While people pile on George Lucas for releasing multiple versions of his beloved trilogy – or sextet, depending on your own personal prequel proclivities, fans just can't seem to get enough of Peter Jackson's far superior set of films, the lauded Lord of the Rings trio. You can currently purchase the original theatrical cut of each entry, a box set containing all three, extended versions of each film, another behemoth of a compendium, sets that offer interesting bookends and other merchandising souvenirs, and now a strange, stripped down amalgamation of all the options. Yes, New Line is doing the dreaded "n"th dip version of this masterwork, providing a new flip disc presentation of the theatrical and extended cuts, with a bonus disc containing a new 90 minute-plus documentary. Naturally, the question becomes if such a repackaging is indeed necessary. Even better, for those completists out there who must own everything LOTR, the issue is more narrowly defined – is the new found footage worth it? In a nutshell, the answer is – maybe?
Come on - everyone knows this story by now. The movies made BILLIONS! Well, okay, if you insist, here is a minor primer on what happens during Fellowship of the Ring, the first installment of, the Lord of the Rings trilogy:
Gandalf the Grey, Bilbo Baggin's old friend from his adventure days, has returned to Hobbiton to honor and celebrate his comrade's 111th birthday. Soon after arriving he discovers something diabolical. Bilbo has become obsessed with the ring he "tricked" Gollum out of so long ago. The trinket is the One Ring forged by the evil dark lord Sauron of Mordor in the fires of Mt. Doom. Its malevolent power allows the owner to enslave and rule the world. Though long dead, the spirit of Sauron has been gaining strength. Even as Bilbo plans to leave the Shire forever, he does not want to leave the ring. It has a strange power and hold over him. Gandalf uses his powers of persuasion to convince the aging hobbit to leave it behind for his nephew Frodo. But before long, the reluctant relative too is in danger. Sauron has now sent out its ghostly Nazgul ringwraiths to sweep Middle Earth, find the ring, and kill whoever has it.
Realizing the severity of the circumstance, Gandalf sends Frodo and his friends to seek the advice and protection of the Elf Lord Elrond, for only he can help protect the Hobbits and deal with the ring. Alas they learn that Sauron's forces are building a mutant army that will scour all of Middle Earth in a reign of terror and destruction, all in the quest for the ring. Elrond, a wise, immortal soul tells the travelers that even in his magical land, nothing is safe. Not them. Not the ring. Deciding that all races (man, dwarf, elf, and hobbit) need to band together to save themselves, they form the Fellowship of the Ring. This alliance will head with the ring to Mordor itself. For it is only there, in the fires of Mt. Doom from which the ring was made, can it be unmade. And it is up to Frodo and his fledgling league to avoid the obstacles, the dangers and the death that awaits them in this ultimate battle between nobility and wickedness.
It seems dumb to discuss The Lord of the Rings again – it had it's amazing motion picture moment and now it's time to move on. There is no doubt about the accomplishment here. Peter Jackson has delivered the definitive set of fantasy films, efforts that literally dwarf those in the blockbuster brotherhood that came before. A certain Mr. Spielberg can't answer the call with his Indiana Jones films. He has to go and make yet another just to remind people of how effective the first three installments were. The same goes for George Lucas. The oddfather of the inadvertent cinematic trifecta, he had to completely garret his already reeling reputation by making three intensely mediocre prequels to his original Star Wars epics. No, Peter Jackson accepted the monumental challenge of making full length feature films out of all three volumes in J. R. R. Tolkein's incredibly dense geek masterworks, and aside from a little narrative nip and tuck here and there, he delivered with devastating authority. The LOTR's films are instant and accessible classics, the kinds of movies that you find yourself lost in from the moment the first scene begins. Yet there's more to it than that. Jackson harnessed the efforts of the Internet, made his production readily accessible and helped the pre-release hype with his own wildly entertaining and informative web diaries. By the time it hit theaters, being GOOD was just the icing on the cake. The Kiwi wonder had almost single-handedly redefined the art of motion picture making, and marketing.
This is not to detract from The Lord of the Rings' movies, and in particular The Fellowship of the Ring. In what was perhaps the trickiest aspect of the entire trilogy, Jackson had to capture the concept of the modest leading to the epic and make it stick. He had to sell us on the story and the setting, and then make us care for the hairy-footed heroes who would carry the next nine hours of narrative. It's a daunting task, one that the equally gifted Ralph Bakshi barely managed with his groundbreaking, but occasionally god-awful, animated version from 1978. Instead of focusing solely on the special effects, Jackson realized that Rings had to exist both because of and within its characters. Through careful casting, brilliant writing, and the proper juxtaposition between set pieces and subtle moments, Fellowship became a brilliant opening step in the overall effectiveness of the series. Had it stumbled, and The Two Towers and Return of the King somehow excelled, we'd be looking at an inherently incomplete package that no amount of eye candy could salvage. No, by carefully making the first film so good, so overloaded with emotion and excitement, Jackson knew he could get away with some of the slower and less compelling moments that might arrive afterward. He realized that by giving the audience an overdose of everything that makes movies magical right up front, he could buy himself a little creative leeway later. Of course, it turns out he didn't need it after all.
In essence, Jackson rewrote the rulebook about the big screen popcorn film. He took the blockbuster and reinvented it, instilling the genre with imagery and ideas that have continued to resonate throughout the entire industry. Look at films like Spider-Man, The Pirates of the Caribbean or War of the Worlds. All of them try – with varying degrees of success – to balance the outlandish within the human, to make people as much a part of the grandeur and scope of a story as the otherworldly elements. Jackson may not have invented said approach, but he was the first to harness it so successfully. From the moment the Fellowship is formed, when we learn that Boromir will step up and accept his place, that Aragon is as much a leader as he is lost, we identify and sympathize with these unusual individuals. By the time we learn of their perilous and almost suicidal mission, our mind is swimming in plot possibilities. One of the great things about Fellowship is that it plays directly into those designs, and never gives its hand away. It keeps overwhelming us with wave after wave of cinematic brilliance…but you know this already. It's safe to say that these are the benchmarks by which all future blockbusters will be judged. It's an incredibly high level of achievement to reach, but the rewards are oh so sweet.
The biggest complaint being leveled by fans of the Lord of the Rings films is that, by presenting both the theatrical release and the 30 minute longer extended version on a single flip disc, there is an appreciable degrading of the previous stellar digital transfer. Factually, New Line has opted to use seamless branching, providing Part 1 of both cuts on one side of the DVD, with Part 2 playing out on the other. Does this mean the image is identifiably worse? The answer is clearly no. Some who own multi-disc players might be miffed at the regressive technological concept of turning over their movie halfway through the storyline, but there is no noticeable loss in picture quality- at least to this critic's untrained eye. The 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen image for both entries is clean, clear and lacking any discernible defects. This critic will admit that the image looks a little flat, lacking the depth and dimensionality of the previous transfers. Still, if you've held off buying any or all of the various versions of LOTRs, this would be an excellent place to start…that is, if you don't mind missing some major auditory and contextual elements.
Yes, DTS lovers, the news is not good. In order to conserve space, the fabled 5.1 track with Digital Theater Systems compatibility has been excised from this presentation. We still get the solid EX track in all its 5.1 multi-channel goodness, and the Stereo 2.0 mix is here as well. Neither is a sonic slouch – the Lord of the Rings films were forged with an attention to scientific and cinematic detail that is virtually unheard of in standard mainstream motion pictures. It's all part of the overall experience of the film, and if you can live without the DTS, you'll still have an amazing aural package to be proud of.
Here's the pitch, fellow Fellowship lovers. If you must own every production element prepared in connection with this motion picture event, if the aficionado inside you is already antsy over not being able to see Costa Botes' documentary on the making of the movie, you should perhaps parlay your purchasing power and put yourself out of your monetary misery. However, heed this warning – this is not really a fact film in the traditional doc sense. Instead, Botes was kind of the candid camera on the LOTR's set. Camcorder in hand, he wandered around capturing off the cuff moments that you'll find either very insightful or basically pointless. Bear witness as Peter Jackson jokingly demands a couch in the editing suite, noting that no one should expect him to cut a film while sitting in a mere chair. Watch as a PA and a second assistant director have a fight over walkie-talkies. See Samwise Gamgee get a major foot wound during the film's climactic seaside moments. Rejoice as an Orc actor is fitted for his yellow-eyed contact lenses. Yes, it's all here in varying video quality. Between the chaotic choreography of fights scenes, Viggo Mortensen's between take fly-fishing, and Christopher Lee providing some post-production ADR, there is some amazing material here. If such backstage drama delights you, by all means get these discs. In fact, this critic is intrigued enough to go out and buy the other two installments in this series as well. It will be interesting to see how the cast and crew get on over the course of the grueling 18 month shoot (this material ends with the completion of Fellowship, the first installment, on the horizon).
Here's some insight into this critic's aesthetic criteria. Using his birth as the cinematic starting point, for him, the best film of the '60s was 2001: A Space Odyssey. In the '70s, it's a tie between Eraserhead and Taxi Driver. Though it's overloaded with possibilities, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen by Terry Gilliam wins the '80s crown while, in the '90s, Miller's Crossing gets the nod. You see where this is going, right? Yes, in the post-millennial days after the year 2000, the Lord of the Rings films prevail over all others. So naturally, any rating begins at Highly Recommended and moves from there. However, taking into consideration the double dip nature of this release, the lack of substantive extras, the missing DTS track and the whole notion of Fellowship on a flip disc, a reduction in score is warranted. While a Rent It would seem reasonable, it too readily dismisses the movie's inherent genius. Therefore, an easy rank of Recommended is given. Even those who already own the set will love the presentation (the cardboard box and flip case are nicely done) and the documentary material. Others coming to the films for the first time can utilize this as a primer for future purchases. If you enjoy this offering, there's a world of goodies awaiting you on the other sets. Of course, there's always the tenth anniversary of the original releases coming up in a scant five years. You just know this trilogy will get another tweaking then.