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An expensive motion picture trilogy released over a three-year period? That kind of commercial courage still hasn't caught on, even after the sterling example of The Lord of the Rings. Moviemakers have preferred to put their money behind serials, self-enclosed stories containing a continuing character. If the audience liked the first five Blondie movies, we'll give them a sixth; as long as James Bond and Batman remain popular, they'll be back again in new incarnations. Almost as easy to sell to investors is an outright sequel. Just take the title that audiences vaguely remember and do it again, only in color or in 3D or with better special effects.
But doing multiple-chapter movies, 'theatrical miniseries' if you will, is more problematic. The Salkinds cleverly tried to shoot one long Three Musketeers script and then divide it into two releases; their cast soon banded together to demand double payment. When the same producers made Superman: The Movie four years later they planned a two-part epic from the start. But they chickened out over creative differences ($$, again?) with the talent involved.
Making a multi-chapter film colossus is a risky proposition. If the first installment flops, your expensive, partially finished 2nd and 3rd parts may never see the light of day. Back in silent German cinema, Fritz Lang was on a roll with enormous two-part sagas about master criminals and legendary heroes. By the time he made Metropolis his film company had been taken over by budget conscious American distributors. Metropolis was shown in one piece, then pulled and cut in half. Other attempts to make giant trilogies have had mixed results; the only really successful example I can think of is Sergei Bondarchuk's 1967 War and Peace. The film cost so much, it was only a success of prestige.
Which brings us (sorry for the delay) to Peter Jackson's mighty The Lord of the Rings trilogy, yet another fairly recent epic that needs no introduction; instead of a close analysis, Savant (that's me) will attempt to give a wider view of the films as a phenomenon. The distributor New Line gambled that the New Zealander Jackson was another George Lucas. Jackson would make the films in Kiwiland, bringing the magic and monsters of the J.R.R. Tolkien books to life with CGI effects nobody had seen before. Like George Lucas, Jackson built his own filming lot and effects studio. Post- Star Wars movies tried to recapture Lucas' success with giant fantasy blockbusters, but the argument can be made that only James Cameron succeeded with that particular game. Like the perpetually-in-preproduction Dune, The Lord of the Rings was considered too complex a literary property to be filmed to the satisfaction of its legions of fans. Everything about Jackson's project was an uphill battle.
Jackson and his writers did a fairly amazing job adapting the epic to the screen, retaining just enough detail to suggest subplots that had to be left out. With three three-hour features at hand, enough screen time could be allotted to explicate the world of Tolkien's Middle Earth and introduce the characters without resorting to exposition short cuts; the movie doesn't play like a trailer for a forty-hour film.
The ability to take things in stride is what makes the difference. Viewers not familiar with the storyline are given time to adjust to a world populated with immortal Elves, Viking-like Dwarves, and Hobbits, small, gentle people with big feet. The mere men of Middle Earth have their kings and kingdoms but seem to be in the minority. On the villainous side of the ledger are evil wizards overseeing uncounted hordes of monsters, magical and otherwise. As if following the Joseph Campbell playbook, the forces of good are struggling against appalling odds to right a universe unbalanced in favor of demonic powers. Although we have a gallery of heroes to choose from, the most important is Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood), a meek Hobbit entrusted with a Ring of Power. To save Middle Earth Frodo must traverse terrible, deadly places to destroy the ring in the volcano where it was forged. But the ring's corrupting influence threatens to warp Frodo's psyche. The result of its power can be seen in Smeagol (Andy Serkis), a man who found the ring long ago. Its influence has turned Smeagol into a twisted pale wretch, Gollum. The heroic Boromir (Sean Bean) also falls under the ring's spell.
Tolkien's interlocking plots provide The Lord of the Rings with an unending supply of narrative riches derived from fairy tales and stories of chivalrous knighthood. Frodo's main ally is Aragorn (Viggo Mortenson), a human who shares a taboo love with the Elf maiden Arwen (Liv Tyler). An Elfin priestess, Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) advises Frodo. Meanwhile, complicated politics inform the alliances between Middle Earth tribes and wizards that wield tremendous influence. The once-noble Saruman (Christopher Lee) has raised an army of demonic Orcs and Goblins to conquer the known world; he's opposed by the wise Gandalf (Ian McKellen), an amusing fellow equally at home in the tiny house of Hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) as he is conjuring up Good Magic.
(If some of these details sound awful lot like the underpinnings of the Star Wars franchise, just consider George Lucas's entertaining saga to be two parts The Lord of the Rings combined with one part Dune, with some outer space hot rods and Errol Flynn pirate tropes thrown in for good measure.)
Director Jackson pushes and pulls this gigantic tale into shape with superior storytelling skills; if Tolkien newbies should become confused, there's aways far too much of interest happening to let one disengage. The three films are marked by ever widening battle scenes, which somehow avoid repetition. That's a tall order when our heroes' main function is basically to swing swords and shoot arrows ad infinitum. The writing and direction differentiates the individual battles. The second film The Two Towers features a truly gigantic siege on a walled castle that makes us believe that tens of thousands of snarling monsters are bashing their way through crumbling defenses; the violence reaches a scale of mayhem beyond any seen before. We marvel at the way the Elfin Leogolas (Orlando Bloom) can rapid-fire an arrow every 3/4 of a second; he's the James Coburn "Mr. Cool" among the heroes. Dwarf hero Gimli (John-Rhys Davies) is game for everything; unable to leap onto a parapet to fight a column of Orcs, Gimli asks Aragorn to "throw him" -- but only if he doesn't tell anybody about it later.
Buried within the tale is a story of Theoden, the bewitched King of Rohan. Exorcised by Gandalf, Theoden stirs his kingdom and his heirs once again into noble combat. His daughter Eowyn (Miranda Otto) falls in love with Aragorn as well. This king is mirrored in part three by an unhappy royal steward, who goes insane and tries to burn himself and his surviving son alive on a funeral pyre. The Return of the King refers not to a deposed monarch but to the reluctant but worthy heir to the human kingdom of Gondor.
At the center of everything is the trek of Frodo Baggins and his ever-faithful pal Samwise Gamgee (Sean Astin). This pair and their Hobbit brethren Pippin and Merry (Billy Boyd & Dominic Monaghan) are unlikely heroes considering that every foe and monster they meet is larger and more powerful than they. Pippin and Merry befriend a race of giant tree creatures called Ents, while Samwise inspires Frodo not to quit. Astin's Samwise becomes the most emotional character in the trilogy.
All of this is supported by eye-catching special effects that are never the sole focus of our attention. Many shots that make Hobbits and trolls seem small are achieved with the old-fashioned perspective gags used in the old Disney movie Darby O'Gill and the Little People. As Jackson doesn't let his effects dictate the camera angles, we soon stop looking for midgets standing in for Hobbits, etc.. The various monsters are of course created by CGI, including a shapeless squid-thing and a giant spider that guards a rocky maze of tunnels. Orcs and goblins use oversized Golem- like Trolls as shock troops, and ride beasts that resemble wolves crossed with buffalos. Ghostly wraiths ride Banshee-like flying dragons. In the final titanic battle, a battalion of enormous elephant creatures leads the assault of Sauron's massive army. Fortunately for the defenders, even big elephants come unglued when shot with hundreds of tiny arrows.
Our heroes scurry through vast underground caverns and eerie blasted landscapes, but the trilogy's sense of magical scale comes via the natural beauty of New Zealand, which appears to have an unlimited supply of Nordic vistas and unspoiled greenery. One breathtaking scene simply shows the lighting of a series of signal fires atop the mountains. The trilogy doesn't suffer from "effects" claustrophobia, the sensation that the actors (and the audience) are locked inside a green-screen stage, staring at a hologram-like illusion.
The public ate up the The Lord of the Rings trilogy, awarding three effects Oscars in a row to the series and rewarding the final chapter a Best Picture Oscar ... in fact, the third film swept every category for which it was nominated. As could be expected, each chapter was given a glorious special edition release on DVD, followed by extended special edition releases adding forty or fifty minutes to each chapter. As the Rings saga's vast network of interlocking stories is well known to readers of Tolkien, most true fans prefer the longer extended editions. For instance, the short versions don't fully explain what happens to the villain Saruman. On the other hand, the Evil Sauron remains a wonderfully intangible horror in the short theatrical cuts, as he's limited to a giant fiery eye atop the final tower. By avoiding a direct conflict with Sauron, The Lord of the Rings doesn't fall into the trap set by David Lynch's Dune, where the fate of the universe hinges on a fairly uninteresting knife fight.
Is The Lord of the Rings trilogy going to be recognized as a classic? That's hard to say, as quality isn't always rewarded these days. I've re-watched these theatrical cuts on Blu-ray and am still very impressed. My generation had James Bond movies as their big escapist thrill. We were youthful enough to enjoy the first Star Wars trilogy as if it were also 'made for us'. Jackson's The Lord of the Rings definitely belongs to our kids, who devoured the books and were capable of debating fine points of page-to-screen adaptation. This is a rich and satisfying story -- it's not a bad thing at all that the kids get the better of the deal.
New Line Cinema's DVD Blu-ray of The Lord of the Rings is going to be tough to resist, even for fans sold on the Extended Editions. Color and contrast are in better control in these HD transfers, allowing deep dank dungeons to stay that way without going milky. Bright fairyland castles gleam in the sunlight without losing detail. On DVD, the trilogy's night scenes tended to lean toward a leeched silver/blue set of color tones. As many of these scenes were shot in fairly normal light and then beaten into conformity through digital color manipulation, it was to easy to suggest that it didn't matter how they were filmed. Here on Blu-ray, we realize that the night scenes are richer than we remember. The effects still hold up very well, even the scenes involving what look like millions of pixel warriors charging across vast plains. And the audio packs considerable punch in DTS and Dolby configurations.
A card box contains two keep cases. The first, fatter case holds six discs -- three Blu-rays for the features, which also contain original trailers and promos for new Rings- based video games, and three DVDs which appear to be the same special edition extras discs from an earlier release. These contain the lengthy interview and BTS-driven making-of docus - a lot of them. You may be convinced that more effort and expertise was required to make these movies than to land a man on the moon. Director Jackson clearly wanted these shows to be entertaining, and they don't disappoint.
The second keep case contains three Digital Copy discs for download. Warner Home Video distributes this New Line release, and their publicity handouts stress that Blu-ray is coming unto its own. Big titles like The Lord of the Rings will certainly help enlarge the viewer base. I'm still not swayed by BD-Live frills and I'm not part of the demographic likely to take advantage of Digital Downloads, but fantastic, theater-quality Blu-ray images and sound have made me a happy HD addict.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Lord of the Rings The Motion Picture Trilogy Blu-ray rates:
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2010 Savant Wish List. T'was Ever Thus.