Inside Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings is the video equivalent of Cliff Notes... and I mean that in the worst possible way.
I'm very familiar with Tolkien and his work, and I've read a lot of critical and biographical material about him; there's a lot of interesting material that could be presented here, to provide insight into The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. For instance, some of the topics that could have been mentioned include how Tolkien's experiences with war influenced his portrayal of Mordor; his opinions on industrialization; his friendship with C.S. Lewis and the other members of the "Inklings"; the origins of the idea of the "One Ring"; and much more.
I place the emphasis on "could," however, because Inside Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings limits itself to the most banal, obvious comments about the novels. An observation like "The Shire is modeled on rural England" is about as profound as it gets. Every time one of the interviewees starts to drift into something that might actually be interesting, or elaborating on something, he's cut short and we move on.
The documentaries seem to be aimed at people who haven't read the books, and want to know the gist of the plot without taking the time to actually read them. By far the majority of the program is devoted to plot summary, pure and simple. But wait! It's prettied-up by showing the route that the Fellowship takes on a three-dimensional map with moving lines for their paths... as if that, in itself, actually contributed anything informative to the presentation. All four of the documentaries follow the same pattern, unfortunately.
About the only vaguely interesting element in any of the four documentaries is the inclusion of some interview clips with Tolkien's children. However, these are brief and generally offer minimal insights. Take as an example one interview clip with Priscilla Tolkien in the Fellowship program: she is shown commenting that she doesn't remember her father reading his stories to her, but her older brothers might. I can only imagine how desperate for material the filmmakers must have been, that they considered it worthwhile to include an interviewee talking about what she doesn't recollect... But then again, it's clear that even with the short running time of each documentary (under an hour each) the filmmakers were madly puffing it up.
These documentaries were clearly produced prior to the Peter Jackson films, so any film references are to the animated versions. The visuals are largely taken from the illustrations of the Brothers Hildebrant.
Inside Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings is a four-DVD set, with one disc each dealing with The Hobbit, The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King. Each volume has its own keepcase, and all four fit into a flimsy paperboard slipcase.
The image quality offered here is simply awful. The program, presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, is extremely pixellated, to the point of being distracting. Colors are faded and washed-out, and much of the print is in poor condition, with many flaws and scratches.
For some baffling reason, the four documentaries are presented in Dolby 5.1 sound... not that you'd know from listening to it. The sound is flat and ordinary-sounding, conveying the comments of the interview subjects and the voiceover adequately, but no more than that.
Each of the DVDs has a special features section, but the material is very limited. Each of the discs has the same Tolkien biography, a five-minute piece that gives an overview of Tolkien's life. It's not saying much to say that this is the best part of any of the programs.
Each disc also has a short interview segment with the Hildebrant Brothers, whose art is used in the documentaries. Unfortunately, the "padding" impulse is at work here as well: several of the clips contain repeated footage from either the main documentary program or the Hildebrant interview used on another disc.
Lastly, each DVD has a short piece on "The Music of Middle Earth," which sounds interesting until you discover that it's referring to the music used for the documentary. Each clip is from a concert by Mostly Autumn, a "Tolkien-inspired" band who performed the music for the documentary.
If you enjoy the work of J.R.R. Tolkien at all, don't subject yourself to this pointless collection of DVDs that purport to give insight into his works. It's nothing more than a video Cliff Notes, with a bland plot summary interspersed with banal comments about obvious aspects of Tolkien's work. Add the fact that the image quality is horrible, and this is a prime example of a DVD to skip.