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The upside and downside to new 'Lord of the Rings'

John DeFore

At last, "The Lord of the Rings" is on Blu-ray!

I speak, of course, of the 1978 animated classic, directed by a man associated with lewd felines and ... wait. You say anticipation of the old cartoon adaptation of the tale isn't the reason you bought a Blu-ray player? Well, you're in luck, because Peter Jackson's trilogy hit high definition this week, too.

Now, I don't want to beat up on that old movie, though it's undeniable that director Ralph Bakshi (beloved by some for the explicit cartoon sex scenes of his 1972 R. Crumb flick "Fritz the Cat"), comes up short even in the Tolkien-'toon arena, mustering none of the charm and little of the wonder the Rankin-Bass team managed in their 1977 "The Hobbit." (As Rankin & Bass knew, it never hurts to have John Huston supplying Gandalf's wise old voice.)

Bakshi's film is a curiosity today, with unappealingly drawn characters, lifeless pacing and a thoroughly unsatisfying ending. Its most interesting quirk is the way orc armies are portrayed by a live-action cast dressed in nutty monster costumes, whose bodies are creepily superimposed onto the pen-and-ink action — and that's not nearly enough reason to sit through it.

Jackson's magnificent movies, on the other hand — for this viewer, anyway — have proven an inexhaustible source of cine-fantasy pleasure. Very nearly perfect, they give us a cast seemingly born to play the roles, a setting that does justice to Tolkien's world-creating imagination and a moral grounding more convincing than that in any other good-versus-evil epic Hollywood has produced in recent memory.

And on Blu-ray, the home video experience comes a step closer to capturing the richness of Jackson's production. The detail is apparent immediately: As the prologue introduces us to Middle Earth, the map's rough texture is far more pronounced than it was on DVD; when we cut to Hobbiton, the greenery of New Zealand-as-Shire invites you to wiggle your bare, Hobbit-hairy toes in it.

Fans of the trilogy will note with disappointment, however, maybe even with anger, that the version of the films being released on Blu-ray now is the theatrical one, not the "Extended Edition" Jackson created for those who couldn't get enough "Rings."

Word has circulated that the filmmaker needs extra time to craft a super-duper new presentation just for Blu-ray, and that the pre-production of a little thing called "The Hobbit" is slowing that project down. But the studio's refusal to put the existing longer versions in this package is a shameless, deeply annoying strategy allowing them to take fans' money yet again in a year or two. Few Tolkienites will resist buying anything they're offered in high-def right now, despite knowing they'll have to pay again for the versions they really want.

Sure, corporations exist to make money, but this bit of corporate greed, bleeding fans who have already spent billions on Frodo Baggins and company, might even make Gollum blush.