LORD OF THE RINGS, THE (MOTION PICTURE TRILOGY) – Blu-ray review

“One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
One ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.”

Note: In the following joint Blu-ray review, both John and Eddie comment on the films, with John writing up the Video, Audio, Extras, and Parting Thoughts.

Not everyone appreciated that the first Blu-ray edition of the complete “Lord of the Rings” trilogy included only the theatrical versions of the movies, not the later extended editions. I mean, who wanted a three-part movie that was only nine-and-a-half hours long when you could wait and get a much lengthier account, no matter if it was better or not? Big is always better. Well, here they are, the three extended editions clocking in at almost eleven-and-a-half hours, each movie on two Blu-ray discs apiece, the first movie completely remastered, with another nine DVD’s of extras thrown in for good measure, all of it enclosed in a box worthy of the Crown Jewels of England. I’m not going to speculate on which versions, theatrical or extended, are better, though. The Wife-O-Meter likes all of the extended cuts best; I like the extended version of the first film better than the theatrical cut, but I like the extended and regular editions of numbers two and three about equally.

Let’s look at the films.

THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING
Review by John J. Puccio

I came to “The Lord of the Rings” novels late. I was in about the fifth grade when Professor J.R.R. Tolkien first published his trilogy in the mid Fifties, 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 envisioned 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 (“Nobody tosses a dwarf”); 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.

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 lives 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 at first thought did I find the extended cut all that inviting. Yet, the new extended version surprised me by actually being better than the original edition. Of course, the books’ legions of fans still didn’t approve of the few, minor changes that Jackson made, especially the omissions. I would liked to have seen the Barrow-wights included, for example, 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, even if they are at their most minimum in “The Fellowship.” Still, 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 extended 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 FELLOWSHIP OF THE RINGS, EXTENDED EDITION
Review by Yunda Eddie Feng

Substantively speaking, the added footage (about thirty 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. Earlier, I wrote that I felt that the three-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’m sure I will be watching the Extended Edition of “LOTR 1” more than a few times.

THE TWO TOWERS
Review by John J. Puccio

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 one of the most enjoyable films 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” exhilarating. Maybe it doesn’t have the appeal of the first movie, but it’s not meant to be appealing in the same way. My reaction, by the way, was in contrast to that of most of my old students who at the time 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 the Wife-O-Meter 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 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. Whether extending the movie any further adds to its appeal I leave to the viewer. For me, the theatrical version was plenty good enough.

THE TWO TOWERS, EXTENDED EDITION
Review by Yunda Eddie Feng

The Extended Edition of the film does not improve upon the theatrical version. Rather, by adding more than forty minutes of footage to “LOTR 2,” Peter Jackson only aggravated what I felt were the movie’s problems. “LOTR 2” was already way too long in my estimation, so “LOTR 2” EE is just an interminable marathon for me. The EE of “LOTR 1” was an improvement over its theatrical cut because it needed room to breath. However, the EE of “LOTR 2” adds a couple of unnecessary scenes (most of them with Merry and Pippin) instead of compacting the project into a lean and mean work.

A lot of readers misunderstood my complaints about the way that the film cuts between three main narrative threads. I don’t dislike simultaneous storytelling; I disliked the way that cross-cutting was done in “LOTR 2.” The editing rhythm threw me off when I was constantly yanked from one segment to another just as I was getting interested in what I was already watching. This is a problem that exists on the specific level (i.e. the editing of “LOTR 2”) and not on any technical or theoretical level (i.e. the concept of cross-cutting).

Surprisingly–given how little impact she had in the theatrical version of “LOTR 2”–the new scenes featuring Eowyn (Miranda Otto) are the best additions to the film. Most of Eowyn’s scenes feature her interacting with Aragorn, so the love story between the two characters no longer feels forced as it did in the theatrical cut. I really liked the scene in which Eowyn sings a mournful song at her cousin Theodred’s burial.

Faramir’s (David Wenham) flashback to when he and his brother took back Osgiliath from Mordor is also a great addition to “LOTR 2.” We get to see how Boromir (Sean Bean) loves his brother and even argues in his favor with their father, the Steward of Gondor. We also get a chance to see Boromir before Sauron’s One Ring corrupts him. Boromir has his doubts about using The One Ring, but his love for his father and for his country lead him down the path towards his demise in the first part of “LOTR 1.”

I was really tempted to downgrade the Extended Edition of “LOTR 2” a “5” because it doesn’t do more than the theatrical version did despite its longer running time. In fact, the Extended Edition’s length just adds to how punishing it can be to sit through “LOTR 2.” The pacing is still off, and the ill-planned crosscutting is still there. However, some of the new scenes are really good and add to the flavoring of the story, so I’ll relent on my grading of the Extended Edition of “LOTR 2.”

THE RETURN OF THE KING
Review by John J. Puccio

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 battle 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 all those Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director and the like, 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 RETURN OF THE KING, EXTENDED EDITION
Review by Yunda Eddie Feng

Despite my low regard for “LOTR 2,” I found myself close to tears several times during “LOTR 3.” There are several truly moving moments, and that’s impressive considering the size and the loudness of the affair. Faramir’s (David Wenham) death charge to Osgiliath is a notable sequence. The sound design removes all vocals/dialogue except for a song being sung without musical accompaniment. Horse hooves and arrows flying through the air are muted, and the elegaic song perfectly reflects Faramir’s sadness and desperation.

My main complaint about the movie is that it’s longer than it needs to be. Unlike many others, I didn’t mind the “multiple endings” because the story needs them in order to be complete. However, did we really need to see Arwen (Liv Tyler) writhing in despair on a bed? Did we really need to see so many prolonged battles? Did the movie need so many scenes set in Rohan before the Rohirrim set out for Gondor? (I mean, wasn’t most of “LOTR 2” about Rohan already?)

The Extended Edition of “LOTR 3” really should be called the Distended Edition. While some scenes are nice additions–especially the ones involving Faramir’s courtship of Eowyn–most are repetitive, too long, or unnecessary. This is on top of a movie that already had too much flab, and some of the new scenes further Gimli’s descent into clown-dom. The interminable battles become oppressive and numbing rather than stirring. Yes, I know–this is an “epic.” However, the events in “LOTR” actually take place within a few months, so unlike a long TV miniseries which might cover events that take place during the course of several years, what we see in the “LOTR” movies winds up being drawn-out (just about everything in “LOTR 2”) or redundant. I mean, how many times do the good guys have to beat the bad guys? Two or three times are enough to make a point.

Video:
The video engineers transferred the three extened versions of “The Lord of the Rings” films to 1080p Blu-ray in their original aspect ratio of 2.40:1 using MPEG-4/AVC codecs and two dual-layer BD50s for each film. The results are as good as most fans 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.

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 on the director’s part. As do a few lush, plush, dreamy scenes. The director purposely used occasional soft-focus and plush lighting effects to evoke a mystical fantasy world.

Because the first time around on Blu-ray “The Fellowship of the Ring” appeared somewhat softer and rougher than the other movies, the video engineers remastered it (the results approved by the director and cinematographer), and it now looks as good as or better than the other two films. The verdant aspects of the Shire are more radiant than ever, the greens and golds intensified to reflect the idyllic charm of the landscape. There are indeed scenes of ravishing beauty throughout the series, and I can’t imagine any reasonable viewer being disappointed by the picture quality. The opening sequences of “The Fellowship of the Ring” demonstrate the director’s varying visual style: 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 very good to remarkably precise.

Audio:
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. I’d say the DTS-HD Master Audio is probably as true to the soundtrack as it can be.

Extras:
The Extended Edition Blu-ray set includes fifteen discs: six high-definition Blu-rays for the films themselves, two BD’s per film; and nine standard-definition DVD’s packed with special features, three DVD’s per film. Since the package claims there are over twenty-four hours of bonus materials in the set, I did not try to watch it all. Besides, most of the extras have appeared before in various special editions, and DVDTOWN has already covered it in previous reviews. So, here’s a very quick rundown on what’s on each of the discs.

Disc one (BD) contains “The Fellowship of the Ring,” Extended Edition, Part 1, with four separate commentaries by the director and writers, the design team, the production and post-production teams, and the cast. In addition, we get “The Lord of the Rings: War in the North: The Untold Story,” a trailer for the video game; and an Easter egg on an MTV Movie Award Spoof, “The Council of Elrod.”

Disc two (BD) contains “The Fellowship of the Ring,” Extended Edition, Part 2, again with the commentaries.

Disc three (DVD) begins the bulk of the bonus items, starting with “The Appendices, Part 1: From Book to Vision”: Peter Jackson’s introduction; “JRR Tolkien: Creator of Middle-Earth”; “From Book to Script”; “Visualizing the Story”; “Designing and Building Middle-Earth”; “Middle-Earth Atlas Interactive”; and “New Zealand and Middle-Earth Interactive.”

Disc four (DVD) contains “The Appendices, Part 2: From Vision to Reality”: Elijah Wood’s introduction; “Filming The Fellowship of the Ring”; “Visual Effects 57”; “Post Production: Putting It All Together”; “Digital Grading”; “Sound and Music”; and “The Road Goes Ever On….”

Disc five (DVD) contains the documentary “The Fellowship of the Ring: Behind the Scenes” by the director’s friend, Costa Botes.

Disc six (BD) contains “The Two Towers,” Extended Edition, Part 1, again with four commentaries by the director and writers, the design team, the production and post-production teams, and the cast; followed by a trailer for the video game “The Lord of the Rings: War in the North: The Untold Story”; and another Easter Egg, an MTV Movie Awards Clip of “Gollum Accepting Award.”

Disc seven (BD) contains “The Two Towers,” Extended Edition, Part 2, along with the commentaries cited above.

Disc eight (DVD) contains “The Appendices, Part 3: The Journey Continues”: Peter Jackson’s introduction; “JRR Tolkien: Origin of Middle-Earth”; “From Book to Script: Finding the Story”; “Designing and Building Middle-Earth”; “Gollum”; “Middle-Earth Atlas Interactive”; and “New Zealand as Middle-Earth” (a map with video locations).

Disc nine (DVD) contains “The Appendices, Part 4: The Battle for Middle-Earth”: “Elijah Wood’s introduction”; “Filming the Two Towers”; “Visual Effects”; “Editorial: Refining the Story”; “Music and Sound”; and “The Battle for Helm’s Deep is Over….”

Disc ten (DVD) contains the Costa Botes documentary “The Two Towers: Behind the Scenes,”
from the Limited Edition set.

Disc eleven (BD) contains “The Return of the King,” Extended Edition, Part 1, with commentaries, plus “The Lord of the Rings: War in the North: The Untold Story” trailer; and an Easter egg: Elijah Wood interview.

Disc twelve (BD) contains “The Return of the King,” Extended Edition, Part 2, with a continuation of the commentaries and yet another Easter egg.

Disc thirteen (DVD) contains “The Appendices, Part 5: The War of the Ring”: Peter Jackson’s introduction; “JRR Tolkien: The Legacy of Middle-Earth”; “From Book to Script”; “Designing and Building Middle-Earth”; “Home of the Horse Lords”; “Middle-Earth Atlas”; “New Zealand as Middle-Earth.”

Disc fourteen (DVD) contains “The Appendices, Part 6: The Passing of an Age”: “Filming The Return of the King”; “Visual Effects”; “Post-Production: Journey’s End”; “The Passing of an Age”; and “Cameron Duncan: The Inspiration for ‘Into the West’.”

Disc fifteen contains the Costa Botes documentary “The Return of the King: Behind the Scenes,” from the Limited Edition set.

New Line include a multitude of scene selections for each film (forty-eight, sixty-eight, and seventy-eight respectively); BD-Live access; English and Portuguese spoken languages; Spanish and Portuguese subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired. The fifteen discs come housed in three keep cases, five discs per case (along with written guides to the scenes and appendices), the cases enclosed by a remarkably handsome hard-cardboard box. Within the box, you will also find instructions and codes for downloading standard-definition, digital copies of the films for iTunes and Windows Media, the offer expiring on June 26, 2012.

Parting Thoughts:
The movies came. The people saw. The movies conquered. Just as J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” captured the hearts and minds of readers everywhere, Peter Jackson’s movie versions did the same. Now, with extended Blu-ray editions of the films in excellent picture and sound, there is no reason to believe they won’t be just as popular and conquer just as many fans worldwide all over again. Look, listen, and enjoy.

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