Have audiences been anticipating any film series in high-definition more than Peter Jackson's "The Lord of the Rings"? (OK, maybe "Star Wars" or the first three "Indiana Jones" films, but little else.) Rumor had it that New Line would release "LOTR" to HD DVD when that format first appeared, but the promise soon faded. Now "The Lord of the Rings: The Motion Picture Trilogy" Blu-ray edition is here, the movies look and sound fine, and the world can rejoice and rest easy.
You see, nothing is perfect. Not everyone will appreciate that this Blu-ray set includes only the theatrical versions of the movies, not the later extended editions. I mean, who wants a three-part movie that's only nine-and-a-half hours long when you can get a much lengthier account, no matter if it's better or not? Big is always better. Well, at least that's the way some people think. So, the question is not whether these new BD editions look or sound good; they do. It's a matter of whether a dedicated "Lord of the Rings" fan wants to buy now or buy later (assuming the folks at New Line will be releasing the extended versions in high def at some time in the future) or buy both. Nor will die-hard videophiles appreciate the soft textures of some scenes, particularly in "The Fellowship of the Ring." Decisions, decisions, decisions.... More things more to fret about.
Let's look at the films.
THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING
I came to "The Lord of the Rings" late. I was in about the fifth grade when Professor J.R.R. Tolkien first published his trilogy in the mid 1950s, and I wouldn't probably have been up to reading so massive a tome even had I known about it. Which I didn't, in any case. It wasn't until some ten years later that I, along with countless others, mostly college students, discovered the work and took it to heart. I remember reading all three volumes by the pool at my apartment house one sun-drenched California summer. I loved the epic adventures then as I love them now, and it would be sheer fortuitous coincidence that I would later marry a woman who loved the books as much as I did; nay, probably more than I did.
Needless to say, I eagerly awaited a film version that almost never came to pass. I had heard rumors that people like Stanley Kubrick, even Orson Welles, were interested in the project, but they had rejected it on the grounds of the extreme difficulty of making it and the enormous expense involved. Those were the days before CGI, computer-graphic imagery; back then to do the story justice would have required the combined budgets of a dozen super spectaculars.
It didn't stop me from dreaming, though. Over four decades ago I imagined Vincent Price (don't laugh--he was a fine dramatic actor) as Gandalf, and later, after seeing "Star Wars," I was keen on Alec Guinness in the role. I saw Charlton Heston (Moses, Ben-Hur, El Cid) as the heroic Aragorn. And I fancied Christopher Lee as the villainous Saruman. Well, Price and Guinness died before Peter Jackson began releasing his live-action movie versions in 2001, and Heston grew too old for the part; but consider my surprise and delight when I found out that Christopher Lee was actually doing Saruman. I hadn't really given the lead role of Frodo much thought because in the Sixties there was no way to do the film without using either children or little people as hobbits. Today, technicians can use special effects to reduce normal-sized actors to fit any size or shape.
Anyway, as it turns out, Ian McKellen is perfect as the wizard; Viggo Mortensen is more than adequate as Aragorn; and Elijah Wood, although a bit cuter than I envisioned an ordinary hobbit to look, is fine and noble as Frodo. Plus, the filmmakers put together a fine supporting cast: Sean Astin as the story's real hero, Samwise Gangee; Ian Holm as Bilbo Baggins; Andy Sirkis as Gollum; Orlando Bloom as the elf Legolas; John Rhys-Davies as the dwarf Gimli; Sean Bean as Boromir; Liv Tyler as Arwin; Cate Blanchett as Galadriel; Hugo Weaving as Elrond; Billy Boyd as Pippin; and Dominic Monaghan as Merry. Using computers to good advantage, a properly diverse New Zealand landscape, a huge budget, the great cast, and three full films in which to tell the tale, the project couldn't have made me happier.
But would the film be the bust the Ralph Bakshi animated version had been some years before? Thank heavens, no. Given that I had a few small doubts about some of the new casting, I nevertheless found the first installment of the series, "The Fellowship of the Ring," almost everything I had hoped it would be. After all, Tolkien, a medieval scholar and Cambridge don, had written a most eloquent and erudite piece of literature that had been imitated a hundred times over in the decades since its publication; the motion-picture rendering had better have been darned good in return.
After an absence of traditional fantasy movies for a long while, I welcomed two superior ones in 2001--"Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" and "The Fellowship of the Ring." I was a bit disappointed that "Potter" didn't quite take wing the way I had hoped it would, which gave me yet more pause to wonder about "The Fellowship of the Ring," which followed it. But, thanks to director Peter Jackson's imaginative touches, the sure hand of cinematographer Andrew Lesnie, the brilliance of the ensemble cast, the beauty of the New Zealand landscape, and the wizardry of the computer graphics, the "Fellowship" production lived up to its hype and fulfilled my many years of waiting.
This is not to say I wouldn't have done things differently had I been the director, a pretentiously self-serving remark, I realize. I mean, who am I to differ with a director who made a $300,000,000+ box-office bonanza? But I had concerns about the film's length, a bit overlong at 178 minutes. I wouldn't want it cut any further, mind you, nor did I find the extended cut all that inviting. Maybe more than three films would have been the answer. Of course, that would have upset the books' legions of fans, who didn't approve of the few, minor changes that Jackson already made. I would liked to have seen the Barrow-wights included, and Tom Bombadil, and I would liked to have seen more character development among the members of the Fellowship; and, yes, I did think the battle scenes took up an extraordinary amount of screen time. Yet most of the first book is there, intact, and that is quite an accomplishment. I foresee, years from now, groups of Tolkien afficionados still gathering at one another's homes and watching all three movies in back-to-back marathons, the way Wagner music enthusiasts get together to listen to the complete "Ring of the Nibelungen" on their music systems.
I can only suggest that people enjoy the initial segment of the three-part "Lord of the Rings" as I did, for its "look" most of all: for its glorious sights and sounds and its magical atmosphere and characters. Rejoice in the cheerful good spirits of Hobbiton; drink in the beauties of Rivendell; savor the appearance of every orc and monster; and relish the spookiness of the Old Forest and the Mines of Moria.
"We travel light. Let's hunt some orc!"
THE TWO TOWERS
I liked the film. Of course, liking the film is nothing special. The Academy nominated "The Two Towers" for a Best Picture Oscar; the Online Film Critics Society voted it Best Picture of the year; it won scores of other prizes; and it was the biggest box-office attraction of 2002. But do these accolades prove it's a great film? No, but they help.
For me, "The Two Towers" was simply the most enjoyable film I saw in 2002. Greatness, as in "classic" status, comes with time, though, and no one can predict how audiences will react to something twenty, thirty, or fifty years on. Nor is "The Two Towers" meant to stand on its own. As the midsection of a trilogy, it as just another part of the whole, for better or for worse.
Needless to say, because I loved "The Fellowship of the Rings" so much, I liked "The Two Towers" as well. Despite its extended battle sequences, especially at the end, I found "The Two Towers" quite exhilarating. Maybe it doesn't have the charm of the first movie, but it's not meant to be charming. My reaction, by the way, is in contrast to that of most of my old students who viewed the film at the time; they enjoyed the more extensive action in "The Two Towers" over the relative calm of "The Fellowship." To each his own.
There may seem a redundancy in the battle scenes, particularly the early, smaller ones before the climactic battle of Helm's Deep, yet anyone who has read the complete "Lord of the Rings" will likely recall the second book as the war chapters. Or, at least, the beginning of the great war of Middle-earth. Although it had been over thirty years since I read the novels, it's the way I always think of them, so the movie's emphasis on continuous physical conflict came as no surprise. What did surprise me, however, was the number of times my wife kept nudging me and complaining about all the changes the filmmakers had made from the book. She's much more the Tolkien aficionado than I am, and she recognized every variation from the text that came up. There appeared to be about two or three times the number of such nudges during "The Two Towers" than I'd received during "The Fellowship of the Ring." Still and all, the changes were apparently no more than minor annoyances to her and had little effect on her overall enjoyment of the film. She said afterwards the film was also her favorite one of the year.
As I say, "The Two Towers" was never meant to be a great stand-alone movie (despite its awards), nor is it a particularly accomplished bit of storytelling in terms of character or plot development. But the unforgettable personality of Gollum will stay in memory for a long while, and the battle sequences are among the best staged and most exciting ever created for the screen. Both Gollum and the battles are a triumph of integrated art and technology, and the battles a masterstroke of sheer logistics.
All in all, then, "The Two Towers" is a wonderfully entertaining piece of filmmaking, significantly different from its predecessor in tone, and filled with as much spectacle and wonder as any motion picture I've seen.
THE RETURN OF THE KING
The thing I keep repeating about "The Lord of the Rings" is that Tolkien never intended the novel to be three separate books when he wrote the story back in the Forties and early Fifties. It was his publisher who insisted that it be divided into three shorter, more manageable parts. Thus, we got "The Fellowship of the Ring," recounting the start of the adventure and the young hobbit Frodo's quest to destroy the One Ring, the greatest of the Rings of Power, in the fires of Mt. Doom; "The Two Towers," recounting the great battles with the turncoat wizard Saruman at Helm's Deep; and "The Return of the King," recounting the final confrontation between the forces of good and evil, between Frodo and his fellowship of hobbits, dwarves, elves, and men and the dark lord Sauron and his army of orcs, goblins, and Nazgul.
The story was for Tolkien a monumental literary undertaking, and for director Peter Jackson an equally formidable endeavor to bring to the screen. People said for years it couldn't be done. Jackson had been turned down by everyone and was hoping just to get a studio to bankroll one big movie from the deal. Imagine his surprise and delight when New Line offered to do all three books as three separate movies. After all, some twenty years earlier Fantasy Films had intended to do the whole trilogy as two animated films, and they were only able to release the first one theatrically. So Jackson took the ball and ran with it, producing what is undoubtedly the finest traditional fantasy series ever made. I say "traditional" because there are other films that one can label "fantasy" and some films that folks may like better--say "Star Wars" or even the "Indiana Jones" adventures. But in terms of conventional fantasy dealing with wizards and spells and little people and such, and with all due respect to the "Harry Potter" films, I think "The Lord of the Rings" is as good as it gets.
But, again, remember, "The Return of the King," like its two predecessors, was never meant to stand alone. It is merely the last third of one immense tale. So it's unfair to judge it on its own. For instance, the single most common criticism of the film I've heard is that its ending goes on far too long. Fair enough. But a re-reading of the book reveals that it's all there, every anticlimax and every false finish, with the minor exception of a small extension to Sam's story. Besides, would we want it any other way? After following these adventures for so long, isn't a good, drawn-out ending what we have a right to expect? It's like a Beethoven symphony. We depend on the Finale to go on and on after so much that's preceded it; the ending provides the music, and in this case the movie, with a proper and fitting closure, a lofty and dignified conclusion. And the irony is, most viewers don't want it to stop, anyway.
Another criticism leveled at all three "LOTR" movies, especially "The Two Towers," is that they take too many liberties with the text. Although I personally found Jackson's rearrangement and addition of certain events in "The Two Towers" were cinematically well-founded, the viewer can this time rest assured that "The Return of the King" is more faithful to Tolkien's book. Jackson keeps most of the chronology and characters intact without the crosscutting so prevalent in Part Two, perhaps because the director realized that he needed to draw everything in Part Three to a logical closure, that Tolkien had already presented things as clearly as they needed to be in the book, and that they all translated well to the screen.
In any case, "The Return of the King" is every bit as grand, as imposing, as jaw-droppingly awe-inspiring as anything in the first two episodes. The battles are massive and the special effects are astonishing, yet in the last analysis the story boils down to the very intimate portraits of a very small band of individuals. I see the entire "Lord of the Rings" as not only a superspectacular blockbuster, which it certainly is, but as a powerful character study and a genuine work of art.
So forget about the movie winning those many Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director and all, and forget about the Trilogy taking in a ton of money at the box office, and forget about the enormity of the undertaking, the cast, the costumes, the locations, the CGI, and the cinematography and such. Appreciate the movie for its insights and beauty, too. While I still hold a fond regard for the opening segment, "The Fellowship of the Ring," as the most memorable of the trio, "The Return of the King" wins my respect for closing the show in such high style.
Incidentally, do not mistake Sauron and Saruman's alliance for world domination and Sauron's quest for the One Ring of Power as anything similar to Hitler and Mussolini's partnership and Hitler's pursuit of the atomic bomb simply because the book was written during and just after the Second World War. Tolkien himself said it was his experiences in World War I that inspired him to write the book, and he denounced the WWII idea as pure coincidence. And pigs have wings.
The New Line video engineers transferred the three "The Lord of the Rings" films to 1080p Blu-ray in their original aspect ratio of 2.40:1 using dual-layer BD50s and a VC-1 codec. The results are as good as any fan could reasonably ask for, and at least some of the scenes must rank among the best-looking live-action images currently available in high definition. But the image will not please everyone, especially those folks with short memories or ones who never saw the films in theaters.
The engineers retain much of the film's light, natural print grain, noticeable mainly in wide expanses of sky because the reproduction is so clean. Facial tones are quite natural, too, although the smooth contours and polished textures of some facial features suggest the use of soft-focus lenses and a degree of filtering. As do a few lush, plush, dreamy scenes. The director purposely used soft-focus and plush lighting effects to evoke a mystical fantasy world. This does not translate into the sharpest definition when watching in Blu-ray, especially in the first film.
The opening sequences of "The Fellowship of the Ring" demonstrate the director's varying visual style for the films. The first sequence looks deliberately subdued, dull, and veiled to convey the feeling of a flashback, a memory. Then, when the film shifts to the present day in the Shire, it's absolutely glorious, the beauty of the landscape practically bringing tears to one's eyes. Colors are deep, rich, vivid, brilliant, glistening, and glowing by turns, with object delineation varying from slightly bland to remarkably precise. For reasons I can't explain, the color and definition on "The Return of the King" look the cleanest, brightest, and sharpest of all the movies, with "The Fellowship" the softest of all.
However, you will hear no complaints from me about any of the transfers. I leave the complaints to the die-hard videophiles who have nothing better to do than pick apart what they consider inadequacies, real or imagined. The fact is, there are scenes here of ravishing beauty. In fact, I can't imagine most any rational viewer being disappointed by the picture quality except those people who might take exception to the director's intentions.
The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 6.1 opens up nicely to the side and rear channels as occasions demand, with a strong impact, deep bass, and exceptionally wide dynamics. While dialogue is firmly rooted in the front center channel, we hear surround activity almost everywhere: during the battles, during the gatherings, during the forest scenes, during the banquets. About my only quibble is that the sound can sometimes be more than a touch forward, so occasionally it's not as entirely listenable as it might be. Still, the Master Audio is probably true to the soundtrack, so, as I say, it's a quibble.
The theatrical-version Blu-ray set includes nine discs: three high-definition Blu-ray discs of the films, three standard-definition DVDs of special features, and three standard-definition digital copies. Here's a rundown on what's on each of the discs.
Disc one contains "The Fellowship of the Ring" in Blu-ray, along with forty scene selections; BD-Live; two teaser trailers; one theatrical trailer; one super trailer for the Trilogy; and video-game trailers for "The Lord of the Rings: Aragorn's Quest" and "The Lord of the Rings: War in the North" in HD.
Disc two is a DVD containing the bulk of the special bonus features for "The Fellowship of the Ring," presented in standard definition. First up is a sixteen-minute featurette, "Welcome to Middle-earth: Houghton Mifflin In-Store Special," dealing with the books' publisher and their adaptation to the screen. Next is a Fox TV special, "Quest for the Ring," a twenty-one minute promo. Following that is a forty-one minute Sci-Fi Channel special, "A Passage to Middle Earth," that essentially repeats a lot of what the first two featurettes cover. Then, we find fifteen brief featurettes from lordoftherings.net, each of them about two-to-five minutes each. Finally, we get six TV spots; a music video, "May It Be Music," with Enya; a preview of the movie's extended DVD edition; and a preview of "The Two Towers."
Disc three contains "The Two Towers" in Blu-ray, along with fifty-three scene selections, a teaser and theatrical trailer, trailers for the Trilogy and video games, and BD-Live access.
Disc four is a DVD containing the majority of the bonus features for "The Two Towers," presented in standard definition. First up is "On the Set of The Lord of the Rings," a fourteen-minute STARZ Encore Special. Next is "Return to Middle-earth," a forty-three minute WB special with the stars of the film. After that is "The Long and Short of It," a seven-minute short film directed by Sean Astin, followed by "The Making of The Long and the Short of It," eight minutes. I think it's amusing that the making-of film is longer than the film it's discussing. Then, there's another lordoftherings.net featurette gallery, this one highlighting the technical aspects of the filmmaking, that includes eight brief segments at several minutes each. Finally, we get a music video, "Golum's Song," with Emiliana Torrini; a special Extended DVD edition preview; and a behind-the-scenes preview of "The Return of the King."
Disc five contains "The Return of the King" in Blu-ray, along with sixty scene selections, a pair of theatrical trailers in HD, a Trilogy trailer in HD, a special Extended DVD edition preview in HD, two video-game trailers in HD, and BD-Live access.
Disc six is a DVD containing the greater part of the special features for "The Return of the King," presented in standard definition. First is "The Quest Fulfilled: A Director's Vision," twenty-three minutes with the director, cast, and filmmakers. Next is "A Filmmaker's Journey: Making The Lord of the Rings," twenty-eight minutes of more of the same, with an emphasis on the technical aspects of the filmmaking. After that is National Geographic's "Behind the Movie: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King," forty-six minutes, the best of the documentaries because it delves into some of the historical background of the story. Then, there's a gallery of six brief featurettes from lordoftherings.net highlighting the film's breakthrough special effects and character detail. The disc ends with thirteen TV spots of about thirty seconds each and a special Extended DVD Edition preview.
Discs seven, eight, and nine contain standard-definition digital copies of the films for iTunes and Windows Media, the offer expiring April 4, 2011.
Discs one through six, the Blu-ray movie and DVD special features discs, fit into a single Blu-ray keep case, and discs seven through nine, the digital copies, fit into another. A handsome, embossed, hard-cardboard slipcase encloses both cases, and New Line include a handy informational insert of disc contents within the set. English and Spanish are the spoken languages involved, with Spanish subtitles and English captions for the hearing impaired.
They came. They saw. They conquered. J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" captured the hearts and minds of readers everywhere, Peter Jackson's movie versions did likewise, and the DVD editions kept pace. Now, with Blu-ray renderings of the films in such excellent picture and sound, there is no reason to believe they won't be just as popular and conquer audiences worldwide all over again. Look, listen, and enjoy.