LORD OF THE RINGS, THE: THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING - DVD review


 
Eddie
Feng

Corporate siblings Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema dominated the box office during late-2001 with "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" and "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring". "HP 2" and "LOTR 2" are about to continue their predecessors' battle in the winter of 2002, and I'm sure that AOL Time Warner must be itching to see if the sequels can out-gross at least "Star Wars: Episode 2", if not "Spider-Man". In the meantime, while filmgoers wait for the December release of "LOTR 2", New Line has devoted its resources towards creating a 4-disc Special Extended Edition Platinum Series set to complement the August 2-disc release.

As so many know by now, the 2-disc set offered the theatrical cut of "LOTR 1" as well as extras used to promote the film's release. The new 4-disc set features a longer version of the film, but it should not be viewed as a "director's cut". Rather, the extended version simply offers more scenes from the book that were shot but were not shown in theatres. The music score has been re-worked, too, as have the sound design and visual effects. The 4-disc set also includes supplemental materials not seen with the 2-disc set (vice versa applies, so those of you who want the trailers will have to buy both sets).

--The Film--
Fans of J.R.R. Tolkien must've breathed a collective sigh of relief when Peter Jackson's "LOTR 1" thundered across movie screens world-wide. Previous stabs at adapting Tolkien's novels yielded piddling results. Jackson directed "Heavenly Creatures", a psychological drama that included scenes from two young girls' make-believe dream world, and his obvious familiarity with the fantasy genre translated into a respectful, lavish, gorgeously-mounted production that breathed fresh cinematic life into Middle-Earth.

In the movie, Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) inherits a gold ring from Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm), a distant relative and a most unusual Hobbit who once went on a grand adventure. The young hero discovers that his ring is the One Ring that belonged to the Dark Lord Sauron, and Frodo must travel deep into the heart of Mordor in order to destroy the ring in the fires of Mount Doom. Otherwise, a resurrected Sauron will re-claim his ring, bind the other subservient rings to his will, and cast a pall over the lands of Middle-Earth.

Frodo collects a band of companions to aid him in his quest: Gandalf (Ian McKellen), a powerful wizard; Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), the heir to the throne of Gondor; Boromir (Sean Bean), a warrior from Gondor; Gimli the dwarf (John Rys-Davies); Legolas the elf (Orlando Bloom, who won an MTV Movie Award in the category of Breakthrough Male Performance); Samwise Gamgee (Sean Astin); Peregrin "Pippin" Took (Billy Boyd); and Meriadoc "Merry" Brandybuck (Dominic Monaghan). Together, these 9 adventurers form the Fellowship of the Ring, pledging to destroy the One Ring at all costs. The Fellowship must brave the perils introduced by the Nazgul (Sauron's 9 Ringwraiths), various Orcs, cave trolls, goblins, and Saruman (Christopher Lee). Once Gandalf's mentor and friend, Saruman has now allied himself with Sauron upon learning that the Dark Lord is regaining his powers.

The movie's easy-going first hour quickly turns into a powerful, exciting, violent, and heart-rending 2-hour journey of derring-do and death. Make no mistake--"LOTR 1" isn't just a coming-of-age fable. Rather, it is a mature adventure epic that involves a real sense of dread and loss on the part of the heroes. Sauron doesn't just want to rule the world; he wants to enslave it. Also, 9 heroes, no matter how brave they may be, simply can not expect to fend off hordes of monsters without suffering their own losses.

Despite being populated with numerous faces, the film boasts memorable appearances by actors who aren't overwhelmed by the production or simply lost in the crowd. McKellen received an Oscar nomination for playing Gandalf with equal parts sly humor and sagacity. Bean, so good as Alec Trevelyan in "Goldeneye", convincingly inhabits the skin of the uncertain Boromir. Tolkien's elves are the "beautiful creatures" of his mythical world, and everyone who plays an elf in the movie--including Cate Blanchett as the Elf Queen--looks ethereally seductive. (Personal observation--while the actors chosen to play elves are certainly "beautiful", they also look a little cruel as well.)

While the massive battle scenes were created largely within the realm of computers, "LOTR 1" compares favorably to grounded-in-reality epics such as "Spartacus" and "Braveheart". The production design looks stupendous--New Zealand's otherworldly beauty probably approximates the lush vistas of Tolkien's Middle-Earth more than any other place on Earth. Prior to the film's release, word that Arwen's role had been greatly expanded from her presence in the novel elicited some concerns from fans, but Liv Tyler (in her best performance) does a great job of portraying a powerful elf princess. Also, it was refreshing to see a movie that took the word "epic" seriously. Sure, we've had "big" movies recently such as "Titanic" and "Gladiator", but "LOTR 1" is simply so massive that it dwarfs most movies in terms of sheer production size.

--The Extended Edition--
Substantively speaking, the added footage (about 30 minutes' worth) does not really change the movie. It's not as if entire sub-plots have been added, and the overall outcome of the film does not change. However, the added footage improves the movie's esthetics immeasurably. In my review of the 2-disc set, I wrote that I felt that the 3-hour version seemed a bit rushed in its efforts to tell as much of Tolkien's story as possible. Since the theatrical cut never paused to draw breath, the audience was plunged into a whirlwind of plot and action without any chance of gaining some bearings. I rated the theatrical version an "8". I'm rating the extended version a "9" because it is more expansive, grander, and more heartfelt. Moments like watching Bilbo Baggins writing his memoirs, listening to Aragorn singing in his adopted language, and chuckling at Gimli's infatuation with the Elf Queen imbue the viewing experiencing with much warmth and humor.

The filmmakers put a lot of effort into the Extended Edition of "LOTR 1". Rather than just throwing chunks of footage into the mix, they actually re-edited the entire film at a microscopic level. New shots have been inserted in a variety of places, so the changes feel more organic than the additions seen in longer versions of other movies. A project with the kind of visual grandeur on display in this movie demands a lengthy running time, and I will be watching the Extended Edition of "LOTR 1" now that I have it in my hands. (The DVDs' menus and the booklet tell viewers where new footage has been added so that you can jump directly to the new shots and scenes.)

If I like the extended version so much, why am I not giving it a "10" for Entertainment Value? Well, I'm waiting for the super-duper version, where every installment is 6-hours long for a total of 18 hours. I'm sure that Peter Jackson has enough footage somewhere, right? Also, as it stands, "LOTR 1" is not a complete story in and of itself. Before you flood me with e-mails about how the movie is only the first part of a trilogy, let me say that I agree with you and that I will happily rate the entire trilogy a "10" if "The Two Towers" and "The Return of the King" are as good as "The Fellowship of the Ring". This project feels like the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. :-)

Video:
Although the movie is split across Discs 1 and 2 of the new set, I feared that the addition of a DTS track and 4 audio commentaries would consume so much valuable space as to degrade the video quality. Thankfully, the 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen image actually looks better than the 2.35:1 image of the 2-disc release. The smooth image exhibits little grain, and I didn't see any to the source print. Despite the fact that many scenes are set at night or in darkly-lit areas, the compression doesn't falter. Images appear to have real depth, and you can see many visual details that you probably didn't notice when you saw the film in theatres. Not once did the compression falter, and not once did I see halos, pixelations, or digital blockings.

To those of you looking for a Pan&Scan version of the Extended Edition, I say, "Good luck, buddy". If you really care about movies, you will always abide by the filmmakers' artistic integrity. The Extended Edition is for movie-lovers, not the uninformed or misguided.

Audio:
I had the same fears about the audio quality of the 4-disc set as I did with the video quality, but again, the new release betters the old one. A DTS 6.1 ES English track joins the Dolby Digital 5.1 EX English track, and the mixes feature very smooth imaging across the channels. Directionality effects have been improved for the 4-disc release, and low end response has been tightened. In fact, my subwoofer sounded the mightiest that it has ever acted during the Moria sequence. The Extended Edition will be one of your favorite audio demos.

The DVDs also include a Dolby Digital 2.0 surround English track (for those of you without digital 5.1 set-ups), and English subtitles and closed captions support the audio.

Extras:
The extended version of the film has been spread across the first 2 DVDs of this set in order to accommodate 2 full-bodied 5.1 audio tracks and 4 audio commentary tracks. The remaining extras are found on Discs 3 and 4. English closed captions accompany the video footage on Discs 3 and 4.

The "only" extras on Discs 1 and 2 are the audio commentaries. However, 4 audio commentaries for a 3.5-hour movie provide a qualitatively different experience with each fresh viewing of the film. You can watch the movie with 1 audio commentary, or you can switch between the tracks and the primary soundtrack with the audio button. The possibilities are endless.

The extras on Discs 3 and 4 have been organized into sub-sections, but you can also look at all of the extras in long indices. You can watch all the featurettes individually, or you can play them all as long movies. However, there are photo galleries and additional featurettes to experience even if you use the "Play All" function.

Discs 1 and 2:
These days, many DVD releases have audio commentaries, but most of them bore me almost to death. Imagine my surprise, then, when I discovered that none of the 4 commentaries included with the 4-disc "LOTR 1" set bored me the slightest bit. The participants all had something interesting to share with the audience, and their obvious affection for the project and for Tolkien's writings translated to the kind of enthusiasm that is rarely exuded with audio commentaries. (My one complaint about the new DVD set is that while you won't hear the exact same words during the commentaries and during the interviews, some of the information feels repetitive.)

1) The Director and Writers: As expected, this track covers the overall artistic vision of translating Tolkien's books to the screen. The speakers make some apologies for the changes that they made, but they also explain the necessity of writing for a movie rather than being slavishly faithful to the nuts and bolts of Tolkien lore. Whether or not you entirely buy what they say is a matter of opinion, of course, but Jackson and his writers engagingly make it known to the world what they had to do.

2) The Design Team: The participants for this commentary detail what they did during the preparation stages. Basically, they had to create the look of Middle-Earth, from the costumes and the sets to the way the complex action sequences would be shot. You can see their developmental work on Discs 3 and 4.

3) The Production/Post-Production Team: Commentary 3 will give you an idea of how the film began to and did take shape.

4) The Cast: Most of the cast members gathered together to record their comments at the same time. However, you can tell that some participants were recorded separately, like Liv Tyler. This actually works just fine since Tyler was not there for the entire 15-/16-month shoot, so the way her comments have been edited into the commentary reflects the way that she worked on the film. Obviously, Commentary 4 provides the most fun since you feel as if you're part of one big group hug.

Disc 3:
The extras on Disc 3 deal mainly with the pre-production stage of the project. The titles of the featurettes are basically self-explanatory, so it's not necessary to discuss them in great detail. Suffice it to say that the featurettes are very thorough, leaving no stone unturned. While the filmmakers do praise each other as geniuses and swell fellas, I commend them for also tackling difficult subjects (such as why Miramax refused to finance Peter Jackson's financially risky endeavor). Since he's all over the place anyway, Peter Jackson filmed an introduction for Disc 3.

--"J.R.R. Tolkien--Creator of Middle-Earth"

--"From Book to Script"

--"Storyboards and Pre-Viz: Making Words Into Images"

--"Designing Middle-Earth"

--"Weta Workshop"

--"Costume Design"

--"Early Storyboard Sequence: The Prologue"

--"Abandoned Storyboard Sequence: Orc Pursuit Into Lothlorien"

--"Abandoned Storyboard Sequence: Sarn Gebir Rapids Chase"

--"Pre-Viz Animatic: Gandalf Rides to Orthanc"

--"Pre-Viz Animatic: The Stairs of Khazad-dum"

--"Storyboard to Film Comparison: Nazgul Attack at Bree"

--"Pre-Viz to Film Comparison: The Bridge of Khazad-dum"

--"Bag End Set Test"

--"Middle-Earth Atlas": An interactive map that follows the Fellowship on its journey from Hobbiton to Amon Hen.

--"New Zealand as Middle-Earth"

Though I did not actually make my own counts of the total number of stills in the galleries, I would not be surprised if Disc 3 had more than a 1,000 pictures alone. In "The Peoples of Middle-Earth", you will find conceptual drawings and photos of Aragorn, Arwen, Balrog, Bilbo Baggins, Boromir, The Cave Troll, Celeborn, Elendil, Elrond, Frodo, Galadriel, Gandalf the Grey, Gil-galad, Gil-galad's Army, Gimli, Isildur, Legolas, Merry, Moria Orcs, Numenoreans, Orcs, Pippin, The Ringwraiths, Sam, Saruman the White, Sauron, Uruk-hai, and The Watcher (the octopus-like creature in the lake in front of the Moria entrance). In "The Realms of Middle-Earth", you will find conceptual drawings and photos of The Second Age (prologue), The Shire, Bag End, Bree, Isengard, Weathertop, Trollshaw, Rivendell, Rivendell--Frodo's bedroom, Rivendell--Elrond's chamber, Moria, Lothlorien, The Silverlode & the Anduin, and Amon Hen.

Disc 4:
The extras on Disc 4 deal mainly with the production (filming) and post-production stages of the project. Once again, the titles of the featurettes are basically self-explanatory, so it's not necessary to discuss them in great detail. Elijah Wood, the Ring-bearer of the story, replaces Peter Jackson in Disc 4's introductory video segment.

--"The Fellowship of the Cast"

--"A Day in the Life of a Hobbit"

--"Cameras in Middle-Earth"

--"Scale"

--"Big-atures"

--"WETA Digital"

--"Editorial: Assembling an Epic"

--"Digital Grading"

--"The Soundscapes of Middle-Earth"

--"Music for Middle-Earth"

--"The Road Goes Ever On...": Footage of the cast and crew at various premieres around the world.

The "Editorial Demonstration: The Council of Elrond" is an interactive bonus in which footage from 6 cameras play while the final edited version plays, too. You can choose to watch different cameras' vantage points to get a sense of how the sequences can be assembled for different artistic effects.

Disc 4 also has more stills than you could care to view in a single day. They have been collected in the following galleries: Production Photos, Orthanc Miniature, Rivendell Miniature, Moria Miniature, Lothlorien Miniature, Hobbiton Factories Miniature, and The Argonath Miniature.

--DVD-ROM--
For now, online content is limited to links to film-related websites. However, there might be web-exclusives in the future, as with the "Star Wars 1" DVDs.

--Miscellaneous--
With everything housed in a book-like package, a glossy booklet provides chapter listings and information about the set's bountiful extras.

Entertainment Value:
The key question for most people will be, is it worth the time and money to buy both of the "LOTR 1" DVD sets? My answer is yes because not only do they contain different extras, they also contain different cuts of the movie. I suppose that one could have wished for 1 release that offered everything, but then you'd have a 5- or 6-disc set anyway. In the end, you'd be buying the same thing, the difference being paying one lump sum or paying for 2 products.

Ultimately, the 4-disc set of "The Lord of the Rings 1" presents so much information that it becomes a bit difficult to digest the material. Personally, I prefer the elegance of the "A.I.--Artificial Intelligence" release, not the brute-force approach taken by New Line with "LOTR 1" 4-disc (and by Buena Vista with "Pearl Harbor" VISTA). However, a bounty of substantive extras should be appreciated for what it is, and barring a last-minute surprise, "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" Special Extended Edition Platinum Series is probably the best DVD release of 2002.

Easter Egg Alert:
Disc 1--Go to the Scene Selections menus, and highlight the horizontal picture of Chapter 27, the last chapter on Disc 1. Press down on your remote control's direction pad to highlight a ring icon. Click on the ring icon to watch the MTV version of Elrond's secret council.

Disc 2--Go to the Scene Selections menus, and highlight the number for Chapter 40, the last chapter on Disc 2. Press down on your remote control's direction pad to highlight an icon of two towers. Click on the two towers icon to watch the preview of "The Two Towers" that appeared in theatres towards the end of the first film's theatrical run.

Discs 3 and 4--Go to the Main Menus, and move the menu cursor to the diamond-shaped icon at the bottom of the page. Click on the icon to access the DVDs' production credits.

Ratings

Video
10
Audio
10
Extras
10
Film Value
9