Note: The review of the movie was written earlier in 2002.
A couple of years ago, director Peter Jackson certainly found himself with a vast landscape of work ahead of him. The New Zeland-based director, long a fan of J.R.R. Tolkien's work, decided to take on the "Lord of the Rings" in three epic-length pictures, which would all be filmed back-to-back. New Line, a studio known for taking risks in the past would be taking their biggest one here, as all three films would cost north of 300 million dollars combined. Jackson, whose films have been cult favorites, had never previously proven himself capable of handling such an enormous budget. Still, early trailers forshadowed the kind of work that the director was able to accomplish and, when released, the picture seemed to largely satisfy most of the legions of die-hard fans as well as the studio (the picture was nominated for 13 Academy Awards).
The film begins fairly quietly and with little rush. We are introduced to Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) and his nephew, Frodo (Elijah Wood). At Bilbo's birthday party, we are also introduced to Gandalf (Ian McKellan), a wizard and one of the more important characters in the story. After the party, Bilbo exits and leaves Frodo, among other things, a magical ring. The only problem: it's the legendary Ring, forged by the dark lord Sauron. If the Ring is returned to Sauron, the world of Middle Earth will fall into darkness and war. The journey to destroy the ring will not be an easy one: Sauron's legions are already racing towards Frodo when the ring falls into his grasp.
Thankfully for Frodo, he's not alone in his quest: Gandalf, hobbits Sam (Sean Astin), Merry (Dominic Monaghan), and Pippin (Billy Boyd), humans Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) and Boromir (Sean Bean), dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies), and elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom) come together to guide him across countryside and caves, including one incredible stretch through the mines of Moria that is certainly, in my opinion, the film's most engaging and tense sequence.
I find a lot to discuss about what I enjoyed in "Fellowship of the Ring" and what I did not. For starters, after a marvelous prologue, the Birthday party sequence starts to become overlong and does not provide enough of the kind of character detail important before the characters begin their journey. In fact, I felt similarly about some of the rest stops along the way: Jackson's intense action sequences are so delightful and dizzying that the slower moments left me anticipating the next battle a bit too heavily. The film's structure of action/rest, action/rest also starts to make the pace, in my opinion, a bit too stop/start. Oddly enough, I felt this was actually less of a problem the second time around, as the movie seemed to flow more smoothly for me during the second viewing.
The performances are generally quite excellent. Wood is about as good as could be expected playing the character, but McKellen's Gandalf consistently manages to be a scene-stealer in a dynamic performance that's capable of both a sly laugh and immense power. Liv Tyler, whose role as Arwen came under much debate, also manages to make a solid impression in a small role. Also providing solid support are Cate Blanchett, Mortensen, Rhys-Davies, and Bloom.
Technically, the film is stunning. Whatever money was saved from shooting in New Zealand has obviously gone back into the production in some other aspect. In addition, New Zealand was an absolutely marvelous choice for locations, providing an almost impossibly gorgeous countryside. As for special effects, I appreciated the fact that the film does not heavily use CGI, only putting visual effects to use when necessary (mainly during the action sequences) and doing so well. This is certainly pleasing after watching the latest "Star Wars" films; while basically entertaining, those films have started to diminish their dramatic impact at times due to overuse of CGI and not relying on actors enough.
Cinematographer Andrew Lesnie, who previously worked on both "Babe" films, captures the scope of the universe that has been created wonderfully. His work here earned him an Oscar and he will also be the cinematographer on both sequels. Equally outstanding is Howard Shore's often-brilliant score, offering the kind of strength, emotion and majesty that is needed in a film like this one. Also certainly of note are several other top-notch aspects: impressive and highly detailed production design, excellent set decoration, good make-up and solid costume work. David Farmer, whose previous credits include "Armageddon" and "Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within", has also crafted breathtaking sound design, essential in a film like this one. Last, but not least, the editing is also excellent, especially during the action scenes.
Again, Jackson hits the film's finest notes within the mine sequence. Not only does it contain a thrilling battle sequence, but even during its quieter, early moments, the sequence contains such wonderfully creepy atmosphere that the viewer really does feel as if creatures are awaiting in the shadows. I enjoyed Jackson's film, moreso the second time around. While I still do not feel it's without some concerns (I still feel the picture could have been tightened from its nearly 3-hour length), it's a good start to what promises to be an amazing trilogy.
It's interesting to read my prior discussion of the film, whose main concern was that a few scenes should have been tightened. After watching Peter Jackson's new, 208-minute extended cut of the film on this remarkable DVD, I actually found this version to be a better, more involving picture. Maybe the film wasn't too long - it just wasn't long enough. There's a lot of discussion on the commentaries of this DVD about how scenes in this version were removed to add momentum, but I actually felt this version seemed quicker and more involving, because the added scenes added so nicely to the characters and story.
This cut of the picture adds a total of thirty minutes to the film, filling out scenes with minor additions and adding in completely new scenes along the way, some of which offer new pieces of score from Academy Award-winner Howard Shore. Scenes include an extended opening that works considerably better as an introduction and flows better in general, a new sequence at the Rivendell round table where Boromir attempts to take the ring, extended bits in the mines of Moria (as well as a new scene right before), a scene where Blanchett's Galadriel gives gifts as the Fellowship exits, and much more. Although the more considerable new additions will get the most notice, I also spotted a few smaller little inserts that worked nicely.
Unexpectedly, I was more convinced in the danger, power and mystery of the tale than the theatrical version. Although I worried that the film would simply just feel longer, I was surprised at how greatly the additional thirty minutes added to the experience, making nearly every aspect of the film play better and making the characters even richer. I didn't count myself among the film's hardcore following before (alhough I did find the theatrical version to be a good movie), but this superior version of the film certainly has convinced me to join those ranks.
VIDEO: New Line presents "Lord of the Rings" in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. The original release was able to put the three-hour theatrical cut onto one disc of that two-disc set. This release offers thirty additional minutes to the film, but it does split the film over two discs (the first part of the film included on disc one concludes at 1:45:30). The original release looked incredible, but this transfer offered some slight improvements over that prior release. This presentation seemed a bit more well-defined, with a bit better sharpness, detail and depth.
The original release fell just shy of perfection, as some minimal edge enhancement was occasionally spotted. I did see some very faint edge enhancement on this release, as well, but it seemed even less visible than the already minor amount on the prior release. Other than that, there really weren't any concerns; the print looked crisp and clean, with no marks, specks or scratches, and no pixelation or other faults were seen.
Colors were reproduced beautifully, appearing completely natural and with no smearing. Black level remained solid, while flesh tones looked accurate and natural. Some brief, slight edge enhancement does not detract from what is otherwise an absolutely outstanding transfer. The new thirty minutes that have been added to the film are smoothly inserted, with no difference in quality versus the rest of the film. This is another outstanding effort from New Line - it's easily a reference quality presentation.
SOUND: "Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" is presented on this new release with both Dolby Digital 5.1-EX and DTS 6.1-ES soundtracks. As previously noted, sound designer David Farmer has skillfully created an engaging and enjoyable soundscape for the stunningly crafted visuals. Given the fact that there are some dialogue-heavy patches, there isn't always action, but the soundtrack manages to provide fine details even in some of the more subdued sequences. I appreciated the soundtrack's slight ambience and touches applied to dialogue. As the party started their decent into the mines of Moria, there was a nice, slight echo that added to the convincing feeling of being in the depths of Middle Earth.
When the battles do begin, the surrounds go into overdrive. Swords clanking, horses clomping, wind and other sound effects are clearly heard from the rear speakers. Even some dialogue is directed to the surrounds. Shore's score also benefits wonderfully from the surround use, often filling up the room beautifully, managing to share space with all of the other details on the soundtrack.
Audio quality was consistently excellent. Shore's score remained crisp, bold and rich, while sound effects came through crisp and clear. Dialogue sounded natural, too. Deep, tight bass was both heard and felt during many of the action scenes, as well. The sound quality is equally as fantastic as the image quality.
Although the massive supplements included on this 4-DVD set will likely be the main selling point, the new DTS-ES 6.1 soundtrack is certainly one of the highlights, as well. This soundtrack improves upon nearly every aspect of the Dolby Digital 5.1-EX track; it provides tighter bass, a noticably more immersive and enveloping feel, as well as a greater sense of depth and clarity. Shore's score comes alive like never before, with greater presence, power and emotion. Sound effects seem to not be as "speaker-specific", either, adding to the greater sense of depth and feeling in this version of the soundtrack.
MENUS: Beautiful animated menus are included on all four discs, putting simple - but effective - film-themed images to use. Navigation is easy and, as with the majority of New Line titles, there are other helpful aspects to navigation (the third and fourth discs have both "play all" options and indexes, not to mention "help" screens.
EXTRAS: Discs one and two include no less than four full-length commentaries that can be played along with the entire film. Discs three and four are where the remaining supplements can be found. All of the video-based supplements are presented in anamorphic widescreen. There are no EPK (Electronic Press Kit)-type materials here that simply offer promotional interviews about the story that you've just watched. These are quite beautifully filmed documentaries, all of which take the viewer into the middle of production through well-filmed behind-the-scenes sequences and terrific interviews from what seems like nearly everyone involved.
The documentaries last quite a few hours on their own and the commentaries are about another fourteen hours worth of material (4 tracks times three & 1/2 hours). I think the biggest compliment that I can give the extras is that, aside from a few slow commentary stretches during the commentary elements I browsed through, I didn't feel as if watching any of it was a chore (like some other DVDs where I just go, "oh no, more!" after watching tons of features) or tiring. Not only that, I plan to revisit much of this material again to try and absorb it better. The documentaries are some of the best that I've seen included on a DVD and the commentaries are certainly very good, too.
Commentary One: This is a Cast commentary, with comments from Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Liv Tyler, Sean Astin, John Rhys-Davies, Billy Boyd, Sean Bean, Christopher Lee, Dominic Moynaghan and Orlando Bloom. Most of the participants on this track seem to have been recorded together, with McKellen being one of the particpants noticably recorded separate. The commentary is actually a very nice mix of insightful comments on the story, discussions of what it was like to work on the picture and some fun jokes about what happened on the set. Wood and McKellen are the main participants and generally offer a lot of good information. I enjoyed browsing through this track quite a bit, although there were a few stretches where the group either went on a bit too much with praise for their fellow cast/crew members or talked about what was going on in the story.
Commentary Two: This is a Director/Writers commentary, which offers comments from director/co-writer/producer Peter Jackson, co-writer/producer Fran Walsh and co-writer Philippa Boyens. All three participants have been recorded together and this commentary was recorded at the director's production offices in New Zeland. This is the most informative and consistently enjoyable of the four tracks. The three talk in great depth about the production, detailing the discussions with the studio and the contstruction of both the adaptation of the story and the film's visual appearance. In addition, the three (although Jackson, as expected, does the majority of the talking) talk about casting, working with the actors, experiences on-set and much more. While not as occasionally light and amusing as the actors track, I greatly appreciated the trio's ability to get right to the point; they all chat intensely and really provide a massive amount of information.
Commentary Three: This is a commentary from the Production/Post-Production Team, which includes participants: producer Barrie Osbourne, executive producer Mark Ordesky, cinematographer Andrew Lesnie, editor John Gilbert, co-producer Rick Porras, composer Howard Shore, supervising sound editor/co-designer Ethan Van Der Ryan supervising sound editor Mike Hopkins, Weta animation designer/supervisor Randy Cook, Weta VFX art director Christian Rivers, Weta VFX cinematographer Brian Van'r Hul, miniature unit cinematographer Alex Funke and visual FX supervisor Jim Rygiel. This commentary is a solid runner-up to the director/writer's track, as while that commentary provided a very good general overview of the production, this track (and the fourth commentary) start to go into the details of the film. This commentary offers a terrific amount of varied perspectives; we get the producer's stories about how they had to push the production forward and find ways over obstacles, the sound designer's discussion of how to create an audio landscape for the worlds of the film and finally, the FX designer's viewpoint on how to create visual effects that were appropriate for the look and feel of the story. Last, but certainly not least, composer Shore provides his reasoning for the tone of his pieces and his opinions on constructing score for the film, while editor Gilbert talks about building structure and choices that had to be made in post-production.
Commentary Four: This is a commentary from the Design Team, which includes production designer Grant Major, costume designer Ngila Dickson, Weta workshop creative supervisor Richard Taylor, conceptual designer Alan Lee, conceptual designer John Howe, supervising art director/set decorator Dan Hennah, art department manager Chris Hennah and Weta workshop manager Tania Rodger. The design team commentary is also a fascinating experience, as the majority of the participants discuss the amount of research and discussions that went into trying to create the visual look of the film in a way that would be both cinematic and pleasing to fans. It's pretty entertaining to listen to the ways that how some of the concepts were achieved on-screen, as well.
Disc Three Disc Three is titled From Book to Vision. An introduction from director Peter Jackson is included and this disc focuses on the translation from novel into screenplay, then trying to build the vision that the screenplay presents. As with disc four, viewers can select "play all" to take you through all the features without having to go back to the menu.
JRR Tolkien: Creator of Middle Earth: This provides a general overview of the author's childhood, as well as the conception of the novel and reaction. Peter Jackson and other members of the crew are interviewed and provide an insightful discussion on the topic. While those who are fans of the author and novels will almost certainly know all this already, those not as familiar will likely find it an interesting - if a bit dry - journey. It runs about 22 minutes.
From Book To Script: This 20-minute piece goes further into discussing how Jackson and the film's co-writers were able to compress the film into a filmable screenplay. Many of those involved in the film also quickly share their first experience reading "Lord of the Rings". I was pleased to see that this documentary does go through the entire Miramax (the first studio who was interested in making the film, but only wanted to make one movie) situation, too. There's a fair amount of enjoyable discussion of the development here mixed in with a lot of entertaining chat about the writing process. Definitely worthwhile viewing.
Visualizing Middle Earth
Pre-Viz: Making Words Into Images: This is a terrific 13-minute documentary that takes the viewer into a section of filmmaking that has become more and more important with the advances in technology. Peter Jackson, members of the FX crew, the film's storyboard artists and others talk about literally trying to get early visualizations of the scenes in the film and trying to perfect camera angles and more in an attempt to have the movie "done" before it's actually done. We're shown some of the film's storyboards as well as rough animatics of scenes.
Also: This section also offers early sets of storyboards for three scenes, including the prologue. Also: pre-viz animatics for two scenes, including "The Stairs of Khazad-Dum"; animatic-to-film comparisons for two scenes and a test of the "Bag End" set. The last piece is a short featurette.
Designing & Building Middle Earth
Building/Designing Middle Earth: This is a 42-minute documentary that launches into the process of taking the visual concepts into sets and then planning on exactly how to build (part set/part CGI?, all set?) that sequence. It's really amazing to see some of the sets come to life on pieces of land that were previously just populated by forests or hills. Amazing stuff.
Weta Workshop: This is a documentary that focuses on Richard Taylor's Weta Workshop, which worked on an absolutely enormous amount of the props and other elements of the film - including the swords, armor and other aspects. After a brief overview of the workshop and some discussions from the cast/crew about how amazed they were with the staff there, we are lead through the tasks and role of the workshop by Taylor, who is interviewed. Additionally, concept drawings, behind-the-scenes clips at the workshop and other elements are edited into the piece. During this very in-depth 43-minute piece, we get to visit the various departments and gain a remarkable sense of the kind of enormous task the crew there was faced with.
Costume Design: 40 seamstresses created over 19,000 costumes for this picture. Not only does this 11-minute documentary go into the enormous amount of work involved with that kind of mass production, but we are also let in on the discussions and concepts that were discussed in trying to come up with the look of the clothing for each character.
Galleries: Last, but not least, this section offers two very large still galleries of the design work done, split into two sections: "The People of Middle Earth" and "The Realms of Middle Earth".
Middle Earth Atlas: This is a nifty feature that allows viewers to chart the trek across Middle Earth that the characters take in the movie. Selecting a location highlights the path they took to get there and plays a clip.
New Zealand as Middle Earth: This section provides a series of short featurettes on how locations were selected for certain sets and additionally, a short bit on creation of those sets.
Disc Four Disc Four is titled From Vision To Reality. An introduction from director Elijah Wood is included and this disc focuses on the production and filming. As with disc three, viewers can select "play all" to take you through all the features without having to go back to the menu.
Filming "The Fellowship of the Ring"
Casting the Fellowship: This is a 33-minute documentary that includes interviews with director Peter Jackson and many of the members of the cast. The cast had never worked with each other or met one another prior and quickly had to decide how to work with one another. The interviews here are quite funny and enjoyable, as the cast has some entertaining stories to share and some very genuine insights and analysis of those they worked with. The most amusing part of the documentary revolves around Viggo Mortensen's involvement. Called in at the last minute, Mortensen essentially was given mere moments to decide whether or not he wanted to come to New Zealand to take part in the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. I got a real sense of the kind of "family" that all of these people became during the over year-long production.
A Day in the Life of a Hobbit: This 13-minute piece goes into the make-up trailer as the actors get prepared at early hours in the morning, getting their Hobbit feet glued on. There's also some joking around between takes and discussion of the Hobbit height-effects.
Cameras in Middle Earth: This nearly hour-long piece is the closest this set has to a general "making of" documentary. Thankfully, it's unlike the usual "making of"s that are found on DVD in that it launches right into the production, walking around the sets while the cast and crew were trying to get through filming. Interviews with director Jackson, many of the cast members and some of the crew are included and all provide great behind-the-scenes stories that give a better sense of the obstacles, grand scale and triumphs that the production had along the way.
Production Photos: A gallery of production photos rounds out this section.
Scale: This featurette is regarding the kind of physical and camera effects that were done to convince audiences of the Hobbits size in comparison to the rest of the characters and their world. This 15-minute piece actually goes through, in-detail, all of the techniques the filmmakers had at their disposal.
Weta Digital: This piece is a 25-minute look at effects house WETA Digital, which was founded for Jackson's "Heavenly Creatures" and had to expand rapidly to try and cover the work necessary for "Lord of the Rings". Here, we're taken on a tour of the facilities and get a look at the fascinating techniques used to pull off some of the more remarkable scenes in the film.
Miniatures: Miniatures played a major role in "Lord of the Rings" and were responsible for some of the film's more exceptional visuals. This 16-minute featurette (which is accompanied by a group of still galleries) goes behind-the-scenes to show the work and amazing detail that went into these creations.
Post Production: Putting It All Together
Editorial: Assembling an Epic: 5,000,000 feet of film was shot, requiring an incredibly advanced editing/post-production facility. Dailies ran somewhere around three & 1/2 hours and there were as many as several units shooting at once. This piece goes into the process of trying to first put the footage together into a whole, then going from there to decide where to cut scenes and how to structure the story best. Last, but not least, this piece goes into how the new cut for the DVD was produced.
Editing Demonstration: This feature shows the work of an editor quite effectively: we are shown a scene (the council of Elrond), which was made up of 36 takes. The final scene plays in a window at the bottom, while six windows play raw footage. The raw footage (out of the six clips) used for each moment is highlight as the scene plays. Furthermore, viewers can watch each of the six portions of film on their own by clicking on it. Once there, the angle button allows the viewer to switch between the available clips.
Digital Grading: This 12-minute featurette shows how the filmmakers were able to scan in the film and alter the color palette for each scene to achieve the intended look of the film.
Sound & Music
The Soundscapes of Middle Earth: This documentary visits with the film's sound design team, who discuss director Peter Jackson's visit for the sound mix, as well as what kind of actual items or things were used for various sound effects in the movie.
The Music Of Middle Earth: This piece offers a look at composer Howard Shore and other members of the film's crew trying to assemble the music for the film. Both the "Music" and "Soundscapes" featurettes run about 12 & 1/2 minutes.
The Road Goes Ever On: Last, but not least, there's the short featurette, "The Road Goes Ever On", which follows the cast around the world as they attend various premieres of the film. It's a minor piece, but it's a fun and enjoyable way to close out this incredible set.
DVD-ROM: DVD-ROM materials include a web-link and additional online features that will apparently be "live" by the set's release date.
Final Thoughts: I've grown more and more fond of "Fellowship of the Ring" since my first theatrical viewing. Thirty minutes added in this "extended" version goes a long way, making for what I consider a more dramatic, emotional and tense adventure.
As for New Line's new 4-DVD Special Edition, it is, in my opinion, the best special edition ever produced in the history of DVD. Not only are there a remarkable amount of exceptionally well-produced supplements, the outstanding picture quality seems subtly improved over the already great quality of the previous edition. The new DTS soundtrack also improves upon its Dolby counterpart in many regards. An enormous amount of care, money and effort obviously went into this set and the fans of the film will very likely find travelling through its contents greatly rewarding and entertaining. Absolutely a must-see DVD and an incredible value for the $39.99 (although most online stores seem to be offering it around $29.99) price.