music videos
  2. Interactive interviews
  3. Image Gallery
Extras Review: The first extra is a set of "interactive interviews." These consist of nine questions regarding Tolkien's work that are answered by interviewees from the program. For the most part, these are longer versions of material already in the program, but there are a few instances of additional footage that are worth visiting. Next is a set of 50 Hildebrandt illustrations for Tolkien's books. Unfortunately, these are reproduced with a sizable frame around them, so that they cover only about half of the screen, a frustrating experience even on large screens.Two sleep-inducing music videos from Mostly Autumn, supposedly inspired by Tolkien's writings, are included for little good reason. Three brief featurettes of interviews from Roger Dean, Rick Wakeman and Ken Hensley of Uriah Heep give further discussion regarding the influences of Tolkien on their own art forms. These are quite worthwhile and do not repeat material in the main program. Chaptering is just barely adequate. No subtitles are included.

Extras Grade: C+


Final Comments

If it weren't for a spoiler-filled retelling of Lord of the Rings, this documentary would be an excellent introduction to Tolkien and his works. As it is, it can only be recommended to those already familiar with the books (or those who have no intention of reading them). Video quality is quite lacking, which is unfortunate.


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